In this blog series, our sport psychologists explore the impact that playing behind closed doors during the Coronavirus pandemic may have on players and referees.
With the current discussion in football on matches possibly returning behind closed doors or potentially the entire season staying behind closed doors, we thought we’d take a look at the psychology of playing without any crowds. How would having no fans spectating affect the game?
Does the crowd make a difference?
The perfect distraction
It turns out that performing in front of a crowd can be a great distraction to fatigue. Focusing on the crowd instead of their pain or exhaustion has been demonstrated to be an effective strategy to help athletes when they are tiring and about to 'hit the wall'. So, it might be that if football continues behind closed doors the support of their teammates and other crew members could be more crucial than ever.
More attacking, more effort
A study by the Times found that home teams score more goals than the away team (about 37% more). This is because the crowd expects them to go out and attack and, a lot of the time, they do.
Research also suggests that regular encouragement (which a crowd tends to provide… especially at the start or when things are going well) can help motivate athletes to put in more effort. In fact, the study found that effort levels increased up to 7%, which in a game where small differences can make the biggest difference, is huge!
Singing on the terraces
When fans verbally encourage players for the effort they are putting in, it can also increase the players’ intrinsic motivation. A word of warning here though is that the nature of encouragement matters. For example, if the focus is on an outcome, then players can feel more pressure and therefore experience an increase in anxiety and stress.
Quicker, faster stronger
Some of the best crowds are visually impressive too. It turns out that visual representations of encouragement can be used to create an atmosphere that influences athletes both physically and psychologically. It has actually been found to help boost the physical strength of athletes by up to 8%.
The other effects of playing behind closed doors
We also thought we’d look at other psychological effects that can influence players, and how playing behind closed doors might influence them too:
Evidence suggests that a team that celebrates together, wins together, which has been explained in a theory called emotional contagion. Emotional contagion states that an individual has the ability to, consciously or unconsciously, impact the people around them through verbal and non-verbal cues. Thus, without fans, there could be less celebrations and less positivity.
The spotlight effect is the phenomenon in which people tend to believe that they are being noticed more than they really are. Therefore, it might be that without fans in the grounds, players could be less susceptible to this effect and it could help them to better focus on the right thing at the right time.
The opposite of this though is the audience effect, also known as social facilitation. This is when people perform better in front of an audience. Some interesting research found that when people are being watched, parts of their brain associated with motor skills were more active which improved their performance at a variety of skilled tasks. In football terms, players can feed off fans… think Zlatan!
Fear of failure
It’s not normally failure itself that people fear, but the perceived negative consequences of it. Overall, this can lead to athletes developing a fear of failure, especially when playing in front of fans. So, for these players, not playing in front of fans might actually help them to relax and possibly play better.
The cocktail party effect
There are often suggestions that because there will be less sound, footballers will be able to communicate better. Now, whilst this might help, footballers are actually incredibly good at filtering out the irrelevant noise anyway, and in fact so is everyone! The cocktail party effect describes the brain’s ability to focus on particular sounds or voices and filter out other unhelpful ones. Therefore, whilst having no fans might make listening easier, it’s something that we are naturally skilled in regardless.
It’s important to note that whatever decision is made will be what is best for public health and safety, and therefore, we should support it. However, it’s clear that playing behind closed doors, without a crowd could have some interesting effects on players, both positive and negative. But, we’re sure that most fans will agree that whatever way football comes back, at least its back!
Read part 2 of this blog series here.