Olympic viewers around the world witnessed one of the most iconic game faces of all time when Michael Phelps showed off his steely glare in the ready room prior to the men’s 200m butterfly at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio.
With rival South African Chad Le Clos shadow boxing in front of the now 23-time Olympic gold medalist, Phelps made a face that took the internet by storm within hours of his clenching the gold medal. #PhelpsFace became a social media phenomenon capped off by one ultra-inspired fan even transferring the image to his own skin in the form of a tattoo.
As was typical of this monster athlete, Phelps was apparently ahead of his time, as now a scientific study has backed up the effects of putting on your game face.
Inspired by seeing University of Tennessee football shirts on-campus, which read, “Get Your Game Face On”, Masters student Matthew Richesin wanted to find out if there really is any power behind how one’s face appears before entering a sports battle.
“There’s anecdotal evidence of game face having an impact based on its common use among athletes,” Richesin said. “But we wanted to see if it would help on physical and mental challenges from a scientific perspective.”
For the purposes of the study, Richesin defined ‘game face’ as “a serious, focused, or determined facial expression.” (basically, M.F. Phelps).
Two experiments consisting of 62 participants were conducted at Tennessee. The first had all participants plunging their hands into containers of ice water for several minutes. The second experiment had participants work on a complex puzzle. Researchers told half of the subjects to make a game face, while the other subjects were not given any special instructions.
On average, the game face portion of the subjects performed 20% better. Additionally, the game face group recovered from stress more effectively than the other group.
The study’s abstract findings state, “these results are promising regarding performance on a cognitive task and sympathetic nervous system activation, in concert with making a Game Face.”