Do You Really Perform Better When You Drink?

A couple of experts unveil their Optimal Altered State theory on how a little imbibing might indeed sharpen your competitive edge

It’s down to the 8-ball, you have a length-of-the-table shot, and everything has built to this glide of the cue. Do you reach for the chalk or do you reach for the Guinness?

It’s the final frame in a bowling competition; you need a strike and six pins to win. Do you reach for the hand-dryer or polish off your Jack and Coke?

Many of us have heard, “I play better after a few drinks.” Just talk to David Wells, who pitched a perfect game for the New York Yankees in 1998 and then admitted he was still half in the bag from the night before.

Presented here is an argument for the logic and science behind this reasoning.

It is fundamental to state at this juncture that we are not in any way endorsing drinking when engaging in sport. However, we are acknowledging that it happens and presenting a case for its potential and/or perceived effectiveness. OK, OK! The official study will follow someday soon, but for now, suspend your disbelief and read on.

It is our contention that certain individuals—specifically, competitors who are average/good but not exceptional in a particular sport—perform best in competitive arenas that allow the easy consumption of alcohol (darts, bowling, pool, etc.) when they reach what we term their Optimal Altered State, or OAS. Now, clearly this is not the moment we see someone doubled over talking to the toilet bowl for comfort, or standing atop a building yelling that they know the secrets of the Woodstock festival. We are talking about that point—this may be one drink for some people; four or five for others—where you have consumed just enough alcohol to make you feel supremely gifted.

Through a considerable amount of anecdotal research over the past few years, it has become apparent that a number of individuals do indeed perform better when that frightening edge of competition has been removed through a cheeky few tipples from the courage cup. (Full disclosure: The only time one of the authors of this article beat the other in pool was after four Captain and Cokes. It went downhill from there.) Time and again people point to the fact that those few drinks really helped with the performance by “relaxing me,” “letting me enjoy the moment” or “just letting me play the game.”

How much of this is psychological? We believe it would be naive to dismiss the OAS as a simple drunken scenario in which you don’t care anymore. Much like kissing the wrong girl, you know what you’re doing, but instinct takes over and you stop thinking. You just do. Your mind gets out of the way. This is similar to findings in the high-brow psychological literature on performance, which alludes to this state when athletes achieve a level of automaticity (when actions are executed without volition or conscious control, they are involuntary). The effect of OAS can potentially facilitate the average pub-goer reaching this near perfect level of arousal and automaticity and, in theory, perform at their best.

Of course, another key aspect of performing at a high standard is the level of confidence a performer is experiencing. The OAS theory posits that at a certain point confidence is maximized. There is a topic in the psychological literature termed self-efficacy, which refers to people’s beliefs about their capabilities to produce designated levels of performance. More times than not, a competitor with positive self-efficacy has the greatest likelihood of performing at their full potential in a given task. Haven’t we all heard someone say at a certain point, “OK, that’s it, now you get my A-Game”? How often does that coincide with a few confidence-inducing drinks?

The crucial aspect of OAS is that the thinking stops. Once a competitor becomes aware of what is happening to them and they subsequently begin to think about it, the automaticity of the process is compromised, and the outcome is once again mediocre at best.

Once again, we do not endorse drinking and sporting—nothing of the sort. We’ve all seen the debilitating effects of alcohol on physical performance and coordination when a few drinks becomes 12 too many. We are simply acknowledging that for some people, the positive psychological effects of imbibing moderate amounts of alcohol might outweigh the negative physical effects. In the end, a nip of Jameson (or five) for some, might be just as effective as several hours of intensive training.

So, next time you step up to the table, the lane or the board, try not to think about how many drinks you’ve had, what the score is, or why your fingers feel like sausages. Just lean back, breathe deeply, and let your body do what it knows it can.

Dr. Joey St. Germain completed his Ph.D. in 2009 proving poker is a game of skill, not luck. It was the first scientific study of its kind in the continental United States. Dr. Ben Conmy, a Las Vegas-based performance consultant who specializes in sport psychology techniques, has worked with several athletes who argue that the ability to have “the odd beer” helps facilitate their performance. He continues the dialogue that this might not be the most efficient way to perform effectively long-term.

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