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Description: Have a look at the picture below. The athlete in the picture has a circular mark on his right shoulder. Do you know what that mark is? It’s a result of the sort of reverse massage technique called cupping were suction is applied to the area of the skin and the tissues are pulled on rather than being pushed as they would with standard massage. If you look at pictures the Olympics you can see quite a few athletes with these marks. Think about what else you might’ve heard about athletes prepare for their events and think about what the techniques they employ are all grounded in actual physical effects and whether or not some of them might be either entirely or is partially the result of placebo effects (can’t think of any?… how about that stretchy tape that a huge number of athletes appeared to be using?). The article linked below talks about the range of actual and (still actual) placebo effects that were used by and with athletes at the recent Summer Olympic Games.

Source: How the Placebo Effect Could Boost an Olympic Performance, Catherine Hobson, Treatments, Shots, Health News from NPR

Date: August 14, 2016


Photo Credits:  Alex Livesey/Getty Images

Links:  Article Link —

Practices such as cupping or the liberal use of stretchy cotton physiotherapy tape over sore muscles may well have genuine physical effects on the performance of athletes but they may also have placebo effects. As you likely know a placebo effect is the positive effect produced by the simple belief on the part of the user of some treatment or effect that it will in fact have a positive effect on their performance. Been known in medical circles for ages for example that patients who know that their on morphine and believe that it will help in the relief of pain experience a larger effect than patients were given morphine without their knowledge. Likewise cyclists who have been told that they be given large doses of caffeine show a larger increase in their power and performance than do cyclists who were told they proceed small doses and those were told they were given no caffeine actually did worse on subsequent performance is compared to a baseline comparison performance. So both knowing that something has been given to you and believing that it will have a positive effect can lead to enhanced performance sometimes even in situations where the treatment actually has no effect whatsoever. The question of why placebo’s work is quite complicated. It might be that they reduce anxiety or decrease muscle tension or they might reduce perceived pain or effort on the part of the athlete. Indicators of physical effort, such as heart rate, seem to not increase quite as rapidly when someone is on a placebo compared to  when they are not. The effects also might be social. Cupping for example leaves those red circular marks visibly on the swimmers or gymnasts of use the technique and this could lead competitors to believe that they are distant at a disadvantage because they’ve not had that technique applied to them and as such there performance may suffer. For me, what all of this makes very clear is that much of life and certainly a great deal of the sorts of peak experiences that we see amongst Olympic athletes are driven quite powerfully by psychology in addition to training and physiology.

Questions for Discussion:

  1. How might things like pain relieving drugs, cupping, or the use of stretchy cotton tape have both real and placebo effects?
  2. Does it make sense to call some effects a “real” and some effects placebo effects?
  3. What are some of the implications for coaching and for athlete self-management of the things that the article linked above points to in the way of placebo effects and their relationship to athlete performance?

References (Read Further):

Caulfiled, Tomothy (2016) Olympic debunk, Policy Options, The Public Forum for the Public Good,

Hobson, Katherine (2014) Caffeine gives athletes and edge, but don’t overdo it.