Do sports fans really make a difference?

i-75fa6f7cebb4145668724f37f5a52b36-steve_icon_medium.jpg A sports magazine writer asked me about the different techniques one could use to distract an athlete... here's what I said:

About a year ago another graduate student and I were planning on doing some research in my lab to determine what the best way of distracting a free throw shooter was. We have a pretty cool motion tracking system that would allow us to track arm and ball position as well as project distractions onto a wall - either real world video or computer generated distractions. But this is as far as we got since I saw some other research with a similar goal that didn't seem to be able to find an effect - and if you want to take research from a lab and put it into the real world you have to have a very clear and powerful result. But here were our thoughts behind the research:

There seem to be two distinct ways that people could try to distract a free-throw shooter (or really any athlete trying to make a precise ballistic motion toward a target) the first is by some sort of brut force distraction that will cause them to be more variable in their performance. This could be taunting (In h.s. we used to find out the other teams mothers and gf's names), having a large semi-naked person dancing, random noise (visual or auditory) with thunder sticks, or really anything. It really doesn't matter what the source of the 'noise' is as long as it somehow increases the workload for the athlete and forces them to filter out irrelevant stimuli and therfore perform their primary task with less efficiency. All of these techniques would probably work very well on a young child up into their teenage years. But getting this to work on an adult (who is a master of filtering irrelevant things - their prefrontal cortex is fully developed) much less a professional athlete is a bit far fetched. You know... maybe under the right circumstances a fan taunt or a well placed bit of random noise might work sometimes - say if the athlete was having a bad day or was feeling under the weather. But to get this to work a significant amount of time is a long shot. I was at a basketball game last year where during the entire game whenever one particular player (who backed out of playing for our team) got taunted by the whole stadium with "F*#% you ______" I think it might have worked for a little while but we did end up losing.

i-a9bb544862b38fa4b98907de1c04ed88-sports fan.jpg

The second way of distracting a player is by using some sort of impenetrable visual bias. What I mean is that there are certain basic properties of the visual system that no matter how much you know about them or how much you think about them, you cannot change your behavior when encountering them. Of course in reality you can figure out how to get around many of these (and we do - pilots for example would crash all the time if they couldn't ignore their sense of balance). In anycase, there was a paper in Nature a few years ago that demonstrated that when there is constant motion behind a target people were biased to reach out in whatever direction the motion was going instead of right toward the target. (See: http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v423/n6942/abs/nature01693.html). So both fans and researchers figured they could do something similar and create some sort of motion to one side of the basket (instead of random waving sticks) forcing the freethrow shooter to shoot to the side of the basket. A guy wrote an article in Slate about this idea (http://www.slate.com/id/2111939/) and how he tried it with Marc Cuban.

So we figured we'd try this in the lab - but we got beat to the punch by a few months - which in this case was a good thing since they didn't find any positive results (http://journalofvision.org/8/6/1044/). At this point I kind of figured that if something obvious like this didn't work in a very controled setting there was no way it could possibly work in a basketball game. My reasoning is this.. When you get ready to plan a movement like a freethrow it takes a only a few milliseconds, after that you start executing a movement which takes even less time, and then finally you follow through with the movement. At only small portion of this time are you gathering the visual information needed to execute a movement and then only for a tiny tiny amount of time can you alter your movement once it has began. At some point your movement cannot be altered - well at least for a ballistic motion like throwing something, punching something, or pointing. So for a hundred or thousand some fans (or even just 2) to coordinate a sudden and coordinated movement that is perfectly timed with the couple hundred milliseconds that a player is planning and executing a freethrow is a little bit hard to imagine. There are a number of other avenues for research to find ways of altering people's shots or throws or whatever. However, the holy grail of finding something that works in a real world situation a significant amount of time is probably a long shot - and anyway it would be banned in sports nearly immediately.

Of course every fan thinks that their taunting works since they only remember the times when it did work - think of all the crazy superstitions athletes have themselves.

Here are some other pretty interesting/entertaining links I came across:
http://www.public.asu.edu/~mmcbeath/mcbeath.research/OptHand/bball.html
http://www.schneier.com/blog/archives/2006/03/basketball_pran.html

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In football if the crowd is loud enough the players can't hear called signals. This definitely can disrupt and lower the efficiency of an offense. If nothing else it gets them out of their rhythm.

Actually having 50 people all yell "Fuzzy Pink Iguana!" in concert right before someone shoots free throws seems to do a reasonably good job of unsettling a shooter...

By DeveloperFish (not verified) on 04 Dec 2008 #permalink

Two words: Laser Pointers.

I guess I should have mentioned something about excluding things that would get you kicked out of the stadium ;)

I recently blogged about the problem with education in Texas ("is our children learning?") is that they spend so much time on made-up math problems like who should play against Missouri for the Big 12 conference championship while anti-science religious fanatics are trying to get their creation myths taught alongside evolution in the science curriculum. So your post is actually a good example of how sports enthusiasm can be used to illustrate the scientific method, as I pointed out today... http://nitsnbarbs.blogspot.com/2008/12/when-scientists-get-interested-i… Thanks for your interesting post and the references to the basic research. Nice to know grad students have so much free time on their hands...

When I played, it was like the gym was empty. Just the coach, players and referees. I only noticed the fans once in a while and that was when I was not playing. I doubt that athletes are really bothered by the crowd.
Football players have developed the silent count or other techniques to get past the crowd noise.
Keep trying, but I doubt it really matters.
Unless your the home team.