Monday, November 7, 2005
The pre-game ritual: Hydration. Lots of carbs. Plenty of rest. No sex.
This preparatory routine has plenty of science behind it. Of course the body needs food, water and sleep before going into battle.
But abstaining from sex? Rounding the bases in bed, believers say, might lead to a strike-out on game day. This widely endorsed philosophy - as old as sport itself, perhaps - has little to back it up. But it's putting a lot of Kansas athletes to bed early.
Go big blue (balls)
Kansas University rugby player Hayden Krizman says his fellow teammates try to avoid sexual shenanigans on nights before game days. Sexual frustration, he says, can enhance performance. On the field, that is.
"If you don't have sex, you harbor a little resentment and get piss-fightin' mad, and it helps you out in a match," says Krizman. He learned the code of conduct from those who went before him.
"When I got into college," Krizman says, "the older guys were like, 'Huh-uh, you don't go out and pick up girls on a Friday night. Or, if you have a girlfriend, you don't have sex with her. You might take her out to dinner, but later you go straight to bed.'"
Pre-game abstinence is a private choice, Krizman adds, not an imposed policy. KU rugby coach Adrian Horne says he asks his players to limit alcohol - but not sex.
"It's not like I announce on Thursday night, 'Don't have sex before the game on Saturday,'" Horne says. "It's a personal thing that individuals do. It's an unwritten rule."
Horne's interpretation of that rule differs from Krizman's, though. For him, it's not about pent-up sexual energy but rather preserving physical endurance and focusing on the competition at hand.
Focus is also the main concern for rugby player Mo Carmichael, who tries to avoid rolling out of bed as a googly eyed, post-coital romantic on game days.
"The only thing you want to be thinking about when you wake up the next morning is the athletic competition," Carmichael says.
Women who date rugby guys know all about the unwritten rule, says Misti Cox, who dates Carmichael. "We just know it's a rule now," she says.
Blue-balled aggression, energy preservation, spiking testosterone - that's all fuzzy science, according to KU's head team physician Lawrence Magee. Magee says that, physiologically, having sex near game-time would not hinder athletic ability.
Contrary to popular belief, lovemaking is not extremely demanding. Doctors have compared it to a 40-yard dash, in terms of required effort and recovery time. Source: Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness
Wilt Chamberlain claimed to have slept with 20,000 women in a 40-year period that included his time in the NBA. He even said he got it on the night before he scored 100 points in a game against the Knicks in 1962. Source: American Fitness
Celibacy is one of the five yamas, or ethical commitments, of yogic practice. The Yoga Sutra, claims abstinence allows for focus. Source: Yoga Journal
"Jing" (or "ching") is the Chinese word for essence. According to traditional Chinese medicine, jing is present in semen and in menstrual fluid; it nourishes, fuels and cools the body and is thus an important concept in martial arts. Many Eastern disciplines are devoted to the replenishment of "lost" jing. Source: Wikipedia.org
Studies and articles
- The Relationship Between Sexual Activity (and Four other Health Behaviors) and Marathon Performance Among Non-elite Runners
- Sex before sports: can it help you score?
- Sex, Does it really affect athletic performance?
- Testosterone: The Many Gendered Hormone (though not a published study itself, a very comprehensive article that sources several studies)
- Can sex affect your bodybuilding gains?
- Effect of sexual activity ... A study in high-level male athletes (actual medical study)
"I know of no scientific studies that back that up," Magee says. What might actually hurt a player, he says, is the lack of sleep that goes along with ... staying up late. "The main difference I would say is if it interferes with their usual pre-game preparations."
Larger athletic programs, such as the KU football team, enforce strict policies to ensure that players avoid all manner of tomfoolery on the eve of a game. Former football player Danny Lewis says that, while he knows of the no-sex philosophy, he and his teammates had little opportunity for hooking up in those critical hours.
"We were always on lockdown the night before a game," Lewis says. "So it was really a non-issue."
As for the KU basketball team, former student manager Shannon O'Connor says she doesn't know what philosophy, if any, the players have toward pre-game sex. But she does admit that personal friends of hers claim to avoid it.
"I have several good guy friends who have joked about it - but yet they take it pretty seriously," O'Connor says. "They've heard from coaches and other players that it hinders their performance. Particularly male athletes-they won't have sex two to three days before a game."
... But how
The notion that sex can cramp your style has crossed gender lines in this post-Title 9 society.
Former KU rower Dana Parsons says she and fellow rowers believed a roll in the hay might sap physical resources.
"We would jokingly say that no one could get ass before a game because we had to save our energy," Parsons says. "You need that explosive power saved for the next day."
Parson's former teammate Tawnya Bach goes so far as to pinpoint "the big O" as the culprit.
"It's not the act of having sex - it's the orgasm that completely drains your body," says Bach, who since graduating has shifted her athletic focus to boxing.
Now a certified U.S. boxer with six amateur fights under her belt, Bach says that the draining effect of sex is more easily felt in her new, fast-paced and combative sport than in rowing. In fact, her boxing coach asked his male athletes to abstain from sex an entire month before a fight, she says (calling to mind the famous Rocky quote, "Women weaken legs").
Her coach placed less emphasis on female boxers' abstinence, Bach says. And more important than when you have sex as a female athlete is how you have sex, she says.
Mind over member
The medical and academic communities have offered a smattering of studies and papers on the subject - "Sexual Activity and Athletic Performance: Is There a Relationship?" and "Birds Do It, Bees Do It - But Not Before a Marathon."
But that hasn't stopped the ideology from infiltrating the height of sportsdom - Muhammad Ali claimed to have gone six weeks without sexual satisfaction prior to several fights, and Germany's soccer team doctor told the press he banned wives and girlfriends from the team hotel prior to the Euro 2004 games.
The sex-wary mindset might have a stronghold on the athletic community because its roots run so deep. In 18th-century America, men viewed abstinence as means of preserving vital body fluids. Further back, some yoga practices heralded sex regulation as a portal to sharpened mental focus. And traditional Chinese alchemy recommends abstaining from sex to increase the vital energy thought to dwell within sexual impulses and fluids.
Sean Edinger, boxing coach and former member of the U.S. National Karate Team, says today's athletes might be acting out a modern interpretation of beliefs rooted in Eastern beliefs that men have a finite amount of semen and energy.
"We know physiologically that's not true," Edinger says. Edinger, who also works as a trainer at Lawrence Athletic Club, says he was encouraged to abstain throughout his own periods of physical training.
The current take on an old idea, though, is a more aggressive one. "The thinking is, that process of self-denial makes you a little bit hungrier. If you're not eating quite enough, and you need sleep, and you're not having sex - ideally you channel all that energy and beat the shit out of someone. I don't place a whole lot of stock in it," he says, adding that the athlete's mentality could work powerfully in either direction.
"I knew an elite fighter who swore up and down that if he had sex the night before a fight, he did better because he was so relaxed," Edinger says. "It's just about getting your mind on the competition. Don't go out and party the night before. But any sort of sexual release is not going to hurt performance in competition - unless the athlete thinks it does."
Rower Dana Parsons also believes that this, like so many sports rituals, has superstitious undertones: "If you have sex the night before and then don't perform well, you're going to find what you did differently and blame it on that."
Rugby player Krizman seems happy with the performance of the whole team, which recently finished its season 6-1.
"It's been pretty successful so far," Krizman says of the no-sex code. "Why mess with a good thing?"