Our Town: Sports pros miss cheering crowds

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Do athletes need a crowd to play in front of?

My dermatologist is a big sports fan and as I was enduring my monthly dermatology exam he remarked how surprised he was to see choking during the finals of this year’s U.S. Open in tennis at Flushing Meadows. We had been discussing the effect of playing to an empty stadium and he felt that the lack of crowds ought to lessen the stress levels and prevent choking, not increase them. And he was right to notice all this. Stefanos Tsitsipos choked in an embarrassing manner in the men’s finals.
How or why would a player tighten up so badly despite playing in front of an empty stadium? Well, to answer this we need to explore the crowd’s impact on a player’s performance. I work with many elite and professional athletes and I have listened to what they have said. The excitement of viewing a major golf, tennis or baseball event has diminished notably and this has put a greater burden on television color commentary to liven things up. They have thus far failed badly on this score, which is a testament to the irreplaceable value of 50,000 screaming fans roaring at the skills displayed by the athletes under duress.
Tsitsipos is by no means the only athlete to have choked in recent days. The golfing world watched as Tommy Fleetwood, one of the top players in Europe, missed three foot putts on #16 and then in the sudden death playoff. All this took place at the Scottish Open with no crowds to watch. It is interesting to wonder if crowds could have helped both Tsitsipos and Fleetwood. My guess is they would have for the following reason.
When an athlete is surrounded by noise, large numbers of people and applause, this energy helps him to focus and avoid irrelevant thoughts from within.
This is the reason so many writers like to write in cafes. The energy, noise and distraction experienced in cafés help the writer to focus on the theme of the article being written and this prevents the mind from wandering off.
I have worked with more than one baseball player who has had trouble throwing during practice when the pressure is least but have no problem whatsoever during game time. The noise and energy of the crowd during the game seems to help them shut out inner doubts and they play much better. When there are no crowds, they are left to dwell upon inner doubts, which enter their conscious mind and which then tighten up the body and destroy fluid motion. In these cases, the athletes are using the crowd energy to help their inner defenses fight off inner doubt.
In other cases, especially with PGA tour players they uniformly complain about the lack of energy during play because they are so used to converting the crowd energy into their bodies and use it to keep on going and fight off fatigue.
A third benefit of crowds during play in golf and tennis is that the general etiquette and good manners elicited by these two sports produce verbal support for almost all of the players as they walk by. Crowd jeering is fairly rare in these sports though it does happen, especially to a few players who are systematically and largely unfairly targeted.
Crowds jeering is far more common in the world of baseball, hockey, basketball and football, but in these cases the noise volume is so loud that often the players are spared from actually hearing the verbal abuse.
As we stumble along in this COVID world of ours, we learn more and more of the value and the power of the crowd. It should not be a surprise to learn that elite athletes for the most part enjoy and benefit from the presence, the cheers, the applause and the admiration of the fans who come to watch them play. The gestalt of sports includes players, a field to play upon, a round ball and a stick, but this gestalt also requires all those spectators on the sideline who rouse them on to victory and offer solace in defeat. I long for the days of cheering crowds and so do the athletes I work with .

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