Green Bay Packers Quarterback Aaron Rodgers with girlfriend Olivia Munn, who some have credited with his hot streak this season. But is there any science to it? (Photo by Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images)
The Green Bay Packers are on a hot streak.
The team has now won a league-best four in a row, including last Sunday’s 26-21 victory over Tom Brady and the New England Patriots. Packers QB Aaron Rodgers threw for 368 yards and two touchdowns, continuing a series of rock-solid performances.
Rodgers has been one of the league’s top quarterbacks for several years now, but elevating your performance week after week can be a tough task with the level of competition in the NFL — and his extra boost in play might be coming from an surprising source.
Some are calling actress Olivia Munn, Rodgers’ gorgeous girlfriend of six months, the team’s good-luck charm. This is the first football season the pair have been together, and Rodgers has upped his game throughout the fall as teams head toward the playoffs.
Interestingly, this isn’t the first time Munn has seemingly boosted an athlete-flame’s on-the-job performance. The Newsroom star was also given a nod by fans when she dated NHL player Brad Richards in 2011. The center had a seven-game, seven-point streak in October and November of that year, and the New York Rangers also posted six wins in a row — before Munn broke it off.
But you must be thinking, Come on, she’s not really Rodgers’ lucky rabbit’s foot?
Stephen Graef, Ph.D, a psychologist for Ohio State University Athletics and OSU Sports Medicine, says scoring off the field with a woman like the smart-and-funny Munn might be exactly the kind of “win” that could lead Rodgers to better results on the field, too. “Obviously, in the masculine world, every guy’s trying to one-up all the others,” he tells Yahoo Health. “An attractive partner can give someone the added bravado associated with locking down a hot chick, which could definitely help his performance.”
But having a pretty girl on your arm isn’t always good for career prospects. In sports, victims of the hot girlfriend “curse” are wide and vast. Fans frequently blamed Jessica Simpson for Tony Romo’s on-the-field meltdowns back in 2007 and 2008. Patriots supporters voiced concern when “Tom and Giselle” seemed to be affecting the QB’s game-time performance early in the couple’s courtship.
Jessica Simpson and Tony Romo, looking crazy in love on the football field. (Photo by Michael Caulfield/Getty Images)
Justin Verlander won a Cy Young and AL MVP in 2011, before inking a contract to become the highest-paid pitcher in the MLB, and finally landing supermodel Kate Upton — all in consecutive seasons. However, his play took nosedive in 2013 after he made it official with one of the world’s hottest blondes.
Perpetual tennis champ Rafael Nadal may be all over the curse idea, too, which could explain why his longtime girlfriend Maria Francisca Perelló never attends his matches. She told The Telegraph in 2011 that it “would not be good either for him or for me… He needs his space when he is competing.”
Why do some guys become lax or distracted when they couple up with a babe? And why are we seeing it in sports?
Graef warns that this phenomenon is more of a theory; it’s possible we’re experiencing a concept called “illusory correlation” after witnessing the swings and shifts in these athletes’ games, which is when we believe two unrelated topics are in fact connected.
However, as a psychologist, Graef sees connections between romantic relationships and performance — both positive and negative. “You do take off-the-field issues on the field,” he says. “It’s hard to just turn off your mind.”
If that’s the case, what’s going on in the male brain? Blame it on gender differences, hormones (of course), and how men juggle their new relationship status, says Jamin Brahmbhatt, MD, co-director of The PUR Clinic and a specialist on men’s health.
“There are a lot of studies looking and male and female distraction patterns, and men always get distracted by attractive women,” he tells Yahoo Health. “They always show a decline in cognitive function, which is related to a rise in their dopamine levels.”
Model Kate Upton with baseball star Justin Verlander, whose career has taken a hit since they began dating. (Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images)
Brahmbhatt explains that “feel good” dopamine triggers the brain’s reward mechanism and also interacts with its pain receptors to ease stress. Dopamine can even dull pain.
Let’s talk about the science for a sec: In a 2010 study, researchers recruited guys who could be described as “recklessly, widely, passionately in love” with their significant others. MRI scanners recorded their brain activity as they were asked questions unrelated to the experiment in the first phase of research, and then as they viewed pictures of their lady loves in the second phase — all while holding their hands over a computer-controlled thermal device that got increasingly hotter as the experiment progressed.
Brain imaging revealed that both love and distraction reduced the guys’ pain, but in different (telling) ways. With distraction, the brain pathway impacting a man’s sensation of pain was mostly contained to the higher, cortical part of the brain. The effect of love, however, hit the brain’s dopamine-related reward center.
To our brains, the release of dopamine equals “reward.” And who doesn’t like feeling rewarded? Once men experience that fix, those competitors want more — whether it’s winning on the field, closing bigger deals at the office, or experiencing the rush of nabbing a beautiful woman. Interestingly, this would also explain why those who opt for extreme sports may have lower levels of dopamine; they’re in a state of under-arousal, so they have to push harder to activate the brain’s reward center.
Dopamine is pretty powerful stuff, responsible for addictions like cocaine, where the drug causes a buildup of the hormone in the brain. “When that hormone level rises, you’re getting this euphoria,” Brahmbhatt says.
“So when men have these attractive partners and are getting compliments from all their friends, their dopamine levels are going up — and they’re experiencing that ‘reward’ feeling,”
Brahmbatt points to Kanye West as an example. “When he posts a picture of Kim Kardashian on social media, he’s getting tons of likes and comments,” he says, explaining that every time he tweets out a photo, he’s likely seeking that rush.
Now, how a man deals with this crazy rise in dopamine is entirely dependent on the individual. Some, like Rodgers, may have the gift of channeling those euphoric vibes into whatever they’re working on. Graef says feeling crazy-fulfilled and “settled” in your private life can often lead to better focus on professional accomplishments. “For someone who values significant relationships especially, who values a partnership, creating a stable relationship can reduce their anxiety,” he explains. “You don’t have to worry, so you can put more of your energy into your work.”
However, sometimes that dopamine spike produces some wild, uncharacteristic behavior as a guy zeroes in on his biggest fix — his hot, new girlfriend — and other obligations hit the wayside. “A lot of studies say an attractive woman is a ‘distraction,’ but I think it’s really that these men are focusing on that one thing, or person, who is giving them the most reward,” says Brahmbhatt.
Just like a drug or gambling addiction — to which dopamine rushes are also linked — hot women like Bundchen, Upton and Simpson can act as kryptonite to studs like Brady, Verlander and Romo. If you’re getting the biggest “rush” of dopamine at home, maybe you don’t notice that your team has lost a few games in a row, or your batting average is down. You may not feel as compelled to push yourself on the field (or in the office).
Brahmbhatt thinks the hot-girlfriend effect probably translates across career fields, but we see this “curse” or “good-luck charm” theory pop up in sports, because job performance is so easily measured in wins, losses, streaks, batting averages and touchdowns.
In the case of Rodgers and Munn, though, we’re likely seeing a complex, healthy relationship dynamic (and its implications) play out in real time — what results when worlds collide, and a couple makes practical decisions about handling their relationship so it produces successes all around.
“It often depends on a man’s partner,” says Brahmbhatt, who explains that sometimes with a hot girlfriend comes extra (unwanted) attention. “When the spotlight really circles around her, sometimes a guy just can’t balance all that and his career.”
Munn’s approach might be a good one, and could also explain her positive hot-girlfriend track record. With her, there’s not much of a media circus.
Her relationship mode seems more encouraging, stable and supportive than crazy in love, willing to step back to reduce the level of limelight (and stress) on her QB boyfriend, Rodgers — a lesson that transcends the world of athletes and starlets. “You just end up making those concessions,” Munn told E! News earlier this year. “You make decisions because it can’t all be work and it can’t all be your personal life.”
And Munn seems plenty happy in the supportive role — for the time being, at least. “It doesn’t make me sad or anything, because I want my life to be full and have all those experiences,” she explained. Plus, the off-season will come soon enough, where it could be her turn.
The couple’s practical, balanced relationship approach, with Munn laying low a bit for now, may be countering those crazy brain chemicals, allowing Rodgers to surge as he makes a final push toward the NFL playoffs.
So, call Munn the Packers’ good-luck charm… or maybe it’s simply a solid approach to the science of dating.
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