Ever wondered what athletes are listening to through their over-sized headphones before they compete? Granted they’re all wearing AirPods nowadays, but pictures of Michael Phelps in his Beats headphones were standard media fare during past Olympic Games. Numerous research studies have concluded that music can have a significant effect on an athlete’s mind, having delved in to its effects on arousal, self-confidence, focus and ultimately performance.
With this in mind, I caught up with Team GB swimmer and World finalist Laura Stephens about what music means to her as an athlete. The 200m butterfly specialist recently swum her socks off at the British Trials, earning her a spot on the team heading to Budapest for The European Championships next month. There she will strive to qualify for her first Olympic Games.
Would you consider yourself a musical person at all Laura?
Well my mum read a study that when you’re little classical music helps brain development…so as a result Classical FM was the soundtrack of my childhood. She also got both me and my sister into piano when we were very young – I think I was 3 when I started – and then from there I picked up the clarinet and the harp. So I guess I consider myself to be a pretty musical person.
I think that passes the test. Is it fair for me to assume then that music plays a pretty significant role in your life and career?
100%. Maybe I’ve got my Mum’s classical indoctrination to thank for this, but the change a song makes on my mood is crazy. My first nationals in 2012 was the first time I realised that a song could give me an adrenaline rush.
Dare I ask what the song was?
Chris Brown, ‘Don’t Wake Me Up’.
For a decent while after that, because I would listen to it so selectively, I could play it on my iPod shuffle (really cool at the time) and just get hyped for whatever scenario.
Let’s talk competition first. Chris Brown aside, where does music fit in to your race routine?
As soon as I’m out the door and on my way to the pool (morning or afternoon) I have my pre-race playlist on. Walking to the pool it’s just a shuffle through that. I way prefer walking to the pool then getting a lift or taking a bus, because it’s during that walk over that I’m changing gear. Before that I want to keep it as chilled and as relaxed as possible. In the morning swims for the heats I don’t really listen to music when I’m at the pool; it really gets me pumped up so if I have it on in the morning I feel like I’m overdoing it. Plus I like to have it as an extra ‘thing’ for the final. But for the finals, the only time I’m not listening to it is when I’m in the water essentially.
That can’t make you the most socially interactive being on poolside…
I just don’t really engage in conversation. I need to be really focussed. I’m a bit of an asshole really. Very blunt – almost rude.
Can you give us an idea of what’s on the playlist? Just so we know what we’re being ignored for when we eventually cross paths on a competition poolside.
Dance for sure, but within the 50-odd tracks on there I admit the majority are 90’s and noughties bangers. That and a sprinkling of ACDC – I love ‘Thunderstruck’ and also Wolfmother’s ‘Joker and the Thief’. It doesn’t change that much so there’s not a lot of recent stuff on the playlist. ‘Starships’ by Nicki Minaj has been on there since day one.
Is that the last song you listen to before you race?
Not quite. But there is one song that I listen to before every 200 fly, and I will put it on so it’s the last thing I hear before I race. I remember the first time I heard it – not literally the first time I heard it but the first time I really heard it. It came on in a moment of pure euphoria and I was so happy, so excited; that’s the exact feeling I want before I race every time.
What do you think it is about music that helps you perform?
I think it’s a variety of reasons. Because I only listen to this playlist when I’m racing and make a point of avoiding the songs on it at any other time, it really motivates me when I hear them. But then it also helps to keep my nerves under wraps. I’ve got in to such a routine around my racing and music keeps me feeling grounded.
Would you say it keeps you focussed?
Yes and no. It stops me from worrying about what’s going on around me definitely. But I don’t tend to focus on my race whilst I’m warming up or else it leads to overthinking it and stressing myself out. If I’m thinking about anything to do with the race itself on the day I just focus on how I want the first 50m to feel and getting into my rhythm as quickly as possible. Beyond that point it will take care of itself.
What about outside of racing? Please throw us a curveball and say ‘I love bebop jazz’.
Can’t say I dabble in bebop I’m afraid. When I’m not plugged in to my pre-race playlist I love listening to classical music.
Especially for when I’m travelling to a competition; long flights, train journeys and so on. If you see me with my headphones on whilst travelling I’ll be listening to movie soundtracks. There are some epic ones that leave me feeling pretty inspired. It triggers a different emotional response from that of my competition songs, but it’s the same intensity.
Any movie scores that particularly do it for you?
Harry Potter is a personal favourite – John Williams is a genius. Otherwise Game of Thrones has some very good pieces and the main theme from The Imitation Game. I don’t know if it’s because of the attachment I have to the movie but the opening title from Finding Nemo hits different.
Could not agree more with those choices, ‘Farewell to Hagrid’ gets me every time. Is classical your choice of music during training?
See I struggle with gym music. I really let Paris (my S&C coach) down. When it comes to gym I’m quite bland and generic – I’ll often just whack on UK Top Hits or the charts. I don’t want it to be too serious or intense, but I also can’t go down the route of anything too quirky. A generic pop playlist keeps it light and fun.
So you don’t feel the need to be pumped up during your gym sessions?
If on the rare occasion I’m going for a heavy lift I’ll put on a song from my pre-race playlist…but a less sacred one. That playlist has to stay as pre-race. I find that if I’m doing 3 gym sessions a week, listening to a ‘pump up’ playlist every session would become repetitive, and I think it would lose its effect.
Does the same apply for your training sessions in the pool?
Listening to music whilst in the water is more complicated obviously. When I went to Switzerland I tried the headphones that work through bone-conduction. They’re amazing! Submerged in the water you can hear the sound crystal clear, yet when you’re out of the water you can’t hear the same sound. If I could I would wear them during training, especially for the long aerobic sets or kick sets. But that might be a bit too antisocial.
Last question: as big fans of discovering new artists, do you spend much time keeping an ear out for new music?
I feared you might ask me this. Shamefully no, I don’t hunt for music really. Music finds me – how’s that for a tagline? Something that I hear and have a good memory with will go in to the pre-race playlist. It needs to be a memory connected with that energy I was describing earlier. Then when I listen to it, it doesn’t take me back to the memory it takes me back to that feeling.
Check out Laura’s playlist below to hear a selection of her top songs, ranging from Einaudi to Cascada. Specially curated by Laura for We Need More Cowbell Spotify.