Column: Can chewing gum boost sports performance on the field?

'Beyond the Lines'

Jordan Spieth won this year’s British Open, golf’s oldest tournament, in dramatic fashion but that may not be the most enduring memory of his performance.

During the first two rounds of the tournament Spieth could be seen vigorously chewing gum. That sparked a debate about the role, if any, that gum chewing plays in sports performance. The discussion began during live coverage of the rounds on the Golf Channel and was flamed by social media. Did chewing gum contribute in any way to Spieth’s performance or was it merely coincidence?

Researchers have left nary a stone unturned and sure enough, there is scientific research on the effects of gum chewing on physical and cognitive performance. And not surprisingly, the findings from those studies are far from uniform.

In 2011, researchers from St. Lawrence University in upstate New York published a study that explored the cognitive advantages of chewing gum. The study found a positive correlation between chewing gum and the speed at which the brain processes information, which could benefit an athlete in any sport.

However, it should be noted that the St. Lawrence study was unrelated to sport. The purpose of the research was to determine if chewing gum helped improve the cognitive ability of students. The results indicated that chewing gum moments before an exam - but ironically, not during - actually helped improve a student’s performance.

As with most research, there is a caveat. The study indicated that the benefits are realized only after the gum is chewed and discarded, not while it is being chewed. Spieth chewed his gum through the entire round, an estimated five hours, so query if his gum chewing had any positive impact on his performance or merely acted as a placebo.

In a 2013 study conducted by Tokyo Dental College’s Department of Sports Dentistry researchers measured both the physical movement response time and the reaction time of the long fibular muscle in athletes while performing with and without gum.

Their findings, published in a paper titled The Effects of Gum Chewing on the Body Reaction Time, showed significant positive impact to physical performance while chewing gum.

Various other studies have shown that chewing gum can lower stress, improve alertness and mood and even increase reaction time. A number of those benefits would certainly apply to golf, especially lower stress levels. When you’re chewing gum your mouth is open, which means you can’t clench your jaw, an act that increases tension. One study found that women relied on gum more than men to reduce the stress of competition. Of course, in a sport like swimming, chewing gum could increase the risk of choking.

Golf isn’t the first sport that comes to mind when conjuring up an image of a gum chewing athlete. Although the late Payne Stewart was a known gum-chewer, the habit has never been widely practiced on the links. On the opposite end of the spectrum, generations of baseball players wouldn’t think of stepping on a field without a wad of bubblegum in their cheeks.

NBA great Michael Jordan, who favored watermelon Bubblicious, was a prolific gum-chewer, often blowing bubbles in the face of opponents to taunt them. Shaquille O’Neal, another NBA great who was notorious for chewing gum, favored Big Red.

While the science goes both ways, there is consensus in one area. Caffeinated gum is a performance enhancer. Caffeine, which is perfectly legal in golf and most other sports, has been proven to boost athletic performance in numerous studies - including ones that involved golf - by up to 10 percent. A 2015 study published by the American College of Sports Medicine found that caffeinated golfers drive the ball further and hit their irons with greater accuracy than their non-caffeinated peers.

Spieth pooh-poohed the possibility that chewing gum benefitted his performance. But similar to the scientific studies, the evidence goes both ways: He chewed during the first two rounds of the tournament but disdained the product during the last two.

Jordan Kobritz is a former attorney, CPA, Minor League Baseball team owner and current investor in MiLB teams.. The opinions contained in this column are the author’s. Jordan can be reached at jordan.kobritz@cortland.edu.