The power of belief
Examining the rise of performance jewelry
Roll your eyes. Go ahead. Get it out of your system. Because when we tell you pro athletes such as Ryan Howard, Paul Pierce and David Ortiz believe, much as Wonder Woman did, that a bracelet gives them superpowers, you're going to think they've lost their minds. Or joined a cult. Or been paid off. Truth is, many pros are convinced that a colorful silicone trinket -- made by an upstart company called Power Balance -- makes them better. And it's not just Power Balance they're buying into. It's Phiten necklaces and Q-Link pendants, each of which comes with similar extraordinary claims. They maximize energy! Improve balance! Relieve stress!
So yeah, roll your eyes. Then brace yourself for something even more bizarre: The jocks who believe in the potency of performance jewelry may be onto something.
That's not to say the products work for the reasons their makers say. It's hard to find a scientist who can make sense of Power Balance's claim that the electrical frequencies emitted by a mylar hologram disk in each bracelet "resonate with and respond to the body's natural energy field," maximizing balance, strength and flexibility. But if there's one point that new age devotees and wonks in lab coats agree on, it's this: Never underestimate the power of belief. When an athlete believes in a bracelet's magic, the brain can enable the body to do thrilling things. Science calls it the placebo effect. You'll call it amazing.
SINCE THE BEGINNING of sport, athletes have looked outside themselves for an edge. In ancient Greece, Olympians sacrificed oxen to satisfy the gods. Roman gladiators entered the arena with their dominant foot first. Yogi Berra used the same Yankee Stadium shower during any winning streak. Michael Jordan wore UNC shorts under his Bulls uniform in every game for 13 years. And before Wade Boggs stepped to the plate, which he did more than 10,000 times in his 18-year career, he carved the Hebrew letters for the word chai ("life") into the dirt with his foot. And Boggs isn't Jewish.
Such rituals and superstitions may seem silly, but our belief in their power has been seared into us through evolution. "We are hardwired to look for patterns and causes for events," says Tor Wager, a professor of psychology at the University of Colorado who specializes in neuroscience. Seeing patterns and causal connections is what helped our hunter-gatherer forebears survive. Weeds moving. Must be lion. Run! (Folks who guessed wind more often than lion were more likely to get eaten.)
Of course, life is full of randomness: droughts, disease, bloop base hits. But to pattern-seeking brains, this is jarring. Everything must have a cause, we tend to think, and when that cause isn't obvious, we often ascribe agency to God, totems, charms, whatever symbol is handy. Lion didn't see me. Must be lucky spear.
And so it is that Tim Lincecum has worn the same hat -- without washing it -- since his debut in 2007; that Penguins center Sidney Crosby doesn't call his mother on game day, because the three times he has he's gotten hurt; that Rockies slugger Jason Giambi wears a gold thong to lift him from hitting slumps. In a profession subject to so many strange breaks and fluky bounces, it's hats, phone calls and thongs that become the explanation for the unexplainable. These beliefs can calm and improve focus. A recent study, for example, found that volunteers who had lucky charms with them -- from stuffed animals to photographs -- were more confident and performed better on a memory game than those who did not.
Thing is, for a symbol to convey power, its user must believe in it absolutely. Doubt ruins the deal. Which brings us back to Power Balance, the brainchild of Troy and Josh Rodarmel. The brothers, both former college athletes, grew up in Mission Viejo, Calif., with parents who believed in nontraditional, holistic healing practices like acupuncture. Their father, John, also worked for a firm that sold pricey minerals and gems, such as tourmaline, that have been used in Eastern medicine for aeons because the frequencies they emit supposedly boost a person's life force, or chi. As the brothers explain it, in 2006 they found a way -- after much experimenting -- to burn these frequencies, through a computer program, onto a mylar hologram that could be placed on a lightweight wristband. "We didn't discover this technology," Josh says. "We just wanted to know if we could produce a similar product affordably to help athletes perform their best."
Once they created a workable prototype, in 2007, the brothers began handing out the bracelets to athletes. They started with Josh's former high school teammate, Mark Sanchez, QB at USC at the time, as well as Josh's Yale football teammates and Troy's SoCal surf buddies. "The initial feedback was amazing," Josh says. "The benefits were different for everyone, but they always had to do with an increase in performance." Now the $30 bracelets are everywhere, from the NBA Finals to the Super Bowl, in gyms and on playgrounds. In 2009, Power Balance sold more than 2.5 million bracelets in 30 countries, dwarfing sales of the $25 to $85 Phiten necklaces (760,000) and the $40 to $1,200 Q-Link pendants (40,000).
But more than the backstory or sales figures, the best marketing tool for Power Balance is The Test. Borrowed from applied kinesiology, The Test is a three-step exam of a person's balance, strength and flexibility. First, a subject is asked to stand on one leg with his or her arms held firmly out to the sides. The tester then pushes down on the arm that's on the same side as the raised leg (i.e., right leg, right arm) until the subject loses balance and falls to the side. The subject then puts on the bracelet and repeats the test. Next, as the subject holds his arms by his sides, the tester tugs down on one of the subject's cupped hands, again trying to force him off balance, first without the bracelet, then with it. Finally, the subject extends one arm in front of his face and twists at the waist to rotate his body as far as possible. Then, with the bracelet, the subject rotates once more.
A wearer of the bracelet shows improvement in how long he can stay balanced in the first two tests and how far he can stretch in the third test -- at least if you believe all the online video demos. "I can't tell you how the test works," says Broncos rookie Tim Tebow, who started wearing a Power Balance bracelet shortly before the 2010 NFL combine, where he tied the record for vertical jump by a quarterback. "But when I took the tests, I was like, Wow, that's crazy. They work."
Or maybe not. Maybe the subjects are just demonstrating the improvement that comes with doing anything a second time. Maybe the testers wittingly or unwittingly apply pressure in subtly different ways to produce better results (push a subject's arm slightly away from him, and he'll fall; push slightly toward him, and he'll stabilize). Maybe it's the power of suggestion at work. And maybe the whole thing -- from the mylar holograms to The Test -- is a huge crock.
Then again, maybe it doesn't matter. What does is that the company's story is convincing to athletes. This allows the bracelet to work in a way science can validate -- through the placebo effect. "It is unlikely these products can do anything to an athlete's muscles or have a significant effect on their ability to react to commands coming to the brain," says Reza Shadmehr, professor of biomedical engineering and neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University. "But they could affect commands coming from the brain."
This is the placebo effect in action. Doctors have long noticed that certain patients can be helped by giving them inert treatments -- a sugar pill, say -- they are told are potent. Placebos, in fact, have proved effective in treating everything from depression to sexual dysfunction. And while researchers have only recently begun to study their application in sports, early findings are phenomenal. In one study, 43 cyclists were told they were testing the effectiveness of a new carbohydrate supplement. The cyclists who performed best were those who believed they'd ingested the carbs, not those who actually did.
Here's the psychology behind the physiology: When a person thinks he's being treated for a condition, a response is triggered in the brain corresponding to that belief, and it often produces measurable results. For example, if a person thinks he's taking a painkiller, this activates the release of soothing endorphins and dopamine -- and this happens even if the pill is made from sugar. Such a placebo also decreases activity in pain-sensitive regions of the brain and increases activity in the parts that regulate emotion (pain is "felt," after all) and expectations (anticipating relief is itself a relief). Finally, the placebo reduces activity in the spinal cord pathway that processes pain.
All in all, a powerful set of reactions begins with nothing more than a thought. Conditioning can boost a placebo's effects even further. One study showed that if an athlete is given morphine to increase pain tolerance in the days leading up to competition but a placebo on the day of the event, the athlete receives the same benefit from that placebo as he would have from the real drug.
To learn whether Power Balance can induce a placebo effect, we conducted an experiment of our own (see page 120), which offered some confirmation that it does. Of course, our "lab work" wouldn't pass muster with The New England Journal of Medicine, so a more legit study is needed to prove the effect. But Wager, the psych professor, says that if a person believes she is stronger or more flexible when wearing the Power Balance bracelet, her brain chemistry will be altered as a result of those thoughts, leading to less stress and more focus and allowing her to try harder. "It is possible," Wager says, "that believing in something can change the assessment by the brain of what is possible. If you think something is possible, you can exert more effort toward doing it, pay more attention and be less anxious. If you believe you are stronger when you wear this bracelet, then you are."
Still, there's a flip side to any placebo, whether sugar pill or frequency-emitting bracelet. Once you reveal the illusion, the magic vanishes. In fact, just by having read this story, there's a chance you've made yourself immune to any Power Balance placebo effect.
Which doesn't mean athletes will ever stop believing. One recent study suggests that people with a higher dopamine profile -- like athletes -- have a greater response to placebos. Which isn't hard to believe. Consider: During the first round of last season's NHL playoffs, Flyers strength and conditioning coach Jim McCrossin bought Power Balance bracelets for the entire team. By the end of the postseason, 15 players were still wearing them. "It was split," McCrossin says. "Of the 15 guys, half thought the bracelet made them feel more balanced and tougher on the ice. But the other seven or eight said they didn't feel a difference. They didn't think they worked."
So why didn't those guys take them off?
"Because," he says, "what if?"
That, in a nutshell, sums up the power of belief. It also suggests its downside: When an athlete assigns his success to something outside himself, he may just lose faith in his own ability. "I think superstitions hold you back," says motocross icon Travis Pastrana. "All you need is hard work and to be more prepared than everyone else to be your best."
The truly enlightened athlete, Pastrana suggests, learns to employ the power of belief without ritual, superstition or magic jewelry. Put your faith in a bracelet, and you're in trouble if it breaks. Put your faith in yourself, and no one can take it away.
ESPN The Magazine: October 18, 2010
Check out ESPN The Magazine's October 18, 2010 issue -- the Body Issue -- below.