The Lakers-Magic game last night was quite the thrill-ride: it’s now the morning after, and my pulse has only begun to return to its resting rate. (Full disclosure: I’m a Lakers fan.) The game was played in Orlando and the big moment came when the Lakers’ Derek Fisher nailed a three-pointer at the end of regulation. The loud Orlando crowd went totally silent; you could actually hear the collective intake of breath.
Why did this matter? Why was I suddenly (over)confident that the Lakers would win? Because home field advantage is a really big advantage (especially in the NBA) and it only takes a single shot to erase that edge. Here’s a snippet from an article I wrote a while ago that tried to to suss out the psychology of the home court/field/arena:
Home teams in the NBA have a 62 percent chance of winning, while those in Major League Baseball and the National Hockey League have a 53 percent chance of winning. (Football teams are somewhere in between, with annual ranges typically between 54 and 64 percent.) Although the effect has declined over time – in 1950, home teams in the NBA won 75 percent of all games – playing at home remains one of the most significant advantages in professional sports.
“Athletes spend so much time and energy looking for any kind of edge,” says Albert Carron, a professor of kinesiology at the University of Western Ontario. “But nobody’s found another edge this powerful.”
Despite the magnitude of the effect, though, the source of the home-field advantage remains shrouded in mystery. [SNIP] Scientists, however, have begun to find clues. In research that has focused on sports as varied as cricket, figure skating, and field hockey, they have discovered that the home-field advantage is a surprisingly complex phenomenon that likely includes the influence of fans on player performance, the bias of referees, and the optimal emotional state for athletes.
The most obvious causal explanation for home-field advantage is that all those adoring fans make players more excited and energetic. What remains mostly unclear, however, is how these emotional states impact player performance. One possibility is that playing at home makes teams more aggressive. A large analysis of NHL matches found that, when home teams win, they tend to rack up more penalties for aggressive behavior, such as fighting and forechecking.
Of course, being more aggressive isn’t always an advantage, especially when the refs are calling lots of fouls. Perhaps, then, the role of supportive fans is to help teams cope with adversity and abrupt shifts in momentum? While a cheering audience won’t always cause a team to play better, it can keep a team from giving up. This possibility certainly fits with the self-reports of players.
However, I was most surprised by the fact that the mere presence of spectators tend to decrease player performance. Even athletes playing before adoring, supportive fans report increased levels of anxiety. (Just ask Dwight Howard, who missed eight free throws last night.) This can make athletes “choke” in high-pressure situations. Skills that they typically take for granted – like shooting free throws or throwing strikes – become all but impossible.
Several years ago, an innovative study compared the performance of two NCAA basketball teams in the presence and absence of spectators. Because of a measles outbreak, the teams played 11 games while the schools were quarantined: the matchups took place in empty arenas. To the surprise of the researchers, both of the teams played much better without fans. They scored more points, had higher shooting percentages, and made more free throws. The cheers of adoring fans, it appears, actually hurt the home team. They just hurt the visitors even more.