Oxytocin may soon be added to the list of banned performance enhancing substances – at least for team sports – if a leading expert on the hormone is correct. Gert-Jan Pepping, a researcher at the Centre for Human Movement Sciences at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, claims that there is reason to believe that oxytocin plays a considerable role in enhancing team sport performance.
Consider, he says, what happens during soccer shootouts. For a study that he and his colleagues published in 2010, they watched replays of a multitude of penalty shootouts that had decided recent, high-pressure World Cup and European Championship games.
They found that when one of the first shooters threw his arms in the air to celebrate a goal, his teammates were far more likely to subsequently shoot successfully than when no exuberant gestures followed a goal.
The players had undergone, it seems, a “transference of emotion,” Dr. Pepping and his colleagues wrote. Emotions such as happiness and confidence are known to be contagious, with one person’s excitement sparking rolling biochemical reactions in onlookers’ brains.
In the shootouts, he says, each player almost certainly had experienced a shared burst of oxytocin, and in the rush of positive feeling, had shot better.