Psychology, Olympics, Performance, Sports Psychology

Psychology, Olympics

What Psychological Impact Does A 'No-Crowds Olympics' Have On Athletes?

Has the lack of crowd noise helped or hindered athletes? It's complicated, sports psychologists say.

7/30/2021 10:24:00 PM

Has the lack of crowd noise helped or hindered athletes? It's complicated, sports psychologists say.

Has the lack of crowd noise helped or hindered athletes? It's complicated, sports psychologists say.

“It’s been really stressful this Olympic Games,”after dropping out of the women’s gymnastics team event on Tuesday. “Just as a whole, not having an audience. There are a lot of different variables going into it.”It’s not just the noise that Olympians are missing out on;

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that the visual cues and encouragement that a crowd provides have a statistically significant impact on an athlete’s ability to generate force.AdvertisementCHRISTOPHE SIMON via Getty ImagesU.S. swimmer and Olympic gold medalist Ryan Lochte probably benefited from fans holding giant placards of his face during the 2012 London Games.

Those visual cues are especially important at an international competition where you’re far from home and need some sign (literally) that you’re the greatest, Sabiston said.That ― and the fact thatnot even family members were allowedto travel to Tokyo ― may have a noticeable impact on performance, said James Houle, the lead sport psychologist for Ohio State University Athletics.

“These athletes train their entire life for this competition and then can’t have family present with them? That’s going to take a toll,” he said.Of course, for athletes who actually prefer the stillness and quiet of practice, the expectations and fanfare of performance day can be a stressor. They might benefit from the current circumstances.

Shane Wiskus, a Team USA men’s gymnastics competitor, recently said he found it comforting to perform in the fanless Ariake Gymnastics Center: It felt“a little more homey,” like “another day at the gym,”he said of his Tokyo experience.“For athletes like Wiskus, there can be something grounding about the competition feeling like another training,” said Mark P. Otten, a psychology professor at California State University, Northridge, whose research focuses on sports performance. “It might help to ease the nerves and facilitate a less pressured atmosphere.”

Jamie Squire via Getty ImagesShane Wiskus of Team USA, who said he doesn't mind the crowdless factor, competes on rings during men's qualification at the 2020 Olympic Games at Ariake Gymnastics Center.The impact of crowd noise depends on the sport.

Naturally, the consequences of silence in the stands will depend on the sport. For activities that require focus and fine motor control, crowd noise can be an obvious distraction, Walker said.“Think about aiming an air rifle at a target, or preparing for a free throw in basketball ― concentrating on the mechanics of the task, stilling your body and ignoring the crowd (be it cheering or jeering) is crucial,” he said.

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“Athletes in those sports train long and hard to be able to shut out the noise,” he explained. “The lack of crowds make that task somewhat easier, so we may even see better performances with empty arenas.”AdvertisementOn the other hand, sports that require concentration but also bulk energy and large motor movements ― think swimming or weight lifting ― require considerably less quiet.

“In those cases, the uplifting and motivational effects of a cheering audience likely play a larger role,” Walker said. “We often see athletes reach personal bests at competitions, partly because they are pushed by the fans to leave it all on the track or field or court. A quiet stadium or pool will require the athletes to dig deeper in a more independent way.”

Walker thinks it’s interesting to consider sports that have both kinds of situations.“Basketball has both the stillness of the free throw and the all-out dash down the court; winter biathlon has the precision of the shooting portions and the endurance of the skiing; tennis and swimming have quiet starts next to rallies and sprints,” he said.

JAVIER SORIANO via Getty ImagesWith almost no audience to cheer them on, France's Laetitia Guapo, left, fights for the ball with Team USA's Jacquelyn Young, center, during the women's semifinal 3x3 basketball match on July 28, 2021.In these cases it will come down to the individual athlete, he said. In the heat of the moment, we’ll see both improvements and disappointments in performance.

One across-the-board positive of not having crowds in the stands, according to the professor? Better communication among individual athletes and their coaches and other competitors, and among players in a team sport who need to be able to coordinate actions with their teammates.

“You are likely to see more coordinated and perhaps sophisticated plays if the players can speak more directly to each other,” he said.Could no crowds lead to the most impartial Olympics ever?The sound of silence might have a positive impact on referees and judges, too: It might foster more objectivity in their calls.

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