All athletes open up their own bag of tricks to prepare for competition day. To fight nerves and distraction they sometimes resort to surprising methods — touching out a specific tap sequence to a shoe, being slapped across the face, or engaging in a pre-race dance.
If you pay close attention, you may notice top athletes in almost every sport do one thing in common. They chew gum while practicing, preparing to compete, or even while playing.
2020 Olympian and Australian sports shooter, Elise Collier, uses gum while firing her rifle to sustain attention and tune out debilitating head pain. Boxing legend, Floyd Mayweather could often be found chewing gum in practices, and pro golfer Phil Mickelson swears by his two pieces of gum per round to stay focused.
This ubiquitous gum chewing might seem like a new phenomenon, but there’s actually history behind the habit, and we chew for a lot of the same reasons people in the past did.
As far back as 9,000 years ago, Northern Europeans chewed birch bark tar for dental purposes, such as toothaches. Ancient Greeks chewed mastic, a gummy substance from the mastic tree, and Native Americans chewed spruce tree resin. However, modern American gum chewing has its origins in Central America, and the entrepreneurs who brought gum to the US.
Ancient Mayans and Aztecs discovered that by slicing the bark of the sapodilla tree strategically, they could collect resin and create a chewable substance from it, today known as chicle.
Mayans would cook and dry this resin and used it to quench thirst and suppress hunger. Aztecs used chicle to freshen breath and clean teeth.
Chewing chicle remained a practice in Mexico for hundreds of years. In the 1860s, American Inventor Thomas Adams Sr. received a supply of chicle through a connection to exiled Mexican President General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna. Adams and his sons boiled chicle and hand rolled it into pieces of chewing gum, and by the late 1880s Adams gum was widely sold.
During World War I the U.S. military began adding chewing gum to combat rations for its benefits to dry mouth, oral health, and nerves.
By the 1920s, several companies were making chicle-based gum and the average American chewed 105 sticks of gum a year.
World War II soldiers received gum in their daily K-rations and manufacturing plant workers back home used chewing gum to relieve “false thirst” (today known as dry mouth) and physical fatigue, while aiding concentration and mood.
One factory report found that “natural, pleasant rhythmic act of chewing help[ed]relieve nervous tension without wasting valuable energy” needed for one’s primary task.
But how do these claims line up with science?
A 2009 Japanese study found that chewing gum was associated with better alertness, reduced state anxiety, lessened stress and salivary cortisol, and more positive mood. A 2015 paper by UK researchers Allen and Smith found that chewing gum has an alerting effect, enhancing sustained attention. As for dry mouth, we need to look no further than the American Dental Association who state that chewing gum stimulates saliva production ten-fold, helping people with dry mouth regain the insufficient saliva.
It seems there’s something more substantial than ritual to this game trick. Next time you need to focus on a workout or settle your nerves, try chewing gum!