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Athletes Who Yawn?

by Dr. Jason Barker August 12, 2014

Athletes Who Yawn?

Yawning is a common occurence, and there's even such a thing as 'contagious yawning', where we can yawn if we someone else do it, or even yawn after reading the word 'yawn'!

But have you ever seen an athlete yawning before a big competition? Or maybe you’ve done it yourself?  This subject got quite a bit of attention during the 2010 Winter Olympics when speed skater Apolo Ohno’s famous pre-race yawns were captured on camera.

More common than you might think, yawning occurs involuntarily in many people before athletic events.  And, when an athlete yawns before a race, it doesn’t mean they’re bored, uninterested or tired. (I remember yawning constantly before my high school track and cross country races, and my team mates and coach asking me why I was so tired! I still yawn before races, and get the occasional weird look!)

Clearly, an athlete toed up on the starting line isn’t any of these things. So why do athletes yawn before a competition?  There are a few theories, but perhaps the best explanation came from Ohno himself when interviewed. He claimed that yawning helped him “get oxygen in, and the nerves out”.

And this makes sense based on experts’ theories on yawning.  It’s been suggested that yawning stimulates an area of the brain that can increase consciousness, attention and focus. In other words, it wakes you up. (Is that why we yawn in the morning, and when we’re tired, but not quite ready for bed?)

Another theory is that yawning helps us to regulate the temperature and metabolism of our brains. Yawning is thought to cool off the frontal lobes, allowing them to work more efficiently.  A more attentive, focused brain probably has its advantages right before a race. Yawning may quickly put us into a relaxed state of alertness, so we’re ready to perform our best.

So, should you incorporate yawning into your pre-race routine?

Why not? While there aren’t any studies looking at yawning as a performance-booster, it certainly can’t hurt to try (at the risk of looking tired and bored at the start of a race, which I guess could lead to a performance advantage because you may catch your competitors off guard. ??)  If it seems to make you feel more relaxed, focused and ready to perform, then I say go for it!

Dr. Jason Barker
Dr. Jason Barker


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