University of Canterbury (UC) sports psychology lecturer Dr Brad Miles says large, noisy crowds create excitement, but they could also influence the outcome of the game.
Most people think of sport psychology as a way to develop elite athlete performance, but Dr Miles says sport also “provides a fascinating context in which to explore and understand human behaviour more generally,” which includes fans and referees, as well as players.
“Understanding the home advantage phenomenon in sport is a great example of this,” he says.
Put simply, teams tend to win more when they play at their home ground.
“The Crusaders have won almost 60% of all their matches, but when playing at home that number is over 80%. So even a consistently successful team like the Crusaders has greater success when playing at home,” Dr Miles says.
According to research, players’ familiarity with their local venue and conditions, and having less travel-related fatigue and disruption to routines, are contributing factors.
“Certainly players tend to report that they enjoy playing at home, feel more confident when they do, and say they feel energised by the home crowd. While this might be part of the pule, it is unlikely to be the complete picture.”
When games were played in empty stadiums during Covid-19 restrictions, the home advantage was less evident, which suggests crowds themselves play a key role.
“Recent research looking at European football matches played under no-spectator conditions does suggest more even-handed match officiating and a general decrease in the size of the home advantage effect. With no fans present, home advantage tends to diminish,” Dr Miles says.
Research also shows that crowds provide extra pressure when players perform in public.
“Anything we do with an audience, where there is opportunity for others to observe and judge us, can have a stimulating effect. Think about the heightened nerves and anxiety many people experience with public speaking. For skilled performers, this extra stimulation can actually improve performance.”
A noisy home crowd creates additional pressure for players to perform. However, a noisy home crowd may affect referees as well.
“Sports in which referees and umpires have a lot of discretion in their decision-making – where there is genuine ambiguity, uncertainty, or fuiness about what the correct decision might be – tend to have the greatest levels of home advantage. Rugby is in this category,” he says.
“Just like the players, referees are high-level performers, but they’re also human and display the same psychological inclinations as the rest of us. One of these is the process of conformity – behaving in a way that aligns with the consensus of a group. When thousands of people are voicing support for the home team, it can create social pressure to conform. The bigger and noisier the crowd, the greater the pressure. It can take only one or two of those marginal decisions going in favour of the home team to affect a match.”
This behaviour is not favouritism, he says, because it’s not intentional. Referees are simply subject to subtle psychological processes that are part of human nature.
“We all want to fit in with the group,” Dr Miles says.
Aside from how they may influence players or referees, Dr Miles encourages fans to make as much noise as they can this weekend.
“Large, noisy crowds contribute to the overall excitement, enjoyment and satisfaction people get from a sports event. A stadium full of loud, supportive fans can enhance the experience for both players and spectators, and maybe, just maybe, have an impact on what happens on the field as well.”