SUPERSTAR MICHAEL JORDAN IS OFTEN CREDITED FOR MAKING THE SHAVED HEAD A BONA FIDE TREND IN PROFESSIONAL SPORTS.
It’s probably not fair to say that it started with Michael Jordan, but the basketball superstar certainly made it a bona fide trend: athletes who shave their heads. When Jordan started sporting a shaved look, it gave baldness – or at least voluntary baldness – a cache, a certification as “cool.” After all, if Jordan of all people sought out this look, there had to be something to it.
Suddenly, every sport had a few shaving enthusiasts, then a few more, and finally a deluge. If recently it seems that the trend has ebbed and the tide is turning, the sports arena is still one place where the gleaming dome can be found in relative plenitude.
But why do so many athletes opt to go for the shaved look?
Shaved heads in sports: Is there any competitive advantage?
Probably the most popular reason is because of the presumed competitive advantage that it can provide. Certainly, this argument holds water for those who are involved in water sports – swimming champions, triathletes and the like. Any number of these athletes tend to shave not just their heads but large sections of their bodies, often their entire bodies.
What advantage does removing body hair provide for athletes involved in water sports? It helps to cut down on resistance by making the body sleeker and more aerodynamic. And, as Alex Kostich, a three-time Pan-American Games gold medalist, writes on the Active.com website, “the real purpose of shaving is to remove the thin layer of dead skin cells that coat the outer layer of the epidermis. This reveals fresher, more sensitive cells and results in a heightened feel for the water.”
However, Duane Dobko, a coach who has 17 years of competitive swimming experience, doesn’t agree that shaving the head produces any benefit for swimmers. He has written that when he shaved his head for swimming, it became “so slippery that my head would pop up as I was kicking underwater – a very bad moment. (Instead, having) short hair acts as an abrasive that helps hold the streamline better…The only reason to shave off your head in a triathlon is mental. Do it if you think it will make you fast.”
And that may be the real crux of the issue. It seems likely that the real competitive advantage of the shaved head is psychological. Ironically, while men who involuntarily lose their hair may suffer psychological trauma over it, athletes who make the choice can get a mental attitude boost from it.
After all, what physical effect could losing a little hair have had on Jordan or on Shaquille O’Neal or Xavier McDaniel, fellow basketball players who adopted the shaved look?
Assuming that there is an actual physical benefit to head shaving in swimming, that it can indeed cut a few seconds off one’s time in a sport where seconds play a big role, in what other sport could it produce a physical benefit? Perhaps in some few instances in wrestling, where your opponent can’t grab you by the hair if your dome is shorn. No other instances come readily to mind.
The psychological advantage of head shaving in sports
But as a psychological edge – that’s a different story.
Look at Andre Agassi as a lesson. The legendary tennis star was doing more than alright for himself when he started, sporting flowing locks that were much longer than other players on the tennis court. Then suddenly, in 1995, he shaved it all off – and for the first time reached number one in the world tennis rankings. Maybe it was a coincidence. Or maybe not. Maybe it made him feel freer. Maybe he no longer had any subconscious worries about people speculating about his hair. Maybe he just believed that it helped throw off his opponents. For whatever reason, he reached his peak at the same time he clipped his coif.
Philip Dalhausser, the 2008 Beach Volleyball Olympic gold medalist, shaved his hair off when it started thinning out. Whether it improved his game or not, it gave him a look with which he is more comfortable – and that has to help when he’s out there on the volleyball court.
Head shaving can also be a bonding experience. The papers are filled with stories of teams, from pros like the Boston Red Sox on down to local high school groups, who shaved their heads before a big game in an effort to promote a unified fighting spirit. Indeed, at times it seems like team head-shaving is becoming more and more of an unofficial requirement in high school sports.
That all may change in a few years. Players like Mike Miller of the Grizzlies and Ronny Turiaf of the Lakers (even in cornrows) are sporting a bigger hair look. Will it catch on? Or will sports remain a place where a man can feel good about a shaved head?
Can’t tell for certain, but my money’s on the continued resilience of the bald look. And maybe if it keeps its grip in the sports world, we’ll see continuing greater acceptance of it in the rest of society as well.