The most crucial problem of sports psychology is the conditions affecting the activity of athletes. One of these conditions is the presence of spectators at the stands and their behavior. The fans create a unique psychological background for the competition. From the perspective of sports psychology, they (even within the bounds of ethical standards) affect the athlete’s condition: either a positive or negative emotional background for the game is formed.
The presence of spectators who support the athletes or the rivals and their attitude to what is happening can significantly impact the performance. The lack of fans in the stands affects athletes’ performance: even though they experience less performance anxiety, they are also devoid of the encouragement that fans normally provide.
Spectators differ from each other in their reactions, and the athlete may or may not be interested in what they think about the performance. However, diverse audiences shape the athlete’s emotions differently, which specifically affects the results (Epting et al., 2011). Fans can be classified depending on their attitude towards the athlete and their explicit reactions, plus the psychological closeness between them and the athlete.
Accordingly, home-field advantage, which implies the presence of viewers, consisting of people whom athlete perceives as significant, usually provide a positive effect on the athlete sports skills; with the COVID-19-related restricting of their presence, this source of inspirations is declared as “effectively gone” (Skrbina, 2020). Accordingly, for team-guest, this factor might somehow level the playing field.
At the same time, the reaction to the absence of fans depends on the athletes’ mental toughness. For some, the empty stands might deteriorate the psychological background as they feel a lack of “social facilitation” (Wharton, 2020). Simultaneously, other players might not be encouraged but rather annoyed, distracted, and discouraged by the public’s reactions. It means that any type of fans can hugely alter the performance of an athlete. There is a distinction between the so-called effect of spectators’ presence and the influence exerted by another person when one is not only present but also performs similar work as the subject whose activity is being evaluated. Typically, the performance of a highly trained subject is disrupted when one is observed rather than when not: the athletes with this issue admit “feeling nervous” because of “all these eyes” that look at them (Wharton, 2020). Consequently, some observers’ presence can increase the subject’s activation and disrupt their activity when they perform complex or newly mastered tasks, but facilitate their well-mastered actions.
Undoubtedly, the resume of the sports championships and leagues that were stopped because of the pandemic has altered the perceptions about fans’ presence at the stands. Their substitution with big screens in some facilities makes the players feel like in the video game that actually serves rather as a distraction then as help. In general, there is no uniform answer whether empty stands impose a positive effect or rather an adverse one, as this depends on the mental state of each separate athlete. Still, it is useful to specifically prepare less experienced athletes for possible changes in their performance regarding the absence of contact with spectators. It might be more comfortable for hockey players to perform passes and shots on goal, but they will feel less power during contact with an opponent, as the motivation that comes from the cheering crowd will not be present.
Epting, L. K., Riggs, K. N., Knowles, J. D., & Hanky, J. J. (2011). Cheers vs. jeers: Effects of audience feedback on individual athletic performance. North American Journal of Psychology, vol.13, no.2, pp. 299-312.
Skrbina, Paul. (2020). “Mind games? How will playing in front of no fans affect professional athletes, should sports return.” Tennessean.
Wharton, David. (2020). “No adrenaline buzz? No more choking? How no fans in the stands affects athletes.” Los Angeles Times.