Is There Truth to The Saying: Look Good, Feel Good, Play Good?

Former PLNU women's basketball player Jordan Ligons shows off her style on and off the court. Photo Courtesy of Thalia Gochez.

Former NFL superstar Deion Sanders famously coined the phrase, “If you look good, you feel good. If you feel good, you play good. If you play good, they pay good,” which quickly became his mantra, or his “truth” as he called it. In the ‘90s, his flashy gold chains, bright gold leather jacket and sunglasses were ahead of their time in the sports world.

Now, in an era where “tunnel fits” – the fashion-forward outfits worn by athletes as they make their pre-game entrances – have become a ritual of their own, Sanders no longer stands alone in his mantra.

Professional athletes typically show up dressed head to toe in their favorite designer brand in hopes of being posted on an Instagram account like @leaguefits or featured in a GQ article. But when Las Vegas Aces player A’ja Wilson traded in her typical skirt and heels for Game 4 of the 2023 WNBA Finals, it instantly became a media frenzy.

“It was a decisive game, the Aces needed to win that game, and she showed up in a black hoodie and black Air Force 1’s, it started going viral before the game had even started,” said sports journalist Jordan Robinson. “Everyone saw what she was wearing, and in culture and fashion references, if you are wearing Black Air Force 1’s, you mean business. It’s like, we are not messing around, we are getting down to it.”

Wilson led the Aces to their second consecutive WNBA championship title that day, with 24 points and 16 rebounds.

The public’s fascination surrounding the symbolic implications of Wilson’s black Air Force 1’s calls into question the psychology behind Sanders’ famous look good, feel good, play good slogan.

A study conducted by Northwestern University Professor Adam Galinksy for the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology suggests that what Wilson wore may have actually influenced her performance. This notion is referred to as “enclothed cognition” – the idea that clothing can make you feel “abstract concepts and their symbolic meanings,” according to Science Direct.

Galinsky tested this theory by having half of a select group of undergrad students wear a doctor’s coat and the other half their own street clothes. The lab coats were pretested to reveal their association with attentiveness and carefulness.

When the students were prompted to complete a task, those wearing the coat demonstrated increased selective attention, proving his hypothesis that people are more willing to perform in a role when dressed for it.

While Robinson now sits on the sidelines interviewing athletes like Wilson – oftentimes incorporating their fashion sense into her stories – the former Point Loma Nazarene University women’s basketball player was once on the court herself, rocking her own style.

Afro puffs and a pearl necklace were her take on enclothed cognition.

“For a lot of black athletes, our hair is a way to express our individualism and our style and it’s a part of fashion very much so, I believe. Having my hair in two afro puffs made me stand out, it made me feel more confident and comfortable and it differentiated [me] from my other teammates who were wearing the same jersey as me,” said Robinson. “I wanted to make sure I was stylish; I wore pearls to practice. My coach would be like, ‘Ok are you going to a tea party or are you coming to basketball practice?’”

A hairstyle and necklace gave Robinson that “look good, feel good” element that Sanders’ attributed to playing good.

While Galinsky argues clothing can affect one’s own performance, clinical psychologist Jonathan Jenkins goes even further to argue that enclothed cognition can affect your opponent’s game as well. He notes that if an athlete perceives their opponent as looking good, it can be intimidating and negatively affect their performance, according to USA Lax Magazine.

When Robinson noticed an extra attentiveness in her opponents’ gameday attire, it sent a message to her.

“At Point Loma, we had to wear our matching sweatsuits [before games]. But, I would see other schools where they didn’t have to do that, they had to dress up,” said Robinson. “When we would show up to arenas and they would be dressed up in business casual attire, I was like, wow that says a lot about their program. They are kind of already teaching them to be like pros, how else are they teaching them that? They probably know their offense really well [and] they probably have a very detailed defense set, because that’s how they are clearly running their program.”

Successful athletes like LeBron James, Christiano Ronaldo, Dwyane Wade and Serena Williams are ranked within the top 10 list of athlete style icons by Sports Illustrated. While their athletic prowess differentiates them in their sports, the psychological studies behind enclothed cognition suggest the confidence that their style exerts may play a role as well.

Whether it’s a placebo effect or a psychological fact, many athletes hold Sander’s mantra as their own “truth” today.

“I think it is a mindset, it’s a mantra, that if you truly believe it and adapt it, you will see the difference and you will be able to kind of level yourself up,” said Robinson. “If you look in the mirror before the game and you’re giving yourself a pep talk, and you like the fit you’re in, you’re going to play better. I do think there’s a lot of truth to that.”