Cheers vs. Jeers: Effects of Audience Feedback on Individual Athletic Performance

Article excerpt

There are a number of factors that can influence an athlete's performance during a game other than the athlete's skill. Athletes must perform in front of crowds in every game, and crowds express their feelings about athletes' performances by, for instance, cheering (supporting them) or jeering (discouraging them). The presence of such an audience may affect team and individual athlete performance.

Social facilitation has been characterized as the effect of observers on individual performance (Butler & Baumeister, 1998; Zajonc, 1965). In general, research shows the presence of one or more spectators can enhance performance if the skill is easy or well learned, but performance may decrease if the task is difficult or unfamiliar (Cottrell, Wack, Sekerak, & Rittle, 1968; Forgas, Brennan, Howe, Kane, & Sweet, 1980; Strauss, 2002a; Zajonc, 1965). For example, in one of the earliest studies on social facilitation, Travis (1925) found that participants engaged in a pursuit-rotor task performed significantly better (made fewer tracking errors) when they were observed by an audience of four to eight people compared to when they performed alone. Michaels, Blommel, Brocato, Linkous, and Rowe (1982) showed that better pool players improved their performance when they had a small group of spectators, but mediocre players had a decrease in performance when being watched. Taken at face value, then, given that the skills athletes perform during their sport are familiar, well-practiced ones, one might expect positive effects of social facilitation to exist for athletes during sporting games (cf., Carron, Burke, & Prapavessis, 2004).

But of course, audiences for sporting events are not merely present; they do not merely observe the performance of athletes during a game. Rather, they engage in a variety of behaviors that interact with the players for each team in games (Cox, 1985). They may applaud when a receiver catches the football and heads for the end zone. They may heckle the batter on deck for the opposing team. They may offer silence for the player shooting from the foul line if she or he is on their preferred team, or they may rumble loudly trying to distract the shooter if she or he is on the non-preferred team. In simple terms, audiences cheer and jeer. Audience effects, then, may be very different than mere spectator effects. Studies have shown clearly that audiences can impact physiological variables of athletes (e.g., arousal, cardiac performance), as well as cognitive variables such as self-concept and perceptions of performance (e.g., see Jones, Bray, & Lavallee, 2007). However, less is known about how particular audience behaviors, like cheering or jeering, influence athletes' actual performance.

The notion that what audiences do interacts with and has an effect on the performance of athletes ostensibly is substantiated in the home-field advantage literature. Home-field advantage refers to the established finding across several sports that, given a balanced home and away schedule, teams typically win more home games than away games (Courneya & Carron, 1992; McCutcheon, 1984; Nevill & Holder, 1999). Many aspects of the sports situation, such as facility familiarity, relative fatigue, referee bias, and territorial defense effects have been proffered as influential factors in home-field advantage (Moore & Brylinsky, 1993; Salminen, 1993; Schwartz & Barsky, 1977). But researchers, athletes, and fans repeatedly assert that the crowd is a key element. More specifically, it is widely believed that "crowd support," "supportive audience," "home crowd," "home team fans" is one of the aspects that gives the home team the edge (Courneya & Carron, 1992; Schwartz & Barsky, 1977; Tauer, Guenther, & Rozek, 2009).

Presumably, having a supportive and encouraging audience motivates the athletes to perform better. Some studies have investigated whether having an audience present enhances performance, and have found rather surprising results. …