Chewing gum, mouth guards, and OPTIMAL Performance!

By: Isaiah Shelton

The line between science and superstition is one of the more compelling topics in sports, particularly the equipment-free sport of basketball. What’s proven to help performance versus what’s been passed down from the blacktop to the barbershop and back down again. But does the difference really matter? If you noticed that something was (legally) helping your game in a specific way that no drill or practice could suffice, is a lack of scientific proof a reason to stop? Oh, and what if that “something” only costs you like $2.99 at your local corner store?


In the NBA, gum-chewing became a regular occurrence in the 1990s thanks to the man the era was named after: Michael Jordan. We all know the infamous tongue wag, but I also remember those iconic shots of him after demoralizing a defender, jaw biting down rapidly, fully emblematic of the ferocity with which he played every night. It’s definitely a swag thing. Some have used it to taunt. But aside from the mental leverage every competitor positions for, the thing about chewing gum and athletic performance is – there is scientific evidence to support it.


In a 2008 study conducted by Japanese researchers, 7 people were asked to watch a video screen and react to visual cues by pressing handheld triggers. Each person completed the experiment multiple times—sometimes while chewing gum, and other times empty-mouthed. Results showed that chewing on gum improved the participants' reaction time by 7 percent, or an average of 36 milliseconds. This might not sound like a lot, but a millisecond is all it takes for a Magic Johnson pass to turn into a Tragic Johnson pass. A quicker response time means quicker movement and action; an otherwise minimal increase in brain activity can make all the difference on the basketball court.


But is there something chemically in chewing gum that makes it the ideal low-cost performance agent? Of course not. There are workarounds. In fact, NBA players may have found a permanent, more efficient one with mouth guards. Just do a quick “mouth guards basketball” search in Google Images and you’ll see that Steph Curry and LeBron – the two leading faces of the NBA and, by default, basketball– are the first to pop up. In 2015, The Wall Street Journal analyzed video footage and found that Curry shot 64 percent of his free throws that season with his mouth guard sticking out – and that his percentage with it out was higher (.925) as opposed to when the mouth guard was properly stowed away (.894). This is interesting because while it somewhat voids the chewing research, it perhaps points out more nuances regarding the mouth and brain activity.


Still, I ask – does it really matter? If arguably the best shooter in the world – and two-time league MVP – doesn’t care if there’s scientific evidence to support his in-game ritual, my guess is that you shouldn’t either.  One study doesn’t equate to scientific fact, and while the line between sports science and superstition is certainly a blurry one, it’s also certainly worth your game’s attention. Just look at the greats.

Ryan Sypkens