A placebo can be defined as a substance that is believed to contribute to an intended effect, but in fact is inert, such as a sugar pill (Porcari, Otto, Felker, Mikat, & Foster, 2006).
In other words, the person believes that the substance is impacting them (e.g., the person believes he/she is taking a steroid to enhance muscle mass) when in fact this substance is not having an impact in the desired area (e.g., it is simply a sugar pill). The placebo effect suggests that human beings may be impacted by a substance even though the substance itself is not a factor. In this commentary, I discuss the use of the placebos in sports and how their use is considered controversial.
In the context of sports, placebos are frequently used as a means of deception as they only bring about the perception of the desired result (say, improved bicep strength); they do not in fact enhance bicep strength. Despite this deceptive practice, people who use placebos tend to assert that change is indeed taking place. This assertion suggests that the perception people have of a substance (e.g., this substance will enhance my muscle strength) has a cognitive-behavioral effect that may transcend and/or impact physiological factors. Therefore, athletes may be physiologically changing when they are under the influence of placebos; this change may, in part, be due to the athletes’ belief that the intervention is serving them physiologically. From this, athletes may believe in their improved strength and increase the intensity, frequency, and/or variety of their workout.
Another area where placebos may be used in sports are in the context of pain relief. It has been suggested that acupuncture can help those who suffer from migraines. However, medical reviews have suggested that similar effects can occur when acupuncture needles are placed in the wrong acupuncture points in the body. What’s more, research has suggested that the placebo effect with respect to acupuncture is stronger than acupuncture in the acupoints in the body (Porcari, Otto, Felker, Mikat, & Foster, 2006). This finding suggests that while the activity of acupuncture may be of benefit in pain relief, the person’s stance that this acupuncture activity is of benefit to them is also relevant to their well-being. This relationship between mind and body is indeed challenging our often-held perspective of the mind-body dualism.
There are also moral and ethical concerns with respect to the use of placebos. For example, medical research on patients who engaged in placebo acupuncture and took no pain killers suffered fewer headaches than those who took painkillers. Therefore, people suffering from headaches may decide to avoid pain killers and take placebos instead. In another instance, coaches can use placebos to suggest the performance of their players is improving (Kalasountas, Justy, & Fitzpatrick, 2012). A possible scenario is a coach telling an athlete that he/she is doing much better and attribute that improvement to something the athlete is doing, such as using new compression pants and duping athletes into thinking they are lifting the loads more easily because of the compression pants.
These moral and ethical issues raise a concern: the use of placebos in sports may create an incomplete impression of potential, ability, and/or strength. As a result, the power and potential of the placebo effect may unfavorably impact practices and regulations in organized sports. For example, sporting authorities have embarked on the process of banning performance-enhancing drugs as it has been suggested that simply giving a placebo to an athlete on the days leading up to competition can afford the athlete an added advantage over competitors. This ban could have deleterious effects on the safety and well-being of athletes, particularly since the mind-body connections of placebos as manifested in sports have not been sufficiently studied and understood.
In summary, the placebo effect in sports is powerful and it can be harnessed. Research has suggested that the placebo effect can increase performance but additional work is needed before we adopt more widespread use of placebos in areas such as endurance, physical development, or pain management. In addition, there are ethical and moral concerns related to their use and we must be cautious of policies and practices that exploit placebos to the detriment of athletes’ health and well-being.
Kalasountas, V., Justy R., & Fitzpatrick, J.. (2012). The effect of placebo-induced changes in expectancies on maximal force production in college students. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 19(1), 116–24.
Porcari, J.P., Otto, J., Felker, H., Mikat, R.P., & Foster, C. (2006). The placebo effect on exercise performance. Journal of Cardiopulmonary Rehabilitation and Prevention, 26(4), 269.