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Get Your Game Face On

Updated: Nov 10, 2023

Phelps Face
Michael Phelps preparing for the Olympic semifinals in 2016

Back in 2016, Michael Phelps unwittingly broke the internet prior to the 200 meter butterfly Olympics semifinals in Rio. Shrouded in his hooded jacket and headphones, the 19-time Olympic gold medalist was caught on camera appearing to snarl at South African swimmer Chad le Clos, who had beaten him 4 years earlier. The look took over social media and #PhelpsFace went viral.

When we see someone with an intense expression (like the Phelps face) or smiling broadly, it affects our own neurochemistry. Thanks to mirror neurons, we’ve understood for a while now that we mimic the smiles or frowns of others because empathy allows us to understand what they are feeling and respond similarly. This concept of emotional contagion is important in any interaction because it fosters emotional synchrony.

But now we also know that the interaction between expression and mood works both ways. Facial expressions don’t just influence those around us, they also influence our own neural activity. Psychologist theorize emotional contagion is a two-step process: First, we imitate people (e.g., if someone smiles at you, you smile back). Second, our own emotional experiences change based on the non-verbal signals of emotion (e.g., facial expressions, body language.)

Angry facial expressions activate the amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for the fight or flight response. With the sympathetic nervous system engaged, the primary goals is to prepare the body for physical activity, a whole-body reaction affecting many organ systems throughout the body to redirect oxygen-rich blood to areas of the body needed during intense physical activity.

Psychologists have actually disagreed about this idea for over 100 years. But a recent meta-analysis of combined data from 138 studies testing more than 11,000 participants from all around the world determined that facial expressions aren’t just the result of different feelings, but they can also influence our feelings.

The emotions we demonstrate in our facial expressions directly impact our own emotional state. Smiling can make you feel happier, scowling can make you feel angrier, and frowning can make you feel sadder.

But wait, there’s more! According to 2019 research published in Stress & Health, getting your game face on may not only improve performance in cognitive tasks, but it could also lead to better recovery from stress.

Researchers conducted two experiments but only showing one group of participants images of athletes and other public figures demonstrating a game face. They were then instructed to show "a look of intense determination" while performing physical and cognitive tasks.

In the first experiment, researchers asked participants to submerge their dominant hands in a container filled with ice water (39-42 degrees Fahrenheit) for up to five minutes. Half of the participants were told to demonstrate a game face, while the other half were given no specific instruction.

While there was no impact on physical performance, researchers observed that participants who were not specifically told to make the game face after inserting their hands also spontaneously demonstrated similar facial expressions.

In the second experiment, participants were tasked with completing as much of a 100-piece black-and-white mandala puzzle as possible within five minutes. In this case, the game face group performed on average 20 percent better, while also demonstrating better stress recovery compared to the control group.

Chrissie Wellington
Chrissie Wellington

This direct mind-body relationship applies to other facial expressions as well. In a study aptly named "Grin and Bear It," researchers found that positive facial expressions like smiling lower physiological markers of stress. Perhaps that explains why Chrissie Wellington, 4-time Ironman World Champion smiles broadly deep into nine-hour races.

It's easier to smile than grimace when you're hurting. -Chrissie Wellington

By the way, when Michael Phelps was asked about his game face after the competition he said, he wasn't intentionally "mean mugging" him. "I just had music going on in my head. I had thoughts going on in my head, spitting water a little bit all over the place, so I was in my own zone.

In the zone, indeed!

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