You can probably think of a rower you know that fits this description… then again, maybe it’s you!

Superheroes dressed in spandex are nothing new, but this phenomenon seems to be gaining some popularity at regattas.

Regardless of your own spandex-wearing proclivities, at the end of the day, just like the polarised good vs. bad world of the comic books, there doesn’t seem to be any middle ground in this epic design debate. Detractors like to point out that dressing like a superhero doesn’t make you fast, but it turns out that those in the pro-superhero spandex camp may actually have some science on their side after all.

Studies in recent years have suggested a strong link between identification with a superhero figure, increased self-confidence and even a boost in strength. Although none of the research has looked specifically at rowers yet, there may still be hope for these would-be heroes within our sport.

You are what you wear

“What we wear affects how we feel so much that it can distort and determine our thoughts and judgements,” writes Dr Karen Pine in her book Mind What You Wear: The Psychology of Fashion. In her book, the professor of development psychology at the University of Hertfordshire, Great Britain describes one study where she tested whether wearing superhero-inspired clothing (Superman t-shirts in this case) could actually change how a group of university students thought about themselves.

The results? Well, it turns out that these Superman impersonators actually believed themselves stronger than their peers when asked to estimate how much they could lift. They also rated themselves higher in terms of likeability and even considered themselves superior to their ordinarily dressed fellows.

Strike a power pose

Despite these differences that a change of wardrobe can theoretically bring about, there is some good news for those who don’t plan on rushing out to buy a superhero unisuit. Harvard researcher Dr Amy Cuddy found that even adopting a superhero-like pose for as little as two minutes can have a physiological effect on the brain by raising testosterone and lowing cortisol levels, which can actually make someone feel more powerful and less stressed.

She presented her findings related to the advantages of striking what she calls a “power pose” at a 2012 TED conference (https://www.ted.com/talks/amy_cuddy_your_body_language_shapes_who_you_are?language=en).

Turning feelings into actions

There is evidence suggesting that an affinity with a fictional character can actually lead to real life changes in a person’s life.

A 2012 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that immersion in the world of a fictional character with whom you come to identify can lead to real life changes that parallel the feelings, thoughts and even actions of that character. This phenomenon is known as ‘experience-taking’ which the study’s lead author, Geoff Kaufman, said in an interview with Science Daily, “changes us by allowing us to merge our own lives with those of the characters we read about.”

One important finding of this study was that people were most able to lose themselves in (and therefore be influenced by) characters with whom they could identify best. This ability to identify closely with a character seems essential for there to be any sort of benefit or meaningful change in a person’s life.

Inspired strength

Another study published in 2013 in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology found that university-aged males exhibited greater strength after viewing an image of an extremely muscular superhero with whom they had what psychologists refer to as a ‘parasocial relationship status’ (PRS; a one-sided psychological bond).

Those who did not have an existing emotional connection with the hero in the image not only saw no noticeable increase in strength but also gave themselves lower ratings of satisfaction with their own bodies relative to the PSR group. So, it seems that depending on your point of view, a superhero can either pump you up or deflate your self-esteem.

Parasocial relationships are not just limited to fictional superheroes, and there are implications for the role that rowing’s top performers can play in shaping the body image, self-esteem and even performance of participants in the sport at all levels.

Putting up an action poster in your training room of a rower you admire may just be one more way to give yourself a boost –  just one more reason to check out those reruns of the World Rowing Championships to help you through some long indoor training sessions this winter! Here they are. 

Find your inner superhero

So, whether your favourite superhero is from the comics or your own national team, the ability to identify with someone more powerful than yourself can have some incredible effects in terms of how you think about yourself and go about your training. Science is showing that everyone is capable of far more than you may give yourself credit for.