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In a Harvard Magazine study published in 2013, Associate Professor Ted Kaptchuk ran a clinical trial comparing the efficacy of an unbranded pain relief medication vs. acupuncture for a group of 270 people experiencing severe arm pain. With either treatment, patients were warned about the possible side effects, including redness and swelling, and increased pain levels. Nearly a third of the patients studied (whether on the medication or acupuncture track) experienced those issues and more.

There was only one problem. It was all a bunch of crap.

Well, less crap, and more a part of Kaptchuk's studies around the effects of placebos on a person's ability to heal. The pills study participants received were made from corn starch. The needles, retractable. Never pierced the skin. Participants were literally being left to their own devices. And yet, a large percentage of participants experienced the pain or relief they'd been told they could if they participated.

Study after study relates similar findings. Stories of healing and pain, all associated with the mental "belief" spelling how the treatment would affect the participant. The placebo effect is a very real part of today's medical community, not simply for verifying the efficacy of trial medications (a large part of what a "double blind" study is), but also as an effective form of treatment. If you follow the rabbit hole, you'll find a multitude of stories verifying the capability of humans to translate their thoughts and beliefs into physical action and reaction. In researching this article, I stumbled across tales from the banal to the utterly fantastic. Such as? Such as: an instance of a gent going into cardiac arrest after attempting to overdose on his unmarked study meds, and then having a change of heart. If true, the man was literally going into full arrest in front of two paramedics. When they finally got the study to reveal his medication? You guessed it. Placebo. Urban legend? Maybe. But the red welts and swollen limbs of the Harvard study above? ‘Splain that one to me, naysayers.

How does such a thing work in sports?

Nearly a month ago, the Denver Nuggets brought shooting guard Arron Afflalo back into the fold after a stint with the Orlando Magic. Since his return, AAA has been telling anyone who will listen that the Nuggets, as currently constituted, are a championship-caliber team. Some incredulity ran amongst the sports pundits around this comment, in that the Nuggets next championship will also be their first. But Afflalo will not be swayed from his POSITIVE MENTAL ATTITUDE (read: placebo). Said positive mental attitude is widely recognized in the sports community, from players and coaches to sports psychologists as a key component in improving the performance of both individuals and teams in a sports setting. A wide body of research shows that tools such as visualization and positive feedback, both internal and external, play a huge factor in long-term success in sports endeavors.

Sure, says you, but talent is truly the bottom line, no? If every team could "wish" their way to a championship, there would be a bit of a crowd at the top. Setting aside that level of "wish it, want it, do it" naiveté, the mental aspects of the game are not just an important part of success, they often spell the difference between good and great. As my good and wise friend Russ said on these pages yesterday, "taking the ‘next step' at the NBA level is almost always a mental step." When studying up on the post-win quotes of teams who have attained that championship level, much of what's said centers around the last hurdle being the mental game: focus, tenacity, acuity, perseverance. Though our youthful Nuggets still have a few rough edges to shave off of their game, many seem ready to take that "next step".
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