How Lack of Fans is Changing the Psychology of Sports : Short Wave Professional sports are back - but it's anything but normal. The most obvious difference is the glaring absence of fans in the stands. This has led to some creative experimentation with recordings of crowd noise being piped into venues. We talk to a sports psychology researcher about the effects that empty bleachers and lack of real crowd noise are having on players, coaches, referees and fans.

How The Lack of Fans Is Changing the Psychology of Sports

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MADDIE SOFIA, HOST:

You're listening to SHORT WAVE...

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SOFIA: ...From NPR.

Professional sports are back and trying to adjust to the pandemic, from the NBA Disney bubble with all teams quarantining together in Florida to Major League Baseball's more lax approach - you know, no spitting allowed anymore, but teams are still traveling. And there have been problems.

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DON LEMON: Eleven players, two coaches on the Miami Marlins tested positive for the virus.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: More people from the Phillies organization tested positive for coronavirus.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: ...Announced that two Cardinals players tested positive for COVID-19.

SOFIA: And then, of course, there's the glaring absence of fans in the stands, which hasn't stopped some leagues from trying to conjure up the sound and the feeling of a real-life crowd. For instance, if you caught a Major League Baseball game in the last few weeks, it's a disorienting experience.

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UNIDENTIFIED SPORTS COMMENTATOR: This game goes to the second.

SOFIA: As the camera pans across the stadium, there are rows and rows of empty seats even though there's the sound of fans.

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SOFIA: Fans cheering.

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UNIDENTIFIED SPORTS COMMENTATOR: ...Relationship with him back to his early days.

SOFIA: Fans being bored.

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SOFIA: Fans clapping.

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UNIDENTIFIED SPORTS COMMENTATOR: Hits it deep to right - and gone.

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UNIDENTIFIED SPORTS COMMENTATOR: Seager's first home run of the season.

CATHERINE SABISTON: And listening to it, it just feels fake. It's really obvious that the crowd noise is not instilling a sense of normalcy amongst the athletes.

SOFIA: Catherine Sabiston is the Canada Research Chair in Physical Activity and Mental Health at the University of Toronto. And as a sports psychology researcher, she knows exactly how important those fans are to the game.

SABISTON: We know that athletes who are more anxious may perform worse in front of crowds. But then we also know athletes who may really thrive on that noise and perform at their best.

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SOFIA: So today on the show, how the lack of real-life fans is changing the psychology of professional sports games and whether piped-in crowd noise can measure up. You're listening to SHORT WAVE, the daily science podcast from NPR.

It's a risky person to be the audio producer that decides to add a boo.

SABISTON: Yeah, exactly.

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SOFIA: So, Catherine, obviously, one of the most noticeable differences is the lack of real fans in the stands. And I have to imagine that has to feel, like, so strange for the players and the referees. Just, you know, from watching the NBA, the vibe does feel very different right now. So tell me what we know from a sports psychology research perspective about the impact that crowd noise can have on the game.

SABISTON: So crowd noise has multiple, you know, influences. It influences, No. 1, the athletes, you know, in terms of that sense of feeling like they're performing in front of others, you know, a sense of real expectation for success and motivation and confidence and positive emotions. And then, you know, for the coaches, the coaches are really driven by that fan noise and use, you know, the connotations around the fans, this unknown that the fans might produce in their training, you know, strategies and their skills and drills that they do.

And then for the referees that are often involved in the play and make big game decisions, the referees tend to be the ones that are most affected by the crowd in terms of, you know, what we call a home-field advantage. And so it's suggested that the referees are, you know, really acting on the level of the crowd noise and the extent to which the crowd is, you know, sort of supportive or not of the plays and of what's going on on the field or the court.

For example, there's some published work on the fans being banned from Italy's top soccer league back in 2007. And Pettersson-Lidbom and Priks have talked about the idea that not having the fans in the stands really did have an influence on the referee. It reduced the bias that the referees had by not having the fans in the stands.

SOFIA: Yeah. I mean, Catherine, how do you think that this could potentially affect the players in the games with no real fans booing at fouls or, you know, missed shots? Like, is it possible that players might choke less? You know what I mean? I mean, I'm thinking of a foul shot situation here - or will be less motivated? What do you think?

SABISTON: Yeah. You know, it really is a number of factors. So because athletes have, you know, their own individual zones that they perform at their best in, an athlete who really, really needs that crowd noise and that experience of that energy to perform may certainly have less energy and less drive to be able to play at their best.

The early sort of evidence is showing that in the games, across all sports, that the play is sort of less fancy. There's more passes. There's less individuals that are sort of taking on their own, you know, strategy to dunk the ball or to shoot.

SOFIA: Really?

SABISTON: And then we also see that this protected bubble of an environment we may find is more conducive to some of these athletes who would otherwise be, you know, quite affected by the uncertainty of the crowd noise and the fans, you know, being present.

SOFIA: Yeah. So what do you think about these attempts to mimic crowd noise, like what Major League Baseball is doing, piping, you know, crowd sounds into stadiums and trying to kind of sync the sounds up with what's happening in the game? Like, do you think that piped-in crowd noise can have the same effect as, you know, like an in-real-life crowd making noise, or is it just different because there aren't actually people in the stands making those noises? Do you know what I'm saying?

SABISTON: You know, the crowd noise itself is not - statistically speaking, is not the factor that influences the, you know, the outcome of any one game. But what it is is the perception that that crowd noise is tied to a supportive fan base or, you know, the opponent's team, where, you know...

SOFIA: Yeah.

SABISTON: ...You go out and you really want to win in front of an opposing team's fans. And so now, when we have crowd noises being played, it's sort of just this background noise. It's not a motivational noise. But it might be valuable to have some background noise because the players are also talking about how odd it is to basically hear each other's shoes on the court.

SOFIA: Yeah.

SABISTON: You can hear each other's breathing. And just the noises that are normally muffled by the crowd noise are now right there on the playing surface. And so some level of crowd noise might be valuable just for background noise. But overall, without the, again, the physical presence of the fans, it really isn't going to be an effective strategy to help players feel like the game is more, you know, quote-unquote, "normal."

SOFIA: Right. I mean, and then, you know, there's the pandemic itself - right, Catherine? - I mean, as well as, you know, a lot of these players are Black. Many are social justice advocates themselves. Like, I can't imagine what it's like to perform with that much on you in a very public lens. You know what I mean?

SABISTON: Exactly. The tip of the iceberg is them playing on the field or on the court or, you know, on the ice. But the reality is that the bottom of that iceberg is their life that they're managing and, you know, the worries tied to COVID as well as, you know, their priorities that are tied to their advocacy around social justice. So those, you know, sort of social and mental and emotional factors are also coming at play and influencing, for sure, the way that the athletes are playing and concentrating and, you know, the attention that they have for the variety of things that are going on in the world.

SOFIA: Right, right. OK, Catherine, so we have talked a lot about the negative impacts of these new conditions. And I'm wondering from an - on a personal level if there's any part of the new reality of sports that you're actually enjoying. Like, I personally really enjoy getting to hear high-fidelity trash talk that would normally be covered up by crowd noise. You know what I'm saying?

SABISTON: It is true. You know, and I think the, you know, the focus of the sport itself allows you to really highlight the actual sport. So it doesn't feel like an experience anymore; it feels like you're honing in on the sport itself. And there are certain positives that come from it in terms of, you know, I'm smiling just talking - thinking about it because the players feel real. You know, the ways in which we're seeing them on the - their playing surfaces is certainly something that you tend to sort of see, but not always. You know, it's always part of the game but not a main focus. And so you feel quite connected to these players now because, you know, they really are the focus of the sport without everything else that goes into the usual sport experience.

And, you know, I would say that's certainly a benefit, in addition to, you know, just so many fans who are so excited to just have the sport back, you know, in whatever way it looks, just to be able to have something to focus on and, you know, something to get behind and, you know, advocate for their teams. And so there is some of that, you know, fandom that isn't lost.

SOFIA: Yeah. Yeah. All right, Catherine, thank you so much for talking sports and science with me. I appreciate you.

SABISTON: No problem. Thank you.

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SOFIA: This episode was produced by Yowei Shaw, fact-checked by Brit Hanson and edited by Deborah George. I'm Maddie Sofia. Back tomorrow with more SHORT WAVE from NPR.

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