Love: The Legal Performance Enhancing Drug

Jan 17, 2018

By Shannon Thompson 

Someday, after mastering winds, waves, tides and gravity, we shall harness the energy of love; and for the second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire.”

- Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

It was spring, 2016 in Flagstaff, Arizona. Early winds rolled down the slopes of our mountain, and flowers peeked tentatively from the easing grip of thaw. Flagstaff, which is situated seven thousand feet above sea level, is a rich training ground for elite endurance athletes. Numerous lithe and rapid dreamers have made the town their home. They come to breathe this particular thin air, which will enrich their blood and improve the fuel upon which they run their grand dreams. This spring held particular significance because it was an Olympic year. The US track trials beckoned three months away.

At this point I’d lived in Flag for almost one year. Although I’d worked with numerous collegiate athletes, the local professionals had not called on my help. Perhaps it was the approaching track trials, or perhaps they finally knew me well enough to approach, but that spring, suddenly, they did. In April I spoke with three athletes in the span of four weeks. These conversations revealed the power within a performance tool that up until then I’d greatly underestimated. I became aware of a perfectly legal, naturally occurring, performance-enhancing drug available to all of us, all the time, that I had neglected. What is this magic stuff of which I speak? It is love.

“I was in love,” the runner explained to me, glancing hesitantly my way, assessing my reaction. I’d just asked him to tell me about his best race and explain the factors that contributed to it. This athlete had explained that his preparation had gone well, all his important workouts had shown promise, and he was excited to race. But, the force he credits with his outstanding performance, admitted from beneath a shy, long-lashed shy smile, is love. “I was in a relationship,” he said. “I was really happy.”

Love. How sweet. Initially, I simply added this runner’s story to the many other “cute” tales that I’ve heard from athletes. That is until I sat down with another runner two weeks later.

“Tell me about your best race,” I asked him.

“It was a half marathon last fall,” he told me. “I was using the race to qualify for the Olympic marathon trials. My preparation had gone great. I was standing on the start line of the race when I noticed my parents in the crowd. It suddenly came to me that they had always believed in me, even when I struggled to believe.”

At this point the athlete is struggling to speak. Overcome by emotion he puts his hand over his face. He’s wiping tears out of his eyes as he tells me about doing the same as the race began:

“I never felt a moment of pain,” the runner explained. “I felt completely in control of the outcome the whole time.” This runner ran a personal best time that day, and qualified for the trials. I sat quietly after he left me. A pattern was emerging in my mind.

Two weeks later I met with the last runner in this tale. “Please tell me about your best race,” I asked him. Dynamic and fiery, urgent and intense, he told his story:

“It was at the Olympic Trials in 2012,” he began. “I drove to the race with my Dad and my brother.” Now, I should explain that this runner has a tumultuous relationship with his Dad and brother. Deeply family oriented, this athlete can be very sensitive to their support or discord. The presence of his Dad and brother was significant. His Dad had never seen him race prior to these Olympic Trials. This runner was depending on this race to qualify him for the 2012 Olympics. He needed to run a 10,000m time faster than 28 minutes. Up until this point he had never run 10 km anywhere near this time, and he was not expected to do so on this day.

“But I knew they were in the stands,” the runner went on, after explaining the situation in the paragraph above to me. “I knew they were cheering the whole time. I ran the standard.” He said. “It shouldn’t have been possible.” This runner became an Olympian that day, transformed by a substance we all have at all times: love. The power of this was unspeakable, immeasurable, and possibly only truly understood within the light of the memory now shining within this complex human as he shared the magic of that moment.

I hope you’re feeling chills. I did. If you’re rolling your eyes, stop! This theory is supported by science. Researchers have shown that the emotion of love inhibits the parts of our brains responsible for pain and fear.

The benefits of love are not just gifted to those within connected interpersonal relationships. There are numerous methods through which we can access love’s benefits. Expressing gratitude is a way to access love in any given moment. Simply look around you at what is beautiful, consider fortunate circumstances in your life, and people you are happy to know. Feeling gratitude for anything can activate the brain in similar beneficial ways as feeling interpersonal love can.

My conversations with these three runners changed the way that I prepare all athletes for competition. Now, prior to a race, meet, game, tournament, show, test, etc. I ask them three questions:

1. Why is this a meaningful or exciting moment for you?
2. Why are you prepared to have a great day?
3. Who makes you smile no matter how well you perform.

So, for you reading this, regardless of the context of your craft, I encourage you ask yourself these three questions prior to any meaningful challenge. “Love is the most powerful force on earth,” is possibly the most cliché statement on earth, but maybe, also, it’s true.

About the Author 

Shannon Thompson is a mental performance consultant who specializes in high performance sport. Shannon holds a Masters of Applied Positive Psychology degree from the University of Pennsylvania.

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