The Love Hormone and Sports: Is Oxytocin the Ultimate Performance Enhancer?

In our YOU: Having a Baby and YOU: Raising Your Child books, Dr. Oz and I talk about how the massive release of the cuddle hormone oxytocin during birth helps facilitate bonding with your child. In YOU: Being Beautiful, we talk about how important that cuddle hormone is to bonding in your marriage after the initial dopamine rush wears off. Now there’s another area where oxytocin is important – and it’s pretty surprising.

Dwyane Wade, Joe Johnson, and Mike Bibby are all NBA stars and guards, but besides that, what do they have in common? It’s likely they all have high oxytocin levels around game time.

As an enthusiastic spectator of many sports and player of one or two (I captained the US squash team in its inaugural foray into the Pan American Games), I enjoy seeing the dedication of athletes and am always amazed by the sweat and tears left on the court – and in the stands among us fans.

Why do fans get so wrapped up in the team’s performance? What fuels an athlete to give a 110% effort – more than making bank or being famous? Whether athletes are playing under the spotlight or at the neighborhood courts, sports competition triggers the release of something much deeper to humans – oxytocin.

According to a study in the Journal of Sports Science, love for the game and love of the team results from the athletes’ and spectators’ brains releasing chemicals. Oxytocin is released in response to an orgasm, new romance, childbirth, and apparently during the fist bumps and triumphs of sports competition. Oxytocin promotes bonding while stimulating positive emotions and feelings of connectedness. Oxytocin is released especially for athletes after successes; this further enhances team performance. And spectators further enhance it – no wonder you see some athletes jump into the arms of joyous fans!

In the 2010 study, researchers watched replays of a multitude of penalty shootouts from the World Cup and European Championship games. When players celebrated a goal, by throwing their hands up in the air, the teammate next in line was more likely to also shoot successfully. This release of oxytocin, which appears to be contagious, causes a transfer of happy emotions from player to player, and even to the stands. This provides a scientific explanation for the “bro hug” that hockey players exchange after scoring a goal. Skating to the middle of the ice allows the players to briefly celebrate and bond as teammates (and fans to bond with their team in cuddly joy).

Husky linebackers and gigantic basketball players may be more emotional than we thought. Sports and emotions go hand-in-hand, and we now know the release of oxytocin and emotions can seriously benefit athletes. While the burst of oxytocin doesn’t cause players to walk off the court holding hands, they share feelings of connectedness. This effect presents many benefits for teams such as enhanced interpersonal trust, social motivation, emotional recognition, cooperation, and better performance.

Findings from a recent study that looked at oxytocin and loyalty in marriage can be applied to athletes, with the thought that the release of oxytocin may also enhance an athlete’s loyalty to the letters on the front of the jersey. Oxytocin promotes a man’s loyalty to his woman. Men in monogamous relationships, who took a whiff of oxytocin, chose to stand further away from an attractive woman that they had just met. If these results hold true in sports, the level of oxytocin released by individual athletes may play a role in how loyal an athlete is to their team. One thing is certain for us Cleveland Cavs fans, Lebron James must have very low levels of oxytocin. (Yes, I’m still sour about it.)

To increase bursts of oxytocin, athletes are encouraged to celebrate after a big goal or touchdown. Next time, put those hands in the air after a G-O-A-L and encourage athletes to briefly celebrate achievements – join your partner in cheering and you’ll be a real fan.

-Young Dr. Mike Roizen, The Enforcer