Why a Supportive Audience Could Paradoxically Lead to a Worse Performance

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We’ve all heard of the “home-court advantage” in sports. How athletes perform better when they’re competing in front of cheering, supportive fans.

The idea makes perfect sense, but there are also many instances of athletes choking in front of their home crowd, missing crucial shots, or making boneheaded plays at the worst possible moments.

So when a student recently mentioned that they were feeling extra pressure before an upcoming audition, it wasn’t surprising to hear that it was for their home-town orchestra. An orchestra in which they had been subbing regularly, and where many members of the orchestra had remarked that they hoped the student would win the open position.

It certainly feels better to have colleagues rooting for you than against you, but the desire to preserve your reputation and avoid disappointing people can be a pretty intense kind of pressure too.

So at the end of the day, are we at our best when performing for a supportive audience? In the presence of friends and family who wish us well?

Or are we actually better off when performing for a room of strangers?

The biathlon

Two Swiss economists analyzed race data from all 155 biathlon sprint competitions between 2001 and 2017.

This is that winter sports event, where athletes will ski for a bit, then pause to shoot at 5 small targets. Followed by some more skiing, and another pause to shoot at 5 additional targets, before one last bit of skiing to the finish line.

Scoring is pretty straightforward, as your final time is simply the finish time minus the start time. Except there’s one interesting wrinkle. Every time you miss a target, you have to ski a 150m penalty loop (which adds additional time to your score).

So did the athletes perform better in their home country, in front of a cheering crowd? Or worse, given the pressure to live up to their supporters’ expectations?

Both, as it turns out.

Wait…what?

Speed

When it came to the more physically demanding part of the event – skiing – being at home seemed to boost performance.

Athletes skied faster when competing in their home country (about 1.25-2.03 seconds faster for the men, and 1.9-2.06 seconds for the women). Which suggests that they may have drawn extra motivation from the supportive crowd.

Accuracy

But when it came to the part of the competition that emphasizes precision and control – shooting – competing at home resulted in more missed shots (about .15 more misses for the men and .23 misses for the women).

And yes, those numbers do sound pretty trivial. But the researchers explain that given the time it takes to ski the 150m penalty loop, this translates into a 3.75-5.75 second difference in race time, which can be the difference between gold and silver, or medaling and not.

Ok. But what if the difference in performance has nothing to do with the pressure to perform well in front of a supportive audience, and is related more to all the cheering during shooting being a distraction? I mean, heck, I can’t even flip pancakes unless my kids are totally silent.

Perhaps, but an NBA study suggests otherwise.

The asymmetric effect of pressure

Another pair of economists compiled data from all NBA games played between 2005 and 2010.

Noting that the home crowd typically goes nuts when a visiting player is at the free throw line, but stays quiet for players from the home team, they wondered if there were any differences in performance when playing at home or on the road.

Free throws (precision)

In general, players shot better from the line when playing at home (about .5%). But that changed when it was an important free throw. In close games, when time was running out, the home player shot worse – by about 1-2 percentage points.

The visiting players, meanwhile, seemed to be unaffected by pressure. Their free throw shooting percentage stayed the same, whether it was early in the game, or crunch time in the 4th quarter.

So at least when it comes to free throws, the numbers suggest that you may be more likely to choke when you’re in front of a supportive crowd.

But, when they looked at offensive rebounds – an aspect of the game that emphasizes effort – a different picture began to emerge.

Offensive rebounds (effort)

When there wasn’t much at stake, both teams rebounded at about the same level.

But as pressure increased, the home team began to outperform the visiting team. And as each possession became increasingly important near the end of close games, the home team’s offensive rebounding advantage increased “dramatically.”

So when it comes to rebounding, performance is much better when playing in front of a supportive crowd.

Interesting…but what are we to do with all of this?

A mixed bag

Well, it’s kind of tricky, as it appears that a supportive audience can have compelling pros and cons.

I mean, sure, a supportive audience’s energy can help us create a much more emotionally inspired experience than we ever could in our practice room.

But the desire to play perfectly, and live up to expectations can also lead us to focus too much on technique and execution, become more cautious, and make more mistakes.

Take action

When we’re the performer

So is there anything we can do when performing or auditioning on our “home court” to maximize the benefits, and minimize the drawbacks?

Well, this Freakonomics episode describes many of the most helpful strategies researchers have identified for making performances more choke-proof.

Ultimately, I think much of it comes down to attention control. The ability to direct our focus to the task at hand, and “the music,” rather than the audience. Because the keys to performing optimally are ultimately the same, whether we’re playing in front of a supportive audience or not.

And what does focus on “the music” really mean, exactly?

For Julie Landsman, this means maintaining a constant internal rhythmic pulse.

For Arnold Jacobs, it means singing in your head while playing.

Not the note you just missed. Or what the committee will think. Or the smell of tacos at the food truck you passed on the way to the hall.

When we’re the support

And what are we to do as supportive, well-meaning friends, parents, and family?

That’s a bit trickier to figure out. As a parent, I’m inclined to try asking my kids if they’d find it helpful for me to be in the audience or not. Then again, maybe it’s good for me to be there regardless, so they can practice staying focused on the task at hand instead of worrying about the audience?

I’m not sure – but I do think these studies have made me more open to honoring any requests my kids might have about whether they’d like me to be in the audience or not.

Additional resources

Why We Choke Under Pressure (and How Not To) @Freakonomics

Ack! After Countless Hours of Practice,
Why Are Performances Still so Hit or Miss?

It’s not a talent issue. And that rush of adrenaline and emotional roller coaster you experience before performances is totally normal too.

Performing at the upper ranges of your ability under pressure is a unique skill – one that requires specific mental skills, and perhaps a few other tweaks in your approach to practicing too. Elite athletes have been learning these techniques for decades; if nerves and self-doubt have been recurring obstacles in your performances, I’d like to help you do the same.

Click below to learn more about Beyond Practicing – a home-study course where you’ll explore the 6 skills that are characteristic of top performers. And learn how you can develop these into strengths of your own. And begin to see tangible improvements in your playing that transfer to the stage.

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