Music is a big part of wrestling in nearly every way possible. Wrestlers fight over which songs are played in the practice room, the locker room, and on the bus. It seemingly never ends. Plus, many high school and college teams run out to the mat with music blaring in the background for home matches. It’s exciting. There is a rise in energy from the crowd that is shared with the participants. In some places, it is all a part of the tradition.
But just how effective can music be during training? For athletes preparing for competition, throwing on a pair of headphones or earbuds is as much of a requirement as lacing up a pair of running shoes for an early morning jog. The right song with the right lyrics in the right order on a playlist makes a difference for wrestlers all over the globe. Is whatever is playing in the background critical to workout success? Or are there alternative elements at play?
Music Can Be Like a P.E.D.
You’ve been there before. Whether it was pushing out that last rep or digging in for that last sprint, hearing your favorite song being pumped through the speakers seemed like it helped extract that little extra you needed. If you’re familiar with this phenomenon, know that it is not a coincidence. Dr. Robin Dunbar, a professor at Oxford University, conducted a series of tests to determine the pain tolerance of those who interacted with music rather than those just “listened” to it. In other words, you may enjoy listening to a song that gets your adrenaline going, but it is an entirely different thing to be actively engaged with it.
The study (which focused on using musicians not athletes) found that playing music increased pain tolerance thresholds. Similarly, those who participated indirectly (dancing, clapping, singing along) also received benefits on par with those of the musicians. Part of this may seem obvious but the reasoning behind it may not appear as such. That is because actually playing or playing along with music helps your brain produce natural opioids, which behave like painkillers in your body. You’ve heard people describe what it’s like to have a “runner’s high” (wrestlers typically have different terms for this sensation), and that is what is occurring here. Your ears hear the music, you join in, your brain releases painkilling chemicals, and next thing you know, you got a whole lot more out of it physiologically than if you just sat there doing nothing. Make sense?
Of course, there is one catch to all of this – liking the type of music is key. Just as you may fill up an iPod playlist with an exhaustive list of “pump-up” songs, the style, artist, and tempo play a decisive role in your brain’s overall response. The tempo is one part of the equation. People who are engaged in physical activity (e.g., drilling takedowns) tend to try and match the rhythm. As one might expect, up-beat songs typically elicit a stronger response than slow power-ballads. More to the point, people who are about to run on a treadmill prefer songs which range at approximately 160 bpm (beats per minute).
It’s late on a weeknight. You’re tired, you’re sore, and you still have four pounds to wring out before it is time to leave the wrestling room. Since there is still work to do, you flip on the stereo and connect your smartphone using your trusty USB cable. Hey, if you’re going to be miserable, might as well attempt to be less miserable.
According to research completed by Dr. Costas Karageorghis of Brunel University in London, you pretty much have it figured out. One of music’s biggest strengths is its ability to distract. That is something most of us can relate to. Oddly however, its effectiveness as a diversion tool is more evident with mid-intensity exercises. Weight training, stretching, and light drilling are activities that align most beneficially with music serving as a distraction. That doesn’t mean your favorite song won’t be of assistance in gunning it up the stadium steps on a crisp autumn morning; if anything, it may motivate you to hit the steps harder. You just won’t be forgetting about it.
What About Competition?
Despite music being played at certain events (e.g., the US Olympic Trials), it is not a common occurrence. In most wrestling competitions, there are no songs to guide your tempo and emotions. Does that mean you could potentially be at a competitive disadvantage if you spend the bulk of your preparation immersed in whatever it is you like to listen to? After all, some years back US Track & Field banned the use of portable audio players during races because they deemed their usage may create a competitive edge. So, part of the basis for the federation’s outlawing of iPods and the like came down to an evening of the playing field. Clearly, there must be something to gain by being able to listen to what you want during a match, right?
Probably not. When engaged in intense competition, athletes operate on training, instinct, motor skills, and an adrenaline boost. Music, be it Metallica or Taylor Swift, ceases to figure in the outcome, especially during one-on-one combat. A gifted and skilled wrestler is not going to all of the sudden perform uncharacteristically badly against an overmatched opponent because his or her’s favorite song is not audible. It’s just not how it happens. Still, some coaches and programs have started to move away from introducing music into the practice room as part of training. But this is mostly being done to adequately simulate competitive environments, not as a mechanism of deprivation.
What Should You Do?
If losing yourself in music assists in you becoming a better-conditioned and more prepared athlete, it would seem Dunbar and Karageorghis would tell you to keep the radio on. Training for wrestling involves prolonged periods of high-intensity exercise and grueling conditioning which sometimes, can become quite tedious. And considering that a substantial percentage of a wrestler’s preparation is often acquired in solitude, having music to accompany the pain might be a powerful method to help break new barriers.
Simply put, music has become an integral part of training for the sport. There is no sense in hiding from that. But it is nice to discover some of the science behind it all. So keep those earbuds in. You could probably use them.