When it comes to motivating a sports team before a big game, new research suggests coaches might want to take a different stance on the locker room pep talk: remind players of their impending death.

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Provoking thoughts of death among players prior to a basketball game led to better individual and team performance, researchers found.

In a study published in the Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, researchers found that basketball players performed better during a game when thoughts of death were provoked beforehand.

Study co-leader Uri Lifshin, of the Department of Psychology at the University of Arizona (UA), and colleagues say their findings may be explained by the “terror management theory” – the idea that thoughts of inevitable death increase our desire for success.

“Terror management theory talks about striving for self-esteem and why we want to accomplish things in our lives and be successful,” says Lifshin. “Everybody has their own thing in which they invest that is their legacy and symbolic immortality.”

According to Lifshin, the terror management theory acts as a buffer against death anxiety, explaining why we do not constantly fear inevitable death.

“Your subconscious tries to find ways to defeat death, to make death not a problem, and the solution is self-esteem,” Lifshin explains. “Self-esteem gives you a feeling that you’re part of something bigger, that you have a chance for immortality, that you have meaning, that you’re not just a sack of meat.”

For their study, Lifshin and team set out to investigate how the terror management theory might apply to sports; given that sports enable individuals to gain self-esteem, the researchers hypothesized that reminders of death might motivate athletes to perform better.

The researchers conducted two experiments. In the first experiment, the team enrolled 31 men to play two one-on-one, 7-minute games of basketball with study co-leader Colin Zestcott, also of the Department of Psychology at UA. During the experiment, Zestcott posed as another study participant.

After the first game, participants were randomized to answer one of two questionnaires. One questionnaire asked participants about their feelings surrounding death, while the other questionnaire asked about their feelings related to basketball.

After the questionnaires, subjects engaged in a number of “delay” tasks, which enabled thoughts of death to work subconsciously. Participants then played the second basketball game.

Compared with participants who answered questions about basketball after the first game, subjects who answered questions about death saw a 20 percent improvement in overall performance in the second game, as well as a 40 percent improvement in personal performance.

“When we’re threatened with death, we’re motivated to regain that protective sense of self-esteem, and when you like basketball and you’re out on the basketball court, winning and performing well is the ultimate way to gain self-esteem,” notes Lifshin.

For the second experiment, each study participant was required to take part in an individual, 1-minute basket-shooting challenge, during which the team tested the effects of a more subtle reminder of death.

Prior to each challenge, Lifshin gave participants a 30-second explanation of the task. Subjects were told they could score one point for a layup shot, two points with a shot from the free-throw line, and three points with a three-point line shot. Subjects were not allowed to attempt the same shot back-to-back.

While instructing half of the participants, Lifshin wore a black T-shirt decorated with a white skull, alongside various representations of the word “death.” For the remaining participants, Lifshin covered up this T-shirt with a zipped-up jacket.

Compared with participants who did not see Lifshin’s T-shirt, those who did see his T-shirt performed around 30 percent better, and they also attempted more shots.

“They took more shots, better shots, and they hustled more and ran faster,” says Lifshin.

While the study focused on how thoughts of mortality affected performance in basketball, the researchers see no reason why the terror management theory should not apply to other sports as a way of boosting motivation.

“We don’t believe this is sport-specific and we don’t believe this is gender-specific,” notes Zestcott.

What is more, the team believes the terror management theory could be used for performance motivation in other areas.

“This is a potentially untapped way to motivate athletes but also perhaps to motivate people in other realms,” says Zestcott. “Outside of sports, we think that this has implications for a range of different performance-related tasks, like people’s jobs, so we’re excited about the future of this research.”

Study co-author Jeff Greenberg, a professor of psychology at UA and one of the researchers who proposed the terror management theory, says the new findings offer further support for the hypothesis.

We’ve known from many studies that reminders of death arouse a need for terror management and therefore increase self-esteem striving though performance on relatively simple laboratory tasks. However, these experiments are the first to show that activating this motivation can influence performance on complex, real-world behaviors.”

Jeff Greenberg

The researchers say they hope to replicate their findings in studies of collegiate and professional athletes.

Read about a study that suggests competition is the best workout motivation.