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Does love impact athletic performance?

How falling in love can make you a better athlete
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ANETTE XIA/THE VARSITY
ANETTE XIA/THE VARSITY

On the outside, many sports seem like they belong in some sort of National Geographic documentary. Sweaty bodies scurry swiftly, carefully strategizing deliberate plans of attack. The opponent is the enemy and the competition is fierce — all that matters is winning. All that matters is the game.

Love, on the other hand, although seemingly unconnected to sports, provides something of a natural opposite. It’s all about vulnerability and openness, and it’s hopefully not as aggressive as some sports can be.

Athletes are strong — resilient in both mind and body. The requirement for vulnerability that comes with love might seem terrifying from an athletic mindset; a fiercely competitive individual like myself would agree that playing sports with a loved one sounds like a recipe for disaster.

Innately speaking, the only surface-level connection between sports and love seems to be that you can feel both in your bones the next day — but there’s more than what meets the eye when it comes to love and sports. 

Love and competition

Competitive people will immediately be able to identify the rush that comes from being confronted with a good challenge. It turns out that the feelings we get when we’re in love are closely related to that rush. The part of your brain that is responsible for reward and motivation lights up when you’re in love, and the same part that is active when you win an award. 

Competing against your partner might seem terrifying, but love and competition can be more intimately connected. A 2016 study on Olympic athletes’ performance found that most of these athletes believed that compassionate love helped them perform better. While these studies are still in their preliminary stages, it’s clear that physical activity makes people feel good about themselves — and subsequently, the relationships they are in. 

Love on the brain

Oxytocin: we all know and love it. Some people fondly refer to it as “the love hormone.” One might think that something as intense as the infatuation that comes with being in love might distract from your focus, but the aforementioned 2016 study found that the funny little chemicals that are released when you’re in love — oxytocin and dopamine — may actually benefit athletic performance. 

These neurotransmitters are associated with deepening bonds between individuals, and the bonds that are created during sports are no different. We’ve all heard that there are some serious feel-good endorphins that are released when we play sports — perhaps putting them to use with your partner could facilitate a deeper connection.

If the feeling of love seems scary to you, its side effects may be more appealing. Those who said they were experiencing ‘romantic passionate love’ reported increased energy levels and a greater attention span — both traits which are useful to have in sport.

Supportive relationships

The type of love that athletes feel doesn’t necessarily have to be romantic, either. Athletes who have a strong, stable support system in their lives report feeling like they perform better in their endeavours. This was particularly true for athletes who participated in individual sports such as snowboarding. The more intimate parts of relationships, such as encouragement from family and friends, have been found to strongly influence performance.

What’s more, a Journal of Clinical Sports Psychology study from 2009 found that athletes with less supportive partners showed lower performance scores, and those with jealous partners were more likely to answer that the relationship detracted from their overall athletic performance. The affection and trust that comes with a healthy long-term relationship, be it romantic or not, appears to positively influence the way that athletes approach their craft.  

Playing sports or working out with your partner is a great way to spend time with one another, and psychological research suggests that it can relieve some of the stress that comes with a serious relationship. Whether you partake in casual athletics or you’re married to the game, getting active with your lover seems like a winning combination.