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Opinion: Can a crowd really affect how athletes play?

Student section fans | Photo by Christian Peters | The Wright State Guardian

In the world of sports, it’s widely accepted that a crowd can at least have some kind of effect on how a game will go. From getting in the heads of opposing players to helping shift the pace of a game, a crowd is more than just a group of people watching players from a distance. 

When several thousand strong, it feels like a friendly home crowd can rally a team to a win, with the idea of a “home-field advantage” accepted as fact for nearly every sport.

As early as 1977, psychologists Barry Schwartz and Stephen Barsky have found that a crowd has a much bigger impact on a sporting event than first meets the eye.

According to their study of the home field advantage, being tired from traveling or playing in an unfamiliar environment has basically no effect on how a game goes; it is only the support from the crowd that makes a difference.

“Home advantage is almost totally independent of visitor fatigue and lack of familiarity with the home playing area,” the article reads. “It is mainly attributable to the social support of the home audience.”

The impact of home games

If a crowd is the biggest factor of a home-field advantage, how much of an effect does a home-field advantage have in a game?

According to a 2016 study by Haroldo V. Ribeiro, Satyam Mukherjee and Xiao Han T. Zeng, the impact of home-field advantage is obvious.

In their sample of all NBA games from 2002-2014, teams won about 20% more when playing at home versus playing away and scored an average of over six points more in home games than away games.

“We observe that teams playing home win about 60% of the matches, 10% more than would be expected by chance,” the study reads. “We (naturally) observe that teams playing home have greater final scores than those playing away.”

Six points more per game in basketball is two whole possessions, which is huge. Just those six points change a 50-50 home-away winning percentage to 60-40 throughout 12 full years of NBA play.

Social facilitation

In order to see how a crowd actually affects an athlete during a game, it’s important to discuss social facilitation, or how performance is affected while in the presence of others.

The two ideas around social facilitation are that it can both interfere with the performance by taking attention away from a task or induce a person to put more effort towards a task and perform at a higher level.

In a 2002 study by Psychologist Liad Uziel, he found that “when observed, individuals experience increased energy and enthusiasm, or alternatively, increased levels of apprehension or anxiety.”

This comes into play when looking at something like a free-throw in basketball. When a hostile crowd yells at an opposing player shooting a free throw, it can distract the player and take focus away from the task.

However, social facilitation can also affect an athlete at every part of a game, allowing a friendly crowd to boost the effort of a player with cheers and chants while taking focus away from an opposing player.

Noah Kindig

Sports Reporter