What’s in a Wetsuit Color?

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

| posted on January 15, 2014
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.

SHOP: SURFER’s Wetsuit Buyer’s Guide

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.

INSTRUCTION: Take Care of Your Wetsuit

  • Shannon K

    One theory is red is worn to agitate and create excitement in the opposing team causing them to lose focus. So I am not sure this theory that wearing red creates an advantage holds true for performance in an individual sport. I also don’t think it would create any performance advantage enjoying a surf session that is not part of a competition. Is there any studies on color and performance in individual sports that you came across in your research for this article?

  • Tyson Galvin

    I’d believe that I would improve slightly. However, I also believe that it depends greatly on how you feel that day. Some days I struggle to hold a decent wave or make silly mistakes but then there are other days that I dominate.

  • John Roelofs
    Clearly not true, read this

    • does it really matter? nope

      they’re comparing white and blue in the study you’ve referenced… not red and white or red n blue…

  • Reid W Harris III

    Black is the color of authority and power. It is popular in fashion because it makes people appear thinner.

    Red is the most emotionally intense color, red stimulates a faster heartbeat and breathing.

    Blue…he color of the sky and the ocean. It causes the opposite reaction as red. Peaceful, tranquil blue causes the body to produce calming chemicals

  • gannysesh

    I’d be cool with more tasteful color options for suits. A little blue here and there. Not many options, though.

    Kinda the same idea as this article: I remember one time I borrowed a friend’s board that had a sex wax sticker on it, and I swear I ripped harder. Hate to say it but it gave me an ego boost! I was like, “man I bet people *FPAW* think I’m sponsored *FSHwAW*!”

  • ZEUS

    the celtics and lakers would beg to differ.

  • oceangrown

    Every guy I have seen in a colored wetsuit is a bit of a dick in the least, wants attention, is overly aggressive, and has a shitty wave hog attitude.

  • george

    Unless there is a study out there that actually looked at the contest results of surf opponents with red and black wetsuits, then this post is completely meaningless. The two studies cited in this post looked at English football, NFL, and NHL uniforms and their effects on results. You can’t extrapolate that to surfing. Anyone who has a cursory knowledge of statistics knows this. It’s 2014. Get your math/science right.

    • Kooks McGee

      I have watched many ct contest and the red jersey’s usually prevail…they are also normally the higher seeds. So we can’t count on that observation.

  • surfaggro

    The spot that I surf is very localized. Almost all the locals wear black wetsuits. When people show up wearing bright suits, they are immediately targets for getting hassled – first because it’s obvious they aren’t from there and second because of how obnoxious they are being. Prob best to stick to black at spots that are localized. Unless you are in Santa Cruz, because many of the locals there wear bright garbage in the lineup.

  • Kooks McGee

    Except when the water is sub 40, and the air is sub 30 and you want every last bit of solar radiation hitting you to be converted to thermal energy.

  • Rui Manique Marques

    how do you explain Real Madrid’s stats in soccer? Or Kansas City Chiefs “outstanding” stats in 2012 (2 W-14 L)? And I can’t recall Kelly ever using a red wetsuit. I have seen him use white and black. But ok.

    • local

      Cloudbreak 2013 kelly wore a red sleeveless wetsuit. I chose to surf restaurants that day bc cloudbreak was off its keg

  • surfer chick

    I’ll stick with black. It’ll soak up more heat from the sun while I’m freezing my butt off sitting in the lineup

  • seldom seen smith

    Dudes wetsuit color, and how you look in the lineup, is so important. I rock a bright orange suit and I shred every session. Furthermore my silver helmet gives me the ability to generate tons of down the line speed.

  • Deano

    You need to get Matt Wilkinson’s take on all this. Wilko has done extensive testing of colourful wetsuits at the elite level!

  • southernether

    I just got a purple one!

  • Scott

    I’m from Florida and a Bucs fan. We have red jerseys and went 4-12

  • CherBoiii

    You’re missing a hugely obvious conclusion that supports wearing of black wetsuits to increase performance. If you respect the all-black look and those rippers who rock it (Dane, Bobby for instance…), you could very well feel like you’re ripping harder than if you were in some funky bright giddup. Not all pros wear the gaudy shit, and not everyone looks up to that style…

  • mdreebin

    When pros compete they wear colored jerseys. The color of the wetsuit above the waist won’t matter. Also, wear a colorful wetsuit and others see you easier and might not snake you – on the other hand, if you wear a colorful wetsuit and YOU snake someone they will remember you more easily and won’t forget…

  • I cant believe orange

    you seriously wear an orange wetsuit AND a silver helmet??? really!

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