Magic potions, stuff and nonsense

Sports supplements, sport-star endorsed products, cosmetics and sponsorship, it is all aimed at making us feel in a particular fashion.

On one level it is the association. The brand or the product triggers a feeling of belonging because "our people" wear it/eat it/drink it/use it. It is the reason why businesses spend millions on product placement.

We are, for all of the enlightenment, our nation states, our supra-national bodies, still tribal. We sort the world into "like us" and "not like us". Although binary, it is not simple, we apply layer after layer as we build our picture of ourselves and the world around us. We love people for their similarities and we hate them for their differences. If we can make it past the superficial people can transition past these initial pigeon-holes into deeper associations. But that takes time and effort!

Back to the sales job. The advertising and the endorsements build a picture for us. They prey on our logic chains. Person X is awesome. Person X uses Product Y. Product Y makes Person X awesome. Therefore Product Y will make me awesome too.

For me, this is a bit like going to the cinema or watching a magician. There is more than an element of willing suspension of disbelief. On some level we know that it is not "magic". We know that there is some trick, some misdirection, some sleight of hand going on here. We even tell ourselves that we know how it is done but we love watching it anyway and we still enjoy it. There is a part of us that wants to believe, even in the midst of proving that we are clever enough to know how it is all done. Even then, we are often sure that it is something happening off-stage because we do not want to think that we just have not seen something, however deftly done (not to mention regardless of how many thousands of hours have gone into practising the movement to make it seamless).

Sports products are the same. If pushed, or questioned really hard, or if we just stopped, thought about it and were honest with ourselves, we would recognise and admit that these things
A) won't make us ____ (insert the top of your field/childhood hero here)
B) are a supplement, so by definition we need to square away our foundations first
C) are no replacement for sensible training and good nutrition.

But we buy them anyway. We want to be fooled. We want to believe, no, we need to believe that the only difference between our star and ourselves is the magic potion/shoes of Hermes/organic lemur cheese hair dye. On discovering that we are only six easy instalments away from the body of our dreams (that's not a strip-club reference by the way) it is easier to pull out your credit card than it is for us to take a long, hard look at what we do.

It is accessing that childlike part of our mind. Harking back to a time when we were sat on the carpet reading the comic strip about how our hero drinks his potion/eats his spinach/speaks the secret incantation while holding the sword aloft and becomes superhuman. The endless possibilities that would open up for us if we could but uncover something like this for ourselves. So we pop the cap on the sports drink or shake the protein mix and muster some belief that it will do the job.

Why so keen to believe, in spite of ourselves? Because it gives us an opportunity to externalise guilt and blame. Rather than face the uncomfortable reality that we need to do something differently...other than spunk away more cash on pills and powders! Don't get me wrong, every time a physio connects me to an EMS I hope that it'll turn me into Daley Thompson, or that each swig of acai draws me inexorably closer to my BJJ black belt. Sure enough, I won't be competing at the Olympics or the ADCC but that's just politics bro!

For those who do some sports, rather than just the lifestyle-sportspeople amongst us, these things sink their teeth into you. Slipping on your hundred pound trainers (that's sterling, hundred-lb trainers probably wouldn't sell that well!) did not have the impact of Clark Kent taking off his spectacles. Sipping your aloe caffeine crea-protein did not turn you from Prince Valiant into She-Ra but your performances haven't been bad. What if it disappears altogether when I stop taking the shake? It becomes like the Lounge Lothario's lucky pants or the gambler's "system". Sportsmen, like sailors, are superstitious in the extreme (I can't speak for the ladies in sport). The thought of changing part of a ritual is absolutely abhorrent.

So what to make of it? Something...and nothing. If we're talking sports performance, the powders, the shoes, the way we tie our laces, the hollow rituals, the lucky rabbit's foot, they all have a small place. A bit like a bit of targeted muscle hypertrophy, it has a use. The problems start to come with attribution error. If we keep these things in perspective, if we do not allow these to interfere with the positive strides that we can take elsewhere in our preparation and performance, they are not a problem.

For example, take an amateur rugby player. Recreationally competitive but has a job which pays the bills, so is looking to maximise performance on the pitch while acknowledging that he will not be turning pro in his sport. Said weekend warrior has optimised his food and drink to fuel home, work and sport but has bought into the hype and takes at least a shake a day, to maximise the burn, to make the most of his post-workout window and ride the époque (at least that's what he thinks the trainer said). So he ends up with really expensive urine, what's the big deal? To be fair, it needs a little bit of an eye kept on it but for now, no harm, no foul.

How about his team-mate who gets little sleep, goes out on the hoy three times a week? Somebody who eats pretty much whatever he comes across without fear or favour. But dude, it's all good because I'm stacking this "tornado" before training to get me in the zone, this protein mega-mix with essential herbal essences immediately post-workout and these "Mighty Boa" tabs to squeeze the fat from my diet... See where I'm going with this? Sure the neutro-ceuticals may help but there are quicker, cheaper, easier wins to be had...but for the almost impenetrable BS-shield they've now built with the aid of the industries. Is it the fault of the chemists or the marketing men?

Not in my world. We roll the dice, we take the chance. My argument is this, by all means pay your money and enjoy the ride but do it in full awareness of the odds and that the house wins more often than not. What you do from there is your call, enjoy it, make the most of it.


  1. Great post, a lot more balanced than the Panorama documentary on BBC1 last week who had an agenda to put down all sports enhancements.

    I think there is some evidence of a placebo effect when taking sports supplements but the majority of people get into it either through the marketing or wanting to be in 'the crowd'.

    I wish when I was younger someone shook me and told me there were no short cuts. Basics of treating my body better, less booze and better food and more exercise, I'd be reaping the benefits not instead of playing catch up!

  2. Thanks JW.

    If we all knew then what we know now... I think as a species we are spectacularly bad at learning from other people's experience! But on the up side it does give us all the joy of having our own experiences and making our own mistakes! The important thing is not to let the mistakes of yesterday dominate tomorrow. Playing catch-up sucks but at least you're still in the game!

  3. The thing that bugs the pants off me is when people who are using pharmaceutics recommend supplements so that mooks (me at 19) pick a magazine and think "if I use Syntha 6, Cell mass and Hydroxycut I can look like Mr O"!!!


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