HOW SPECTATORS AFFECT ATHLETE PERFORMANCE
The purpose of this paper is to review the literature on how spectators influence the performance of athletes – a phenomenon commonly referred to as “social facilitation” with respect to athletic performance. In this regard, it is important to note that as pointed out by Gill (1986), social facilitation (sometimes referred to as audience effects) research consists of studies where spectators simply observe the behavior and make no comments or overt evaluations and studies where spectators react to what they see. In addition, there are studies that include effects limited to those generated by the spectators and there are studies where effects are examined as interactions of player variables with the audience. This research examines each of these categories. In addition, the major social facilitation theories are explicated and discussed.
Passive Observation of Spectators research
Over the years, several studies have examined how performance (both athletic performance and other kinds of performance) is influenced by the presence of an audience (Calish, 1954; Cratty, 1981; Singer, 1970). The findings of these studies, according to Cratty (1983), may be summarized as follows:
1. When tasks to be performed are simple, performance is improved by the presence of an audience; however, as the task becomes more complex, an audience can disrupt performance. These effects can grow in intensity (in both the positive and the negative directions) if the athlete views onlookers as hostile or somehow threatening.
2. The presence of an audience almost always decreases the performance of a skill yet to be mastered; however, once the skill is mastered, audience effects can enhance performance to its peak.
3. In terms of athletic performance per se, it is possible that there are forces motivating enhanced performance (the athlete has strong mastery of his skills) while at the same time there are forces motivating debilitated performance (the athlete views the audience as in some way hostile). When this occurs, the form and the intensity of the performance becomes the average of the two forces’ respective pressure exerted upon the athlete.
The foregoing findings must be considered within the context of athletics or sports. First, in this regard, not all spectators are passive observers; and second, as noted even in the passive observers research, the athlete’s perceptions and feelings about the spectators cannot be removed from the factors which mediate performance. Indeed, the athlete’s feelings about the spectators are so important a contributor to performance that they are characterized as “evaluation potential” which is the athletes’ perceptions of how the spectators feel about him or her and/or the athletes’ perceptions of how the spectators will feel about him or her subsequent to the performance he is about to give. In the next section of this review, research on athletic performance and audience effects in relation to the reactions of spectators and the reactions of athletes to spectators is reviewed.
Non-Passive Observation of Spectators research
According to Foot (1973), athletic performance is strongly modified by evaluation potential and in general may be viewed as the summation of those factors which shape this perception of the athlete. In other words, the athlete performs at a level which is the average of the many factors that contribute to his/her perception of spectator reaction.
With respect to the foregoing, Foot (1973) has provided a list of factors which input to evaluation potential. These factors are:
1. The audience’s reaction dimensions to the performance (positive and enthusiastic acceptance; positive acceptance only; passive or neutral reaction; variable reaction; negative reaction).
2. The timing of the audience’s reaction (immediately following performance such as in the case of the fans whooping or booing; or postponed to some time later such as in the case of a broadcaster making comments either after a commercial or at the end of the game).
3. The timing of the athlete’s evaluation of the audience’s reaction (whether the evaluation is made immediately or is, for some reason, postponed).
4. The degree to which the athlete believes that the audience is competent to judge his/her performance (incompetent; competence unknown; moderately competent).
5. The degree to which the athlete likes the spectators (dislikes, considers them important; does not know whether likes or dislikes).
6. The athlete’s ability to evaluate the spectators reactions.
Another athlete variable which can influence performance has been discussed by Pavio (1964). This variable is the kind of audience which parents and relatives and close family friends provided for the athlete while he/she was growing up and acquiring and practicing those skills which lead to athletic success or excellence.
With respect to the foregoing, Pavio has pointed out that when this childhood audience (particularly the mother) was such that successes were ignored and failures punished, it makes for an athlete who is extremely anxious in front of an audience. This finding is quite important because as has been pointed out by Cratty (1981), anxiety on the part of an athlete can lead to debilitated performance. However, in this regard, work by Martens (1969) suggests that anxiety can be reduced by “over-learning” a task. In other words, if athletes high in anxiety practice and re-practice their skills beyond even that normally required of them, the likelihood is strong that their anxiety will be reduced.
So far this discussion of research findings in relation to how spectators affect athletic performance has been limited to a delineation of scattered findings in a few categories of order. However, these findings have been compiled into a variety of coherent theories of social facilitation. Major theories are explicated and discussed in the next section of the review.
Theories of Audience Effects
Zajonc, Heingartner and Herman (1969) first postulated what has become known as the “arousal – activation” model of audience effects. According to this model, performance is enhanced by the presence of an audience for motor responses that have been well learned; however, when tasks are not well learned, performance is disrupted. These effects are such because the presence of an audience leads to a certain arousal level in the athlete and arousal tends to facilitate what is relatively simple (motor responses) and relatively well learned but to debilitate what is complex and not well learned.
A second theory of audience effects has been proposed by Cottrell (1968). This theory actually subsumes Zajonc, Heingartner and Herman’s views in that it postulates arousal mechanisms but includes in the model both social learning mechanism and performers’ perceptions of outcomes as dependent upon the presence of an audience.
Specifically, Cottrell’s model holds that an audience can either increase or decrease arousal of an athlete and that the direction it takes is dependent upon such factors as: (1) the social learning mechanisms present in the athlete’s developmental acquisition of his/her skills; (2) the nature of the performance tasks (simple or complex); and (3) the athlete’s perception of the audience as critical or non-critical of performance.
If the above factors result in a lowering of the athlete’s arousal level, then performance will be decreased for simple tasks but increased for complex tasks or tasks that are not quite mastered. The reverse will be true if these factors increase arousal levels, that is, performance for simple tasks will be increased but it will be decreased for complex tasks or tasks that are not quite mastered.
While Cottrell’s theory seems more embracive of the research findings than the arousal – activation theory and according to Gill (1986) is more supported, there is one fact that must be stressed here. This is that neither theory is completely adequate to explain all of the factors that contribute to athletic performance in terms of the reaction of onlookers. The factors not stressed by either theory but which appear to also contribute to performance have been delineated by Gill (1986). These are:
1. The reaction of the coach to the athlete’s performance; in this regard, it will be noted that the coach is indeed part of the audience.
2. The reaction of teammates – also part of the audience to the athlete’s performance.
3. How the athlete feels about the coach and his/her teammates (does he/she like them or dislike them; does he/she feel that they are competent judges or moderately incompetent judges).
4. The variability of the reactions of the coach and teammates over time (during the course of a game or the course of several games).
5. The degree of discrepancy between how the fans react to the athlete’s performance and how the coach and the teammates react to the performance.
6. The proximity of reacting spectators; fans close to the field of play are likely to have their reactions registered by the athlete than are fans far from the field of play.
7. The general levels and persistence of crowd noise which can disrupt concentration.
An additional factor not mentioned in theoretical speculations about audience effects and the performance of athletes is the effect exerted by the home audience. In this regard, Gill (1986) has noted that studies have supported an advantage effect for offensive plays such as hits, shot points, and goals. However, studies have not supported any advantage for defensive plays such as saves or fouls or errors.
Moreover, Gill reports that there can be a distinct disadvantage in terms of the home audience’s effects on the self-conscious player; in other words, the self-conscious player is likely to experience debilitated performance when he plays for the home audience. This disadvantage effect is thought to occur because the reactions of this audience – more than any other audience – are most likely to direct attention away from the externalities of performance and toward the in internal processes of the player; this occurs because players care more about what the home fans think of them personally, than what other fans think of them.
Cratty (1981) addresses yet another factor influencing the performance of athletes in relation to audience effects; he terms this factor “cross sex effects” or the effects observed regarding the sex of the performers vs. the sex of the observer. In particular, he notes that for both sexes, female observers appear to enhance performance more than male observers. Unfortunately, however, Cratty (1981) makes the point that most studies of cross sex effects were conducted under laboratory conditions using a single observer. Thus, it cannot be known as to how well findings may generalize to actual sports performance in the field.
This paper examined the research on the social facilitation of athletic performance – a phenomenon sometimes referred to as audience effects. In this regard, several areas of the existing research were reviewed. These areas included studies where spectators were either passive or non-passive reactors to athletes’ performances. Also examined were studies concerned with the interaction of athletes’ perceptions and other characteristics with the influence exerted by an audience.
In addition to the foregoing studies, the paper also explicated and discussed two of the major theories of social facilitation: (1) the arousal – activation theory; and (2) the social learning theory of Cottrell. In this regard, it was pointed out that the latter theory is most probably the preferred theory because it subsumes the first theory, incorporates more research findings into its explanation and has more support than the first theory.
With respect to the theories reviewed, it was also pointed out that neither model may be considered to incorporate all of the findings concerning how onlookers affect athletic performance. To illustrate this point, several factors related to onlookers which were not addressed by either of the theories reviewed were delineated.