The COVID-19 pandemic caused immeasurable loss and destruction spanning across the world and affecting many aspects of life. Among the deprivation, the lack of an audience in sports events contributed to minimal pain in comparison with other devastations, but it still had a notable influence on athletes. Without supporters to cheer on athletes during performances, did athletes perform worse or better? While not having large amounts of people staring at you can ease some pressure and stress, the absence of the once-accustomed presence can make competing feel less exciting. Without the smiling faces and loud voices, will the adrenaline rush be less prevalent and have a negative impact on performance? A closer look into these interesting perspectives offer surprising results. Studies suggest that several factors must be considered to generate a conclusion, if there is one, and gender may play an important role in the differences in response to the lack of an audience.
For instance, the Opening Ceremony of the Tokyo Summer Olympics 2020 that had been postponed to 2021 gave a glimpse into the mood empty stands creates. Without the gathering of thousands of people from around the world sharing their appreciation through their voices and faces, the grand introduction begins to feel more serious rather than celebratory. However, the surrounding quietness and stillness may benefit some sports that require intense concentration and precision, such as archery. But with the majority of sports in the Olympics being more team-based, speed-related, and high-energy, the calmness may make competing feel more dull. Social facilitation theory suggests that the mere presence of an audience improves the performance of simple tasks, especially those that require stamina. Although athletes are trained to compete under all circumstances, environment does play a key factor in performance. Without cues from vocal spectators (claps, cheers, and even boos) athletes must rely on their team members and coaches to find that energy and motivation to push themselves. As always, but more than ever this year, they must find resilience and perseverance within themselves. For athletes, their incentives to succeed are not only for fans, but for their country, family, and payoff for years of strenuous training.
For elite athletes the lack of an audience may have a lesser impact than for less accomplished athletes. As the consistently top-ranking athletes prove to do well under these circumstances, other athletes may need that extra level of excitement to reach a new best. At this high-level, athletes may be skilled at compartmentalizing, especially in track and field and gymnastics, where you may be competing simultaneously with others and need to tune out the background to focus on yourself. Since many were also accustomed to training in isolation, the lack of a crowd may not make a huge difference. Still, some coaches encourage athletes to practice visualization and imagine the cheering and loud noise erupting in the arena. The use of cardboard cut-outs or faces of fans in stadiums is one way officials have tried to make the event feel busy and alive without crossing social-distancing guidelines. Just as fans would buy tickets to reserve a seat in a baseball stadium, a fan would pay to have their card-board cut-out placed into a seat.
Furthermore, one study suggests without an audience, men run slower and women faster. According to a new analysis of the 2020 Biathlon, women also performed worse in complex tasks such as shooting while men performed better without an audience. Researchers can only speculate about the results but have added that this may relate to gender-specific stereotypes. For instance, it is often assumed men are physically stronger than women. This theory may be reinforced by an audience, therefore increasing performance. This story also included that another stereotype may be that women react with more sensitivity to feedback than men. Regardless, these studies indicate that gender should be taken into account in psychological studies of the effects of no audience. Through these examples, it is clear athletes’ performance is affected by a missing audience.
Whether the absence of people watching has had a positive influence or negative consequence, it is important to consider these conditions when thinking about how to support athletes. It is important that we try to understand their challenges during this temporary irregularity to make it through this difficult time.
Martin-Luther-Universität Halle-Wittenberg. “Sports: Men and women react
differently to a missing audience.” ScienceDaily, 22 June 2021,
www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2021/06/210622123303.htm. Accessed 26 July
Park, Alice. “How Will Empty Stands Affect Olympic Athletes in Tokyo.” Time, 24