While the fan-less Tokyo Olympics isn’t shaping up to be the “joyless games” some predicted it might be ― look at the irrepressible joy on the faces of fencer Lee Kiefer and swimmer Caeleb Dressel! ― the games have been a little more subdued than usual.
Out of concern for rising COVID-19 cases, spectators were banned from the usually bustling venues and stadiums of the Olympics at the eleventh hour, putting pressure on coaches and teammates to supply even more supportive cheering than usual.
Officials at the games have tried to replicate the roar and exuberance of a real crowd. Ambient crowd sounds customized for each sport are reportedly being piped into the stadiums to add a little atmosphere for the athletes.
That might get some competitors pumped up, but just as many will view it as distracting noise, said Bruce Walker, a professor of psychology and interactive computing who directs the Sonification Lab at the Georgia Institute of Technology.
“Athletes will likely just ignore all the sounds, as best they can,” he told HuffPost.
As sports mental conditioning coach Roger Kirtz sees it ― or hears it, rather ― supplied noise certainly can’t replicate the emotive power of having a crowd cheering on and backing a fan favorite.
“In a crowd-filled stadium, the crowds usually pull for the favorite, which can add extra energy and drive to perform well for the positive nods the athlete receives,” he said.
If anything, a fan-free environment levels the playing field for the lower-seeded or lower-ranked competitors, Kirtz said.
“For instance, in women’s tennis, we saw the 1 and 2 seeds ― Ash Barty and Naomi Osaka ― both lose early,” he said. “No crowds took away nerves from Barty and Osaka’s opponents as well as took away the advantage of crowds’ energy that [Barty and Osaka] normally receive.”
For experts like Kirtz and Walker, this no-crowd Olympics is giving them a rare opportunity to study the effects spectators and fan noise have on players. Empty stadiums have been par for the course with coronavirus shutdowns (such as in the NBA bubble, where teams quarantined together in Florida in 2020), but this is a major first for the Olympics.
It certainly will give sports psychologists a deeper understanding of social facilitation, a social phenomenon wherein a person’s performance changes when others are around. Generally speaking, elite athletes tend to perform better with a crowd than when alone ― but the experts told us that’s not always the case.
Natural-born performers struggle more than lone wolves who love the quiet.
Many athletes are performers at heart, so competing without cues from an audience willing them to go that extra mile could pose some challenges, said Catherine Sabiston, a sports psychology researcher at the University of Toronto and a Canada research chair in physical activity and mental health.
“For these types, crowds usually provide them with a sense of motivation and a sense of purpose,” she said.
“I feed from the energy from the crowd, negative or positive,” Djokovic said upon arriving in Tokyo to represent Serbia in the Games. “It’s one of the biggest reasons I keep playing.”
How’s he faring at the quiet Olympics? On Friday, Djokovic lost to Alexander Zverev of Germany in the semifinals, ending his bid for a Golden Slam — wins in the four Grand Slam tournaments and Olympic gold in singles the same year.
“It’s been really stressful this Olympic Games,” Biles told The Washington Post after dropping out of the women’s gymnastics team event on Tuesday. “Just as a whole, not having an audience. There are a lot of different variables going into it.”
It’s not just the noise that Olympians are missing out on; research shows that the visual cues and encouragement that a crowd provides have a statistically significant impact on an athlete’s ability to generate force.
Those visual cues are especially important at an international competition where you’re far from home and need some sign (literally) that you’re the greatest, Sabiston said.
That ― and the fact that not even family members were allowed to travel to Tokyo ― may have a noticeable impact on performance, said James Houle, the lead sport psychologist for Ohio State University Athletics.
“These athletes train their entire life for this competition and then can’t have family present with them? That’s going to take a toll,” he said.
Of course, for athletes who actually prefer the stillness and quiet of practice, the expectations and fanfare of performance day can be a stressor. They might benefit from the current circumstances.
Shane Wiskus, a Team USA men’s gymnastics competitor, recently said he found it comforting to perform in the fanless Ariake Gymnastics Center: It felt “a little more homey,” like “another day at the gym,” he said of his Tokyo experience.
“For athletes like Wiskus, there can be something grounding about the competition feeling like another training,” said Mark P. Otten, a psychology professor at California State University, Northridge, whose research focuses on sports performance. “It might help to ease the nerves and facilitate a less pressured atmosphere.”
The impact of crowd noise depends on the sport.
Naturally, the consequences of silence in the stands will depend on the sport. For activities that require focus and fine motor control, crowd noise can be an obvious distraction, Walker said.
“Think about aiming an air rifle at a target, or preparing for a free throw in basketball ― concentrating on the mechanics of the task, stilling your body and ignoring the crowd (be it cheering or jeering) is crucial,” he said.
“Athletes in those sports train long and hard to be able to shut out the noise,” he explained. “The lack of crowds make that task somewhat easier, so we may even see better performances with empty arenas.”
On the other hand, sports that require concentration but also bulk energy and large motor movements ― think swimming or weight lifting ― require considerably less quiet.
“In those cases, the uplifting and motivational effects of a cheering audience likely play a larger role,” Walker said. “We often see athletes reach personal bests at competitions, partly because they are pushed by the fans to leave it all on the track or field or court. A quiet stadium or pool will require the athletes to dig deeper in a more independent way.”
Walker thinks it’s interesting to consider sports that have both kinds of situations.
“Basketball has both the stillness of the free throw and the all-out dash down the court; winter biathlon has the precision of the shooting portions and the endurance of the skiing; tennis and swimming have quiet starts next to rallies and sprints,” he said.
In these cases it will come down to the individual athlete, he said. In the heat of the moment, we’ll see both improvements and disappointments in performance.
One across-the-board positive of not having crowds in the stands, according to the professor? Better communication among individual athletes and their coaches and other competitors, and among players in a team sport who need to be able to coordinate actions with their teammates.
“You are likely to see more coordinated and perhaps sophisticated plays if the players can speak more directly to each other,” he said.
Could no crowds lead to the most impartial Olympics ever?
The sound of silence might have a positive impact on referees and judges, too: It might foster more objectivity in their calls.
After fans broke out in a brawl at a 2007 Italian soccer match, people were barred from attending games, giving two researchers a perfect opportunity to study home-field advantage. Looking at past data, Swedish economists Per Pettersson-Lidbom and Mikael Priks found that the home team received the majority of favorable calls from the officials and won the majority of the matches when fans were present. Without fans present, this advantage vanished.
Another study conducted on a crowd’s influence on referees’ decisions found that referees make about 15% fewer calls against the home team when crowds are present.
The referees don’t make these faulty calls on purpose; it’s an unconscious bias existing in part because officials are fearful of facing scrutiny for making the wrong call against the home team. That’s especially true for national teams, said Jessie Lewis, a grad student at California State University, Northridge, who’s researching the effects of the pandemic and fanless stadiums on sports performance.
“At this Olympics, the referees might feel less pressure to appease a certain audience, boosting their ability to focus on making the right calls,” she said.
Of course, the referees hold different sway in different competitions.
“In track and field, calls are more objective, but, for example, in water polo, a lot of the game is dictated by the calls the referee makes,” Lewis explained.
But just like the Olympic athletes they’re judging, these referees are operating at the highest level in their field; they’ve had years of training and experience on how to call the game as they see it, not as a raucous audience sees it.
The athletes, too, are trained to tune out fans to varying degrees. Even athletes who typically rely on the crowds to reach an optimal state for performance have sport psychology techniques to lean on, like imagery and visualization practices or other tried-and-true routines, Otten said.
Fans are important, but athletes at this level have other avenues to get their adrenaline pumping.
“Then again, this is the Olympics we’re talking about,” Otten said. “These athletes have waited five years for this opportunity ― it’s likely that they will already have plenty of adrenaline available!”