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The Psychology of Sports Fans: How Fans Affect Players

psychology of sports fansYoga Berra was really on to something when he said that “baseball is ninety percent mental. The other half is physical.” Athletes don’t just do; they think. Decisions have to be made in an instant, and it takes a strong mind with excellent sports awareness in order to know and predict the game.

Sports played at the professional level demand a lot, both physically and mentally, from players. They are competing against not only the other team or opponent, but against themselves, as well. An athlete’s physical limitations and mindset are forces to be reckoned with. Performing under pressure can be difficult for anyone, but doing so at the national level, in front of millions of fans both in the stadium and at home, is a whole new ballgame. (Pardon the pun).

So, where do spectators fit into all this? While sports fans typically don’t have any effect on influence on an athlete’s physical ability, fans have the power to make or break some professionals’ psyche and can enhance or undermine concentration. The psychology of sports fans has become a popular topic in sports psychology as of late. Read on to get the scoop on exactly how fans can get inside the heads of players, to both positive and negative effect.

Cheers vs. Jeers

Since the 1960s researchers have studied the influence spectators have on performance. Sports fans don’t simply watch, however. They are actively and vocally involved in the experience; many cheer for the team or contestant they are backing and jeer or boo the opposing team or contestant. There have been very few scholarly studies of how these fan-athlete interacts affect performance. In 2011, the North American Journal of Psychology published an article by researchers Kimberly Epting, Kristen Riggs, Joseph Knowles and John Hanky that explored the phenomenon of sports fans.

It is commonly accepted that cheering positively influences a team’s performance. This is why the “home court advantage” is so coveted; when playing in their home city, a team receives much more support from the crowd in attendance.  However, researchers Epling et al found that affects from cheering and jeering alike differed depending on the sport. Basketball free throw performance was not affected by any audience contribution or lack thereof, but jeers hurt baseball pitchers’ performance and both jeers and cheers resulted in worse performance for golfers.

What is a sports psychologist? Find out more about this growing profession!

The art of distraction

Fans can have some obvious and tangible effects on the game, especially particularly loud or aggressive fans. The most basic way fans distract and influence the outcome of a sporting event is through sheer volume. It can be difficult for a coach to call plays or for players to communicate over the sound of screaming fans.

At its core, fandom is a social event. People attend games with other fans and engage in social activity together while there. Many sports fans find fun in purposefully trying to distract opponents. Some may use clothing, signs or chants in order to visually distract or get into the mind of a player.

Fans have even directly and actively affected the outcome of the game. In baseball especially, fans have interfered with plays, often by catching homerun or foul balls that are still within the fielder’s grasp.

An athlete’s arsenal

Sports psychology has become a huge industry in high school, college and professional sports. Many schools and ball clubs keep sport psychologists on staff to aid players in overcoming the pressures and mental challenges of performing consistently at an elite level.

What is a sports psychologist? What do they do? These professionals apply the theories and practices of psychology to the world of sports. They help athletes with a myriad of mental and emotional concerns. Sports psychologists deal not only with mental stressors that result due to factors that come into play during the game, but also help players to deal with external mental factors, such as depression or anxiety, that may affect their performance.

Athletes are coached in a variety of techniques to help them overcome fears, anxieties and stress. Some of the most common tactics include visualization practices, calming routines, personal mantras and meditation. Athletes must work hard to hone the mental skills needed to keep their mind on the game while playing. Sports psychologists may also utilize talk therapy and behavioral cognition to help athletes work through issues and improve performance.

In summary, many factors, both internal and external, affect an athlete’s ability to perform at the peak of their ability. Sports psychologists help them to find tactics to overcome mental stressors and cope with personal and emotional problems that athletes may bring with them to the field.


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