Fan Free Zone
Updated: Oct 26, 2020
With professional sports plotting their various returns to play, one element that may have a psychological impact on the athletes is that no fans will be in attendance. That’s right, empty seats! No cheering, no jeering, no yelling, no wave, no one to buy the popcorn. While some feel this will help players perform better, there is some evidence to suggest the exact opposite. Let’s dig in!
Playing without a crowd might seem to help certain players. After all, being the social creatures that we are, many athletes struggle with some level of social anxiety, a trepidation around being negatively evaluated by others, which can result in feelings of self-consciousness, embarrassment, or inadequacy. Professional athletes are people! This seems obvious, right? And while many of them have become used to crowds, there are still plenty of pros who struggle with wondering what onlookers will think of them or their craft. So when they miss a shot and hear boos, their internal dialogue consciously or unconsciously begins to go south, leading to negative self-talk and potentially harming the following possessions, the rest of the game, or worse, their lives outside of the game. So, not having a crowd of thousands screaming at them, as would be the case on the road, some players might be more uninhibited and play more freely, lacking that internal distraction to their focus. Again, this seems like a logical conclusion.
Well that may not be what actually takes place at that level. For lack of a better term, not playing with a crowd, whether in a home or road situation, is weird. These athletes have acclimated to playing in front of very large audiences from the time they were in college. Playing with a crowd has become integral to the very fabric of the game for them. The crowd, whether in support of them or against them, actually helps create the atmosphere that they have spent years playing acclimating to. Take that element away, and the constitution of the game has changed dramatically. A quote by Golden State Warriors star Draymond Green may be instructive here, in regards to a game played at Madison Square Garden during which no music was played during the 1st half of the game, as an attempt to try a format that brings back the so-called “essence of the game.” Draymond had this to say about taking away music during play and timeouts:
“That was pathetic. It was ridiculous. It changed the flow of the game. It changed
everything. You get used to playing the game a certain way and to completely
change that?...There was no rhythm to the game. All of that stuff makes a difference
believe it or not. You get rhythm…it definitely threw the entire game off.”
Again, Draymond is referencing a lack of music during the game, not a lack of fans. Perhaps in-game operations will still pump music during game play to keep players in that rhythm. However, there is still this notion that a major factor that has been a part of their profession for years is now completely removed. Not altered, not lessened. Removed entirely. Different players, with different mental make-ups, may handle this very differently.
Other players may experience a sort of ‘insecurity’ that can come from playing without fans. Without fans, there is no ‘white noise’ to drown out some of the curse language that regularly goes on in a professional basketball game. This can lead to players thinking twice about how they’re communicating instead of thinking task-relevant thoughts. Further, there may be a sense of eeriness in this environment of having a large gym with no one there watching, or even more of a casual feel to the games, as though it was a glorified pick-up game. Take away the fans at a live game and you are taking away a sense of the importance of the moment, a sense that the game is actually a sporting event. Many players feed off the fans at a game. If you are the home team, making a great play punctuated by a ferocious dunk provides an opportunity to feel that adoration, that “ooh” and “aah” that many of them might feel fills their ego. This isn’t a negative. Again, we are social beings! It is instinctual to want to look good while playing well, to want to impress others with your craft.
Without the fan element, we might see a reduction in the quality of the product or simply a less intense style of play. As playoff basketball typically brings with it an increased intensity, the crowd is very much a part of that. With the stakes raised, fans become more rabid, louder, and generally more involved in each possession. With that comes an on-court quality of rugged defense, a raised energy level, and the benefit of seeing great athletes rise to these grand occasions. Without the fan element, we might see a significant dip in the level of intensity.
However, I’m here to tell you: all hope is not lost! There are a couple of advantages that can be gleaned from playing without fans. First, and perhaps most significantly, the refs will not be biased towards the designated ‘home’ team. Without any impact of crowd noise on referees there will be a removal of home court advantage, as studies have shown that the most significant result of a home court being advantageous is that referees are ever-so-slightly swayed by not wanting to upset a crowd of thousands. Though the best referees are as impartial as possible, these studies have indicated that foul calls and other violations typically favor the home team over the course of a large sample size.