Putting on a serious face in preparation for competition — known as the game face — impacts performance, according to a new study.
“Game face may not only improve performance in cognitive tasks, but it could also lead to better recovery from stress,” said Matthew Richesin, a master’s student at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville and lead author of the study.
Richesin chose to study the phenomenon after seeing football shirts around the university’s campus with the message “Get Your Game Face On.” That led him to review psychology studies of the effect of facial manipulation on mood, but found little research measuring its impact on performance.
“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.”
Researchers conducted two experiments, each with a distinct focus.
For both, one group of participants was shown images of athletes and other public figures demonstrating a game face. They were then instructed to show “a look of intense determination” while performing separate physical and cognitive tasks.
In the first experiment, researchers asked 62 participants to complete a cold-pressor task where they submerged their dominant hands in a container filled with ice water (39-42° Fahrenheit) for up to five minutes.
Half of the participants were told to demonstrate a game face, while the participants in the control group were given no specific instruction.
While there was no impact on physical performance, researchers observed that participants who were not specifically told how to behave after inserting their hands also demonstrated similar facial expressions.
“Their reactions were spontaneous,” Richesin said. “The facial expressions were the same as those commonly associated with effort, pain, and competition.”
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, according to the study’s findings.
Richesin hopes to conduct future research testing game face in other settings.
“If making a game face has the potential to improve performance, we may find this concept can have application outside of the traditional venue of sports,” he said.
The study was published in Stress and Health.