The Frontal Cortex

Home Field Advantage

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.

Comments

  1. #1 Mozglubov
    June 12, 2009

    I remember you writing about this before (I wish I had the link), and in that you discussed the possibility of subliminal teaching signals (for example, learning references for lines and peripheral objects off the court to help one more quickly gage position) as highly important aspects of home-field advantage. Do you know if any research has been done into this? I noticed effects of that nature were not mentioned in this post.

  2. #2 Dave Gill
    June 12, 2009

    Interesting that baseball is so much lower when it is the only of the majors that give an actual rules advantage to the home team (last at-bat, walk-off hits and wins). Plus non-standard dimensions, goofy wall geometry, turf vs. grass, etc. should favor the home team that can practice for and build a team around these facts.

  3. #3 john
    June 12, 2009

    “To the surprise of the researchers, both of the teams played much better without fans. They scored more points, had higher shooting percentages, ”
    Which means that both teams played worse. Worse defense.

  4. #4 Alessandro Pogliani
    June 12, 2009

    Another humble clue?
    When you are practising and playing a lot in the same court, your brain gets accustomed to some visual references around and linked to the field (that pole, that ad banner, that strange geometrical figure designed by the disposition of the seats, that rear door, etc.), and probably uses them as “motion marker”.
    When I played basketball in my home town small arena (more or less 25 years ago), I had some “magic spots” in which I never failed a shot (well, almost…). I can still remember every detail of the arena seen from these spots.
    And this could explain why the the chances of winning are dropped from 75% to 62%: nowadays every arena generally looks like, and the possibility to find any special “motion marker” is becoming lower.
    Greetings from Italy!

  5. #5 Sora Elric
    June 12, 2009

    Maybe there’s some sort of primal instinct that makes the home team feel like it’s protecting its territory?

  6. #6 Cheri
    June 12, 2009

    I guess absence of spectators doesn’t help with defense.

  7. #7 OftenWrongTed
    June 12, 2009

    Per “THE_REAL_SHAQ” @ TWITTER: The winner of game four has won the series the last 9 of 11 times.

  8. #8 Derek
    June 13, 2009

    I was a swimmer for 16 years, and my teammates and I all had our favorite pools…we referred to them as “fast pools” (so original, I know) … the one thing we all had in common was that when we raced at our given “fast pool,” we went into the competition with noted optimism, expecting to swim fast… I think this optimism played a role in minimizing the anxiety and extreme nervousness that can hurt performance…and a similar mental-edge may come when playing/competing at one’s home court, field, etc..

  9. #9 Thomas Schroeder
    June 14, 2009

    Go Lakers baby, baby!

  10. #10 P
    June 14, 2009

    Great article I’ll be checking out your books,but you should read Emptiness and Dependent arising theories or philosophies, Yes!, all is an illusion. And yes! they also tell you how to deal with conventional reality.

    Best of lucks with your books.

  11. #11 Copper Castings
    June 14, 2009

    I think this optimism played a role in minimizing the anxiety and extreme nervousness that can hurt performance

  12. #12 Zeke
    June 17, 2009

    I thought the same thing as Dave (comment 2) about baseball, where the home team has an advantage by rules and dimensions. The only compensating factor I can think of is that in baseball all teams are more evenly matched than in other sports. The worst teams win 1 of every three games and even the best don’t win 2 of 3.

  13. Jonah – I’ve posted a link to a recent article from advancednflstats.com. It explores some of the same questions you do in yours.

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