Are we really going to heckle a 13 year old diver? or Mo Farah? or will it just be some anonymous Netball player?

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It appears that the Daily Mail believe that Commonwealth Games athletes are ill-prepared and naive. And that spectators are ill-mannered and willing to have their responses manipulated by politicians. Neither is true.

Commonwealth Games athletes spend hours preparing physically, technical, tactically and mentally to perform. Part of that preparation will be anticipating the crowd’s response. The Scottish sporting public is vociferous, but also well-mannered and fair. Politicians who attempt to hijack sport for their own ends usually fail. Margaret Thatcher found this out in 1980, Alex Salmond should remember the back tracking he was forced into when he raised the saltire behind Andy Murray in 2012. Sport does not exist in a political vacuum, but if we can choose, we should keep the two as far apart as possible.

So if we do choose to heckle an English athlete, to be logically consistent we must not discriminate, it must be anyone and everyone. From a 13 year old diver in her first games to Mo Farah, the finest track runner we have ever seen in a GB vest, or Sir Bradley Wiggins, the first British rider to win the Tour de France. It must be anyone in an English vest.

If its not just anti-English rhetoric but about the referendum in general, before opening our mouth we must determine the political stance of every Australian, Canadian, Nigerian etc and make sure that we welcome them too!

There is an easy solution. Just raise the roof for every Scottish athlete. They deserve it – this is their day!

So what can an audience do for performance?

1. Under what circumstances can a crowd get in to an athlete’s head?

Audience effects in sport are difficult to research because studies cannot create the impact of real audiences in the laboratory. As a result we rely on some very old theories to explain the possible effects of audiences on sporting performance.

The first study of audience effects was done in the 1890’s and it showed that the presence of an audience generally made people perform a skill better. This is called social facilitation. Later studies suggested that it was a little more complex. When a Zajonc (1965) and Cottrell (1972) found that when a crowd was seen as evaluative, i.e making a judgement about performance, this leads the performer to experience a feeling of apprehension and threat. This leads to increased physiological arousal, i.e increased heart rate etc. Under these conditions there is a tendency to produce the dominant response. The dominant response should be the best learned and most appropriate. So if a task is well-learned, increased arousal will lead to a better performance. If is not well-learned, performance will be undermined.

Finally getting to the question, the key to understanding if a crowd will ‘get into an athlete’s head’ is determined by the extent to which the athlete perceives a personalised threat. It is not just the team they play for, it is something unambiguously personal to the performer. This is the reason negative posts on social media can be so damaging.

2. Can a crowd affect professional and amateur athletes the same?

The mere presence of an audience has the potential to have an impact on performance. But only if there is a perception on the part of the performer that there is a threat. Amateurs, presumably earlier in the process of learning skills are more likely not to have the correct skill as the dominant one. Therefore will be less resistant to a crowd.

I would expect a professional performer, who has been thorough in their preparation to be affected less by crowds.

3. Is it important to have any kind of energy from the crowd then?

There is a considerable body of evidence (primarily from North American sport) support the idea of home advantage. Several mechanism have been proposed, crowd size and density appear to be important. Impacting not just the home team but also decision making in officials. The other side of the coin is that travel, lack of familiarity and a hostile crowd, make away performers perform less well.

There is a downside however. There is some evidence of home-disadvantage. Where increased perception of threat leads to drop in performance. There is a little research on this suggesting that at critical points in performance, home players are more prone to choking.

4. Are there any less explosive sports where even positive energy can be distracting?

Increased physiological arousal improves explosive whole body skills but tends to undermine fine motor skills. So sports which involve speed and power may be facilitated by increased arousal, whilst those involving accuracy may be undermined. However, it should be noted that most sports involve a mixture, for example, a long jumper may run faster, but this could lead to a loss of accuracy on the take-off board.

Most performers work very hard to determine their ‘ideal’ psychological state and replicate this in training.

5. What techniques can athletes use to stop crowds getting into their head?

Experienced performers who routinely play in a hostile environment recognise that it is a part of the performance experience. They learn that the opposing team’s crowd’s chants and banter are part of the environment. There is nothing they can do to stop it, so they learn to ‘filter’ it out. They also recognise that if they do respond, the chants will probably get louder and the comments more personal.

Less experienced performers may find it more difficult to play in such an environment because their attention is being taken up by things which are not task relevant, i.e the noise, the chants etc. The skill is to develop a ‘filter’ to screen out all the material which is irrelevant, crowd noise etc and just stick with what is relevant. Any performer who is aiming to compete in an environment which is potentially hostile MUST prepare for what they are expecting.

If you are travelling as part of a team, a good way of supporting the less experienced and therefore the more likely to feel threatened performers is to make sure that we move as a team. Groups go onto or off a pitch or court as a unit, not as ones or twos.

In training you can easily recreate crowd noise, but more useful is to simulate things which are targeted and personalised i.e to inoculate the performer against things which are probably worse than they will actually receive. For example, e.g in tennis, have a group of players trying to put you off by commenting about personal characteristics whilst you are serving.

Putting skills under this kind of pressure in training helps develop routines of dealing with distraction in hostile environment. These usually involve attention to task relevant cues, cue words and relaxation.

Some, very confident performers and teams like to provoke a crowd and feel that it benefits their performance. This is a risky strategy, as if they fail, there will be even more hostility coming their way.

6. Is routine important before the event?

Routine is a very important part of preparation for performance. Many performers will use music as part of the warm-up routine and will not hear crowd noise because they have their MP3 players on.
They have tried and tested methods of preparation, which start hours, possibly days before the competition. If they are well prepared, they will have a comprehensive plan a – of physical warm –up, technical warm-up and mental warm-up, and also a plan b – where they will have been through a whole series of ‘what – ifs?’ Expecting the unexpected is part of comprehensive prep.

Tying all this together for the Commonwealth Games context.

The origin of this story being athletes seeking support in anticipation of a hostile environment. My advice would be;

  • Switch off all social media.
  •  If you do experience hostility recognise that it is pantomime – it’s not about you, don’t allow it to become personal, because it isn’t.
  •  In the last few training sessions do some simulations of hostile crowds. Practice your response. If your do feel threatened practice using the increased energy to enhance performance.
  •  Keep to your routine – it is tried and tested.
  • Mentally rehearse positively responding to chants or comments, either by ignoring them or smiling and letting them go.
  •  You have performed in hostile environments before – do what worked; keep your MP3 on, stick close to team mates and coaches, maintain a performance focus.
  • Remember the best response is to win

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