Does Cheering Lead to Champions or Chokers?

Of course, you cheer with the best of intentions. You think that they are brilliant and are capable of sweeping all before them to get that gold medal. They deserve it – you’ve seen their ‘A’ game and you know they’ve got what it takes. But what kind of influence do you exert as a live audience?

Social facilitation is the idea that the mere fact that others are around influences how you might perform athletically. One idea is that being watched increases arousal, which increases the likelihood, that the watched person’s dominant response will be reproduced. If the action to be performed is simple or well learned, then this is the dominant response, and performance is likely to get better when they are watched. However, if the task is new, complex, or not adequately learned, then the dominant response is probably sub-optimal, and this is the response that will occur more frequently when being watched. So, training isn’t just about physical conditioning. It’s about ensuring that more likely than not, you’re a reproducing the right class of performance, over-learning the sequence of movements and muscle firing, and thereby increasing the likelihood that this is the dominant response on the day of competition, when lots of people will be watching.

There are other explanations too. Perhaps audiences have an effect on how officials perform, especially where performance is based on the judgement of those officials rather than some objective indicator, like gymnastics for example. Or close line calls, in racquet sports. If officials aren’t used to performing complex tasks while being watched, their dominant response is also in danger of being reproduced.

Vocal home support can help the home athlete, perhaps by making the opposition play badly. It can be very distracting too. But, at times, vocal support can contribute towards choking under pressure, especially when the athlete is on home turf. But this article on the BBC website on whether athletes need to prepare for defeat got me thinking about how home crowds can influence sporting outcomes, and the awareness of those athletes of the sporting crowd.

It seems that a considerable volume of social psychology research and theory tells us that audience support magnifies performance pressure and induces sports people to avoid failure rather than seek success during the most critical moments in competition. Although supportive audiences can help athletes to perform well when they might otherwise struggle to get motivated, the same audience can also lead these athletes to attend too much to what they are doing while they are doing it, and to become over cautious and conservative just when the competitive stakes are at their peak. This increased -‘self-monitoring’ that supportive audiences can trigger tend to disrupt the usual automatic execution of the skills that the athlete possesses. What you may end up with is a stilted stop / start kind of performance, and the athlete’s increasing sense of unease as they become increasingly aware that their performance just isn’t flowing in the right way. This can lead to further self-monitoring and a horrible, self-defeating negative feedback loop, and a lot of frustration which could be acted out too. There’s a reason why ‘Just Do It’ works as a coaching and advertising mantra.

The good news is that well-practiced, accomplished athletes are more used to dealing with audience attention, and should also have had practice on coping with an increase in self-focused attention. However, even the most brilliant and accomplished athlete will feel the pressure under extreme circumstances like competing for a Gold medal in your home Olympics. So, I’ve a lot of time for the idea of increasing athlete’s awareness of how audiences can interact with their own processes to affect their performance. And it may also help us, if we are lucky enough to be members of the audience at the Olypmics or other events, to understand a little more about how we are part of the interaction too.

About The Author 

Dr Sarb Johal is a Londoner who lives in Wellington, New Zealand. As an experienced clinical psychologist, health psychologist and Associate Professor in Disaster Mental Health at Massey University’s Joint Centre for Disaster Research, he spends quite a lot of his time providing advice to the New Zealand Government on aspects of recovery from the Canterbury earthquakes in New Zealand. When not working, Sarb spends much of his time writing and running, though not at the same time. He runs regularly and has completed numerous half-marathons, 4 international marathons and 1 ultra-marathon from 2010-2012. He is a certified Leader in Running Fitness, and is also training to be a Personal Trainer.

You can read more of his thoughts on health, wellbeing and mental fitness at Sarb's Blog: Complete Coach


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