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Chew on this: Sport's strange obsession with chewing gum

Henry Rounce

If you watch any sporting event today, don’t be surprised to see the gnashing of teeth. Chewing gum has become increasingly popular in sport.

The recent World Series in baseball featured players regularly dishing their hands into tubs of gum, while New Zealand cricketer Martin Guptill often spits out his gum and whacks it away with his bat after being dismissed. Some footballers, including West Ham star Dimitri Payet also enjoy chewing while on the pitch. It seems an unusual habit, so why do people do it?

Gum has had a long association with sport. People tend to copy the habits of the greatest, so when Michael Jordan began to chew gum while shooting hoops in the 1990s, gum took off in the NBA. There have even been famous incidents, such as when Paul Pierce was fined $15,000 for chucking his gum into the crowd.

The most recognisable action of chewing on the sports field probably comes from baseball, with players chewing tobacco back in the 1800s. They would spit on their gloves to keep the leather moist. Major League baseball has curbed the use of smokeless tobacco due to health concerns following the death of 54-year-old baseball legend Tony Gwynn, whose mouth cancer was believed to be caused by chewing tobacco.

While a large part of the league still chews tobacco, there’s also a proportion who have turned to chewing gum. According to Heather Brown, then Minnesota Twins outfielder Chris Colabello believed 70 percent of his side chewed gum or seeds during games.

There’s flimsy evidence to suggest chewing gum actually improves performance. A study in the International Journal of Sports Dentistry found that chewing gum “shortens the body response time” and “may also provide a significantly positive effect on performance in sports”. The study only involved five males, however. There could be a multitude of reasons players choose gum. For some reason, footballers like to juggle it.

Another legend of chewing gum while playing sport is Sir Viv Richards. The well-known West Indian cricketer used to fiercely chew gum out in the middle as he battered bowlers around the park. As reported in Oneindia, Richards explains chewing gum was his greatest comforter in the middle, “a companion.” And, because it’s Viv Richards, he chewed gum because it looked “cool.”

Chewing gum is popular with New Zealand cricketers too. Check out this from Kane Williamson.

It’s hard to come up with a concrete answer as to why athletes chew gum. Gary Hermansson, a professor in Sport Psychology who’s been to numerous Olympics and Commonwealth Games with the New Zealand team, offers some insight. He says athletes often chew gum through habit, especially when it’s already been a part of their life growing up. It’s unlikely athletes deliberately decide to chew gum as a way of improving their concentration and performance.

“They use it because it’s something they’ve done and they’ve felt comfortable with, rather than any deliberate strategy or action,” says Hermansson.

Cricket is a game built around routine. Former England test cricketer Jonathan Trott used to scratch around the crease like a chicken in a coop, all to prepare him for the next delivery. Hermansson says chewing gum could be used as part of a routine.

“Sometimes chewing gum is a way of feeling like you’re doing something, you’re not just being overwhelmed by your own emotions. A player could certainly build that into a pre-shot routine, step away, touch the pads, chew the gum a bit, come back.”

An interesting case of chewing gum while playing sport is American beach volleyballer Jennifer Kessy. During a semi-final at the 2012 London Olympics, she took a timeout as she’d forgotten to chew her usual supply of gum. After sticking the gum in her mouth, she went on to take the game and advance to the final.

“There’s often a fine line between superstition and habit. Something you do all the time can then become so much part of your habit that when you aren’t in a position to do it, it creates anxiety, you feel unfamiliar and you feel like things aren’t how they should be.”

Athletes that chew gum have also proved popular online, with Twitter accounts popping up for the gum inside the player’s mouths.

gum chewing twitter montages

Chewing gum is another weird habit that remains a common sight in sport. While it’s difficult to say it helps athletes, it appears many still use it to get them out of sticky situations on the sports ground.