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Could Team GB Suffer a Psychological Disadvantage in the Olympics From Being the Host Nation?

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New research about to be published by a team of Canadian psychologists suggests that Team GB may suffer a significant psychological disadvantage from competing in front of wildly supportive home audiences.

This is a startling finding, because until now, academic sports psychology has generally found a considerable 'home advantage' effect. Research evidence that athletes and teams perform better at home, compared to away, applies across a range of sports including studies on premiership soccer, North American Football, basketball, baseball, hockey and baseball.

There are multiple reasons athletes seem to achieve more in front of a home crowd. Crowd support seems to lift motivation, referees may be (unconsciously) disinclined to rule against home teams, and travel can have a negative impact on competitor preparation.

One potent psychological factor giving the home team an advantage is familiarity with local conditions and home venue. Scientifically studying the contribution of facility familiarity is accomplished by investigating teams recently moving to new stadia. Research indeed confirms that relocated teams display a reduced home-field advantage (Pollard, R. Evidence of a reduced home advantage when a team moves to a new stadium. Journal of Sports Sciences, 20, 969-973). When home teams are less familiar with a venue, they do not boast as large an advantage over away teams as competitors, who are more familiar with their home venue and all its idiosyncrasies.

Might Team GB's possible relative unfamiliarity with some of the newly built facilities be reducing the normal home team advantage? The tendency to always build new venues rather than use older established ones might backfire?

But other home advantages should still apply - psychological research even suggests bad weather could be on our athlete's side.

For example, Richard Borghesi from the McCoy College of Business Administration, Texas State University in the USA in analysing results and game day temperatures for 5463 NFL games from 1981 to 2004, showed home US Football teams playing in extreme weather conditions (which they had a better chance to acclimatise to) were more likely to beat visiting teams.

In his paper entitled 'The home team weather advantage and biases in the NFL betting market' published in the 'Journal of Economics and Business' in 2007, Borghesi found extreme cold weather has a greater impact on visiting team performance than does heat. Borghesi argues a significant additional physiological burden created by being away from home is magnified by the negative effects of cold, particularly reductions in morale.

So maybe we should stop booing the weather and pray for more 'British' conditions?

Incidentally if you want to cheer yourself up after the bleak summer so far, and make money from superior academic knowledge of sports psychology, Borghesi's analysis shows you how - he found the spread-betting market significantly under-prices bets on home teams playing in the coldest temperatures.

But the very latest research from a team of psychologists at McMaster University in Ontario, lead by Desmond McEwan working with colleagues Kathleen Martin Ginis and Steven Bray, suggests that a normal home advantage for most kinds of competitive sports turns into a 'home disadvantage' effect, when dealing with particular sporting predicaments.

These are specifically high stakes events, such as when an Olympic medal is at stake.

Termed the home 'choke' effect, the finding emerged in their analysis of all National Hockey League (NHL) shoot outs from 2005-2011. NHL shootouts started in the 2005 season to decide games still tied after extra-time, so these naturally create a high pressure predicament where a score or miss massively impacts the eventual result.

A home advantage was found for 'loss-imminent situations' which was when the current shooter had to score, or his team would lose the game. So when a goal is needed to avoid a loss, the likelihood of scoring is greater when playing at home.

However, in marked contrast when the shooter has an opportunity to win the shootout for his team, ie performing in a high-pressure 'win-imminent' situation, a home disadvantage emerged. Home team shooters in this particular high pressure situation had significantly poorer shooting percentages than away team shooters.

Exactly why there should be a home 'choke' effect for high stakes sporting moments, when the pressure is on, because victory or a medal becomes possible, remains a bit of a mystery. McEwan and colleagues in their study entitled '"With the Game on His Stick": The home (dis)advantage in National Hockey League shootouts' and due to be published in the journal 'Psychology of Sport and Exercise', argue that they have uncovered an important effect that applies not just to hockey but across all sports.

The home 'choke' effect began really began to be investigated when psychologists Roy Baumeister and Andrew Steinhilber, back in 1984, analysed results from the 1924-1982 baseball World Series. The study found that home teams tended to win the first four games of the series (71%) but this win percentage dramatically decreased (to 39%) when these series went to a seventh and deciding game. A home 'choke' appeared to be occurring here whereby performance deteriorated for home teams during highly important matches.

Baumeister and Steinhilber argued that In high-pressure situations, home team athletes may become aware of enhanced support, but then get preoccupied with disappointing their fans. 'Self-awareness' theory may kick in here - home athletes may become more self-conscious and this impairs sporting performance which usually is best when performed unconsciously.

McEwan and colleagues seem to agree that becoming more aware of audience expectations could increase self-consciousness and anxiety.

Perhaps if you happen to notice that the crowd is shouting for you, then you might get worried about their withdrawal of support which could follow a disastrous performance. The home crowd wants and expects you to win. The added pressure may be too much. Meanwhile the visiting competitors suffer none of these distractions.

Roy Baumeister, Harry Wallace and Kathleen Vors in a paper entitled 'Audience support and choking under pressure: A home disadvantage?' published in the 'Journal of Sports Sciences', recalled the 2003 President's Cup golfing tournament, which ended with a sudden-death tie-breaker between Tiger Woods against Ernie Els. The tournament was declared a draw after just three holes by the team captains because '' it was too much pressure for any one player''.

Els is supposed to have complained; "You look over and see your team. You're like, 'I've got to look away'. It's unbelievable pressure''. Woods apparently described how he prepared to putt with his red-shirted team-mates in the background... ''I saw all this red and I was just trying to block that out''. Baumeister and colleagues use this example to argue the two best golfers in the world experienced more pressure than they'd ever endured before in their illustrious careers, largely because of the close supportive presence of team-mates.

Notice that these elite athletes coped by trying to ignore their supportive team-mates.

So what would the psychological advice to anyone wanting to get out and encourage Team GB?

Perhaps we should support in ways that link our athletes more to us, so we are all part of a team, rather than singling out individuals, which the media likes to do and which might then elevate their self-consciousness to unhelpful levels. Remember other athletes don't seem to face the same scale of press inquest after a no medal outcome, as ours currently do.

Psychologists could also argue that all the talk about 'legacy' is missing a crucial point. If suddenly being massively supported raises self-consciousness to uncomfortable levels which impairs performance - the implication is we should all encourage our athletes more year round, at obscure events, as well as publicised ones, to get them more used to it.

This is also more in-keeping with Kipling's entreaty, to treat those imposters of triumph and disaster just the same.

This legacy, of these Olympics, would then be of the ultimately enduring kind.

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