Do supporters matter, and can they make the difference to the outcome of a game?

Supporters are an integral part of any sporting event,  ‘participating’ from the stands, watching in mute silence or vociferously supporting their player or team,  urging them on – driving them on – to victory. Or do they? And if they do, how?

Sport is big business, attracting sponsors and providing large salaries to the best participants. Not surprisingly, then, there has often been discussion about what inspiration athletes can draw from their supporters. Supporters, in turn, derive great personal satisfaction from the teams they support – especially if the teams are winners! We can become very attached to our teams, whether through geography, our peers, our families and parents, or the attachments that build up over time. Think of football codes: how many people do you know who change their teams?

So it is in both sides’ interest to know what galvanises sportspeople, beyond their own pleasure and rewards in winning.

Much of what we think is intuitive: it is so because it must be so. ‘It stands to reason.’ But sometimes these intuitive reasons do not bear close scrutiny, or they turn out to be a little different from what we expect.

Take home ground advantage. Fans know it works: their supportive noise encourages their team, their hostile reactions to the other team and often to officials distracts them (even the officials). Players and umpires, however, disagree. They argue that it is all about being on familiar turf – the surface, the light, the wind, just feeling comfortable ‘at home’, etc., and in any case umpires aim to be impartial.

The other side is away game performance – the distraction of booing as well as unfamiliarity.

But more complex is evidence that good teams, as they move closer to championship, seem to risk ‘choking’, and they seem more distracted by supporter disappointment or criticism. American baseball provides numerous cases of this.

As with sledging, players need strategies to refocus attention and concentration from both sides of the distraction.*

The evidence has been shifting back and forth for years now. In soccer, away teams earned more yellow cards (cautions) then when playing at home – attributable to more aggressive play.**  But larger crowds also appeared to increase home ground advantage over and above familiarity.***

For the promoters of sport, as well as the players, there is a clear interest in promoting attendance and spectator participation. When the Olympics or Commonwealth Games come to an Australia city there does seem to be an inspiring effect – athletes drawing on those extra reserves because the ‘home crowd’ is so dependent on them.

Neither side wants to dismiss the intuition that this is so, that spectators matter, and that spectators deserve to be entertained and also rewarded with victories. The challenge for athletes is to use this, when it is positive, but also not to be too distracted by it so that errors arise, and, on ‘hostile territory’ to draw on a different set of learning and training, when focus becomes internal, reliance is on skills, team support and solidarity – a version of the ‘home ground’ writ small but tight.

In the meantime, many more spectators and players, as well as sports scientists and psychologists, will be looking for clear answers in a very unclear arena.


* A.-M. Knowles, R. Lorimer, V. Shanmugam. 2015. Social Psychology in Sport and Exercise: Linking Theory to Practice. Macmillan Education, London. pp.73-78 (Ch 4 ‘Audiences and spectators’)

** S. Thomas, C. Reeves, A. Smith. 2006. English soccer teams’ aggressive behavior when playing away from home. Perceptual and Motor Skills 102(2), 317-320

*** G.A. Agnew, A. V. Carron. 1994. Crowd effects and the home advantage. International Journal of Sport Psychology 25(1), 53-62

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