Tiger Woods certainly thinks so. He always wears red on Sundays because his mom once told him it’s his favourite colour. He’s not the only one who believes in the power of colours. Sir Alex Ferguson once made Manchester United switch out of their grey jerseys at half-time because he claimed his players struggled to pick each other out.
In Speed Skating, however, teams think that the fastest colour is blue, so they changed their uniforms before the 2018 Olympics – even Norway, which had a whole history with legendary red suits.
But is all this just superstition, or can colour make a difference?
And which colour should you pick the next time you start a game to maximize your winning chances? This has been a hotly debated topic among athletes and journalists for years. So, let’s look at the science.
The Role of Colors in Nature
In Nature, for example, colours play an essential role with these little birds. A study showed that female zebra finches prefer to mate with male birds who wear red bands around their legs. And they avoid blue or green-banded males. So, for the birds, wearing red leads to reproductive success.
Colours and Athletic Success
The most influential study was published in 2005 in Nature, a prestigious scientific journal, titled ‘Red enhances human performance in contests’. It builds on the bird study and the theory that the colour red is a testosterone-dependent signal of dominance.
If birds signal dominance when wearing a red leg band, athletes wearing a red shirt might also get a higher place in the pecking order. After all, anger is associated with reddening skin due to increased blood flow. A red-faced, angry-looking athlete might reflect dominance, intimidate the opponent, and influence the outcome of the match, race, or fight.
To test that theory, the scientists looked at combat sports at the Olympic Games 2004. Tae Kwan Do, boxing, and wrestling athletes were randomly issued red or blue protective gear. If the colour has no effect, the number of winners wearing blue and red should be more or less the same. However, the scientists found that athletes wearing red consistently for all four competitions won more fights than those wearing blue. The closed matches measured the most sustainable effects – with athletes wearing red winning 6 out of 10 times.
Colours are only one small factor among more important ones like skill. But if all other factors were pretty equal, red presumably tipped the balance. In today’s professional sport, every little detail and tiny advantage can distinguish between winning and losing.
The Influence on Referees
Another study proposed that referees are affected by colour as well. The theory was that referees would evaluate identical situations differently, depending on the athlete’s shirt colour. So the scientists did what we like to do at Athletic Interest: get After Effects up and running. They changed clips of combat sports so that identical scenes could be shown with athletes wearing either blue or red.
They then showed the videos to referees and asked them to award points. And the referees saw red. Athletes with red protective gear received 13% more points than competitors wearing blue. When the blue kit was digitally transformed to red, the points awarded by the referees increased. When the red gear was changed in After Effects to look blue, the athlete suddenly was awarded fewer points.
Colors in Football
The study about the 2004 Olympics also looked at the EURO that year. The five teams that wore predominantly red shirts did better when wearing red than a different shirt colour. A good team can still reverse its fortunes by wearing red.
"If you're hopeless," one author said, "then wearing red isn't going to make you start winning."
A separate team of academics made another startling claim in 2008: that teams wearing red were more successful in English football between 1946 and 2003. Although more than one-third of the couples played in blue shirts and only 23% in red, the teams in red won 60% of the titles, three times as many as those in blue. That could be why the German national squad broke a long-lasting tradition in 2006 and introduced red shirts.
Debunking the Myth
A psychologist even praised the positive benefits of the colour when the shirts were revealed. Former Bayern Munich player Sandro Wagner might have listened to him; he almost always played in red boots. The study even found an effect for derby rivals! Teams wearing red won more at home and had a higher average league position than rivals in the same city who wore other colours.
So is the reason that Bayern, United, and Liverpool have more titles than TSV, City, and Everton simply down to their shirt colours? Could the colour of an Olympic uniform be the difference between winning the gold or silver?
It might sound plausible, even enticing. But the beauty of science is that people always want to prove each other wrong, so a new study implodes the red house of superiority. Researchers reanalyzed the previous studies and found that some conclusions need to be revised when you include all matches between 92 and 2018. They also conducted more elaborate research and looked at the data of games from England, Germany, Portugal, France, Netherlands, and Italy over the last 20 years. “Overall with the statistics that we have, it’s a lot more likely that there aren’t any color effects,” explains one of the report’s authors, Dr Philip Furley.
It all sounds like a good story that wearing red can make a difference, but the data don’t support it. And even the legendary bird study is under scrutiny. For decades, it was considered proven that males with red rings are more successful with the ladies than males with other, primarily green rings. There have been 39 publications since the 80s, and the majority (23) confirmed the red-ring thesis. However, a new study from 2018 that used more data than the previous studies says that the larger sample shows no effect at all. For optimal brood care, the author said, it is essential that the partners get along well – and not beauty or the ring’s colour.
So where does that leave us? Based on the present findings, the evidence for uniform colours influencing the outcome of athletic competitions needs to be stronger. More investigation is required to prove the effect if it does exist at all. While it might be inaccurate to say that colour enhances athletic performance physically, we can’t deny its psychological impact. In the same way that music can change a mood, colour can as well, and that can affect behaviour – not only yours but also that of your opponent. The psychology of a uniform can be just as crucial as its physics.
So the next time you start a game, what colour do you pick? To help with your decision: The mystery of the blue race suits and the Norwegian speed skating team was debunked. It turned out that blue was not the “faster” colour but the colour of a Norwegian Seafood company – that happened to be the team’s sponsor. If you enjoy reading out on sports business and culture, subscribe to our channel and check out our newsletter. Once a week, we break down the industry behind sports and talk about the week’s biggest stories, deals, and general madness.