It’s fourth down with only two seconds on the clock. The score is tied. Having the home-field advantage, the quarterback gets motivated by a cheering crowd. After a 40-yard rush down the field, the quarterback makes a touchdown to clinch the championship game!
You could insert just about any athlete’s name to this type of scenario and demonstrate how moral support from an exhilarated crowd plays a role in successful sporting outcomes. It can also break a player if the jeering crowd adds to the pressure of the performance.
So, what happens when the crowd is gone? Most sporting events will now have empty bleachers, no hotdogs, no announcers, or no chanting to a favorite tune. During the COVID-19 pandemic, games will still be played, but without crowds. That creates a whole new ballgame, according to California sports psychologist Ethan Bregman, Ph.D. “This is a shift that is fairly unprecedented. Various sports and individual athletes have different relationships to fans and spectators so the impact may look different for each,” said Bregman.
For athletes, sports can be a mind game. Without all the cheering and jeering, their motivation to perform successfully could either be impaired or gratified. “Athletes may be used to having spectators so, the quiet during play can possibly have a disconcerting effect. Every athlete has different ways of tapping into their motivation. It will be interesting to see the impact on performance over time,” said Bregman.
With games broadcast from an empty stadium, sports fans might get a different perspective on what really happens on the field and the emotions involved. Without the crowd noise, spectators watching from home will be able to hear what players, coaches, and officials are saying. Yikes! Let’s hope the technical director has a finger ready to hit the mute button.
Speaking of flying emotions, parents are expressing anger that some sporting events for their kids are either closed to spectators or are getting canceled altogether. Some organizations have also banned parents from attending practices. This could have either a positive or negative effect, depending on the kid, according to Bregman. “Impact on kids will depend on how their parents support them as athletes. One kid may find relief in the absence of the crazy or overbearing parent; for another, parents are a big source of support and confidence,.”
There are benefits when children participate in sports, including decreasing the risk of obesity, increasing cardiovascular fitness, and boosting self-esteem. For high school athletes, Bregman says the presence of friends and spectators, along with celebratory games and traditions like homecoming, are factors that affect their motivation to play. Performing on an empty field is likely to dampen their spirits. Bregman also says parents stand to lose their sense of pride and joy without being able to watch and support their teens.
Because fandom and togetherness are a cultural staple in our communities, Bregman says sports, at least for the near future, will require an adjustment for everyone. “Sports brings people together with a common focus,” he said. “Fans fill stadiums and spend weekends together in front of the TV. How we relate to our sports will change to more electronic participation, so who knows how this will play out?” said Bregman.
If you wish to seek therapy from a licensed professional to address struggles on or off the field, you can check to see if they have a valid license by contacting the California Board of Behavioral Sciences at bbs.ca.gov or the California Board of Psychology at psychology.ca.gov.