This article was first published in the South China Morning Post on Tuesday, Sept 8, 2015.

Science suggests wearing the right gear can lift athletes by making them think it will allow them to go faster, or higher

By Jeanette Wang

Hands up if you’ve experienced that amazing boost in motivation to exercise after buying some new workout gear. Sportswear goes beyond just skin deep; it has a profound effect on our minds, too.

Increasingly, sports apparel companies are becoming aware of this and investing time, money and effort into researching and producing clothing that supports athletes not only physiologically, but also psychologically.

When Nike, for example, developed the Pro TurboSpeed suit – which moves through air faster than bare skin – for the London 2012 Olympics, they sought insight from athletes as to what gives them a mental boost. Nike designers found that patches of contrasting colour made the athletes feel faster, so fluorescent yellow strips were placed on the inside surfaces of the arms and legs of the suit.

At Australian company 2XU, design lines and placements of seams, logos and trims on its renowned compression garments are precisely engineered for maximum freedom of movement and comfort for the wearer.

“Comfort and emotion is critically important,” says Dr John Sullivan, a leading sports scientist and one of the top US sports psychologists, who spoke at the 2XU Heart of Performance summit in New York earlier this year. “If an athlete doesn’t feel comfortable, then they have one more thing to think about. And in that moment, you want them to focus on what’s in front of them.”

Last week, Lululemon launched “Engineered Sensations”, a new range of yoga and running pants categorised according to how the wearer would like to feel: relaxed, naked, held-in, hugged or tight? Two years in the making, the range was the result of a lot of customer feedback as well as understanding the world of sports technology and material, says Tom Waller, vice-president of Lululemon’s Whitespace innovation and R&D lab.

“We found there was a convergence [in the fitness world] towards tight pants, which people equated with compression, and therefore performance enhancement. But that’s not really true. What people are looking for is a sensory input which their mind can perceive – and everyone likes something different: some want to feel naked, others want a tight, supported sensation,” says Waller, who has a PhD in sports technology from Britain’s Loughborough University.

“It’s important that you look like you feel good and feel like you look good.”

That’s because when we feel good, we have greater confidence and will perform better, he explains. It’s well-established through studies that next to existing abilities and skills, one of the most important and consistent predictors of people’s performance is their perceived self-efficacy.

Professor Yi Li, an expert in high-performance sportswear from the Institute of Textiles and Clothing at Hong Kong Polytechnic University, believes good sportswear takes care of both the physiology of an athlete – such as body temperature, skin moisture and muscle conditions – and the psychological needs. Key to this is making the athlete feel comfortable.

“A sense of comfort sure plays a part in putting a person in better mood, or even a more competitive mindset. We call that sensory psychology,” says Li, who supervised the design and construction of sports apparel for the Hong Kong Olympic teams in 2008 and 2012.

“Another psychological factor that affects performance directly is peace of mind. When an athlete feels less intimidated by the fear of injury, he is a lot more likely to go all-out and push himself beyond limits in a sports event. Even the colour of the garment is important in establishing personal pride, team spirit or a sense of belonging.”

Superstition, or the symbolic meaning given to a certain piece of clothing, is another factor. Take for example basketball star Michael Jordan, who throughout his entire career wore his old blue University of North Carolina shorts underneath his NBA team uniform. World No 1 tennis player Serena Williams has her own “lucky” sportswear: a pair of socks that she wore throughout one tournament.

The psychology of sportswear is interesting, says sport and performance psychologist Edgar Tham, because it “borders on the mystical things we experience in many cultures”.

“However, the good news is recent studies confirm what we intuitively use or know,” says Tham, founder of SportPsych Consulting in Singapore. “One such study in 2010 [by the University of Cologne] showed that lucky charms boost confidence, effort and overall performance, while another study found that wearing certain clothes can change one’s mental processes.”

In the latter study Tham refers to, Northwestern University researchers coin the term “enclothed cognition” to describe the systematic influence that clothes have on the wearer’s psychological processes. Enclothed cognition involves the co-occurrence of two independent factors – the symbolic meaning of the clothes and the physical experience of wearing them.

The study, published in 2012 in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, involved three experiments on undergraduates that explored the effects of wearing a lab coat with respect to carrying out attention tasks. A pretest found that a lab coat is generally associated with attentiveness and carefulness.

In experiment one, wearing a lab coat increased selective attention compared to not wearing one. In experiments two and three, wearing a lab coat described as a doctor’s coat increased sustained attention compared to wearing a lab coat described as a painter’s coat, and compared to simply seeing or even identifying with a lab coat described as a doctor’s coat.

So, clothes can put us in a very different psychological state. At Lululemon’s Whitespace lab in Vancouver, Waller’s team of 30 scientists, and engineers tinker constantly with materials and design. Using a biomechanics lab with an environmental chamber that can simulate all sorts of weather conditions, they study how tiny changes in the clothing influence how the wearer feels.

The goal: to remove psychological barriers to performance.

“You speak to most athletes and they’ll tell you that one could be in physical peak, but if the mind, heart and body are not in sync, then you’re not at the full potential,” says Lee Holman, Lululemon’s senior vice-president of women’s design.

Who knew so much thought went into creating tight fashionable athletic pants?

“We’re not in the business of selling rainbows,” says Waller. “We aim to make clothing that shifts what you believe to be possible.”