Whenever a new player is signed or drafted by the Canadiens, he almost inevitably talks about how glad he is to be part of an Original Six team, one with a great history of winning. Usually, he'll mention how special it is to pull on that sweater, worn by so many legends. Well, it turns out there may be more to the sentiment than just mindless patter.
In the most recent edition of the psychology journal "Emotion," Dr.Andrew Elliot has published a scholarly article about the impact of the colour red on athletes' performance. It's called, "Perception of the Colour Red Enhances the Force and Velocity of Motor Output." The theory behind the research is that human beings are conditioned to react to the colour red. When faced with stress, danger or anger, our faces flush, sending warning signals to other people in a deeply primal response. Dr.Elliot decided to see how that natural reaction to red impacts athletes playing against a team wearing red.
He gave three groups of students a hand grip, and showed them a sign saying "squeeze," written on either a blue, gray or red background. The people shown the instruction in red squeezed the grip both faster and harder than the other two groups. In a second experiment, he gave two groups of kids a metal pinch clasp to press right after reading their participant numbers written in either gray or red. Once again, the kids reading the red sign reacted more strongly and quickly. The interesting thing is that all of this happens at a subconscious level and most of us don't even know it.
"Colour affects us in many ways depending on the context," explains Dr.Elliot. "Those colour effects fly under our awareness radar."
Perhaps that's one explanation why it seems so many teams find another gear when they play at the Bell Centre. They appear to always give a little bit more in Montreal. It might also help explain part of why the Canadiens have had such a history of success. Elliot's work concludes that opponents of teams wearing red are subconsciously intimidated, perceiving red as a threat.
"Threat evokes worry, task distraction, and self-preoccupation, all of which have been shown to tax mental resources," he writes. This, he concludes accounts for why students who see red right before a test perform worse and athletes playing an opponent wearing red are more likely to lose.
Dr.Elliot's study isn't the only one with similar evidence of the dominance of the colour red for athletes. In 2004, a team of British anthropologists studied Olympic athletes randomly assigned red or blue uniforms in one-on-one competition in various sports. When otherwise equally matched, the athletes in red won the majority of the competitions. When one athlete was obviously better than the other, colour didn't matter, but...and this is the interesting bit...when one athlete was only slightly inferior to another, wearing red was enough to make up the difference in performance. The athletes in red won 57% of Olympic Taekwondo matches, 55% in boxing and 53% of wrestling matches. That study appeared in the journal "Nature" on May 19, 2005.
Other studies on the subject of the effect of red include one analysis of the British Premier League from 1947 to 2003. The researchers discovered the team wearing red won both the majority of their home games and more titles than teams wearing other colours over the years. A pair of German researchers studied the German professional football league and they found the team in red wins more often, but they weren't sold on the connection between red and victory in terms of uniform colour alone. They thought it might have been a situation in which competitive, aggressive men...natural athletes...prefer red and are attracted to the team for that reason, which gives it a leg up.
Any way you look at it, though, the research shows when all other things are pretty close to equal, wearing red can give a team an advantage. Maybe that's one reason why players really are subconsciously glad to pull on the CH. Perhaps the Habs can prove it again, next time they're up against one of those gray or blue-wearing teams that just don't do it for the competitive psyche.