What’s in a Wetsuit Color?

Psychologists say wetsuit color may affect your performance far more than you think

Photo: Lowe-White

Danny Fuller, seeing red last winter in Los Angeles. He knew something we didn’t. Photo: Lowe-White

What color is your wetsuit? Black, right? Makes sense. Assuming you're not a pro, you're likely not looking to draw attention to your questionable cutback and weird arm placement with a brightly colored suit. Sports and behavioral psychologists, however, have news for you: wetsuit color may affect your performance far more than you've ever imagined.

There are a couple phenomena at work here. First, self-perception. The fine folks at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management led a fairly influential 2012 study which showed that people who wore a doctor's white coat performed better in cognitive tests than those wearing street clothes. When a different group of people wore the same coat but were told it was a painter's smock, they recorded far worse results than the group who believed they were wearing a doctor's uniform. In a nutshell: if you think you're dressed like a doctor, you'll actually act smarter.

This same idea is supported by University of North Carolina researchers who argue that uniforms of the right color help athletes reach their "Ideal Performance State." We react to colors on an emotional level, and peak athletic performance only comes about when your head is in the right place. Imagine what that could mean for your surfing, if you had the stylistic courage to strap on a neon wetsuit. Look like a pro, surf like a pro. Keep in mind, there's a limit. The benefits of positive self-perception only go so far—you aren't making the 'CT just because you get ahold of one of Kolohe's discarded orange-creamsicle suits. But, you just might feel like a better surfer.

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OK then, you're probably wondering, which color will make me rip? Red. That's according to reports published in the Journal of Sports Science. And this is especially so for competitive athletes. Soccer (or, sorry, football) teams in England that have worn red unis were found to have won matches at a rate far out of proportion than teams not wearing red. Other sports seem to show a similar trend. Nobody knows exactly why that is—ref bias, intimidation, aggressive self-perception amongst red-wearers have all been suggested—but statistics seem to bear it out. Wear red, perform better. Keep that in mind next time you're betting on the outcome of a pro tour heat, or choosing between a suit with red logos or with blue.

But wait, if the color of what you're wearing can affect mood and performance, what does that say about wearing a black wetsuit? "Black is viewed as the color of evil and death in virtually all cultures," Cornell University researchers noted in a 1988 study of whether or not wearing black screws with your behavior. Their verdict: it sure seems so. Black uniforms were shown to increase an athlete's aggressiveness, while at the same time intimidating competitors. Sports teams that wear black commit more penalties than their lighter-colored counterparts. Black can make you feel tough, and can make others look tough. This can't be helping in those jam-packed, neoprene-filled winter lineups.

Of course, all of this is subjective. At best, research shows that what you wear can affect behavior and performance, not that it always will. But if you're feeling a little flashy, and like the looks of an ice-blue suit, go with it. If you feel like you look cool, it might make you surf better. And if you want to catch more waves than anyone, try for the red/black combo. It works for the Miami Heat, it could work for you.

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