This season, the Washington Nationals have tried to gain an edge during home games by playing slow, soft-rock music over the stadium loudspeakers during their opponents’ pregame batting practice. (Featured artists have included Sarah McLachlan, Sinead O’Connor, and Kansas, whose “Dust in the Wind” played for the Mets as they took B.P. earlier this year.) The idea is that the low-key music will prevent the Nats’ opponents from getting fired up and will affect their performance during the game.
But is there any science behind this idea? Can a team really gain an advantage by manipulating the ballpark’s music in this way? Science of Us emailed Dr. Jim Waterhouse, an honorary professor of chronobiology at Liverpool John Moores University in the U.K., who prior to his retirement studied the relationship between music tempo and athletic performance. And he says there are several reasons to doubt that the Nats’ strategy really works.
According to Waterhouse, there aren’t any studies looking specifically at the Nationals’ strategy, but there is some science behind using music tempo to affect performance. In a 2009 study co-authored by Waterhouse and published in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, it was shown that cyclists who were given music with a faster beat to listen to pedaled faster, and those given music with a slower beat peddled slower. It’s fairly intuitive stuff, really, for anyone who has ever run or cycled to music.
But that direct effect on performance doesn’t quite apply to the scenario of a team taking batting practice in advance of a game. For one thing, Waterhouse noted, any effect on the opponent would need to last for hours to matter during the game, which is questionable. (A 2003 study in which subjects were played either fast or slow music for 20 minutes prior to cycling found that “The type of music has no impact on power output during exercise.”)
Waterhouse also pointed out that not all people respond the same way to music. “The rationale seems to be that the gentle music will relax the opponents in a way that makes them perform worse,” he said, “but it might be that such relaxation enables them to ‘collect their thoughts’ and become focused.” He added that there’s also the possibility that opposing athletes could become angry or annoyed at the music selections, and use it as motivation during the game, though there’s no hard evidence this would happen, either. In the best-case scenario, Waterhouse said, teams forced to listen to soft-rock music could have a poor practice session and see a decrease in confidence that could carry over to the game.
But the biggest problem of all is this: Now that word of the Nationals’ musical shenanigans has gotten around, the jig is pretty much up. “Once the opponents know what is being done during the practice, then any effects are likely to disappear,” he said. In other words, it’s an entertaining ploy, but it doesn’t make much sense for stadium staff to keep pumping in Sarah McLachlan music — unless, of course, they’re simply fans of “Building a Mystery.”