“Your Boos Mean Nothing!” How Hostility From the Crowd Can Affect Sportspeople

Brain Yapping by Dr Dean Burnett

At the time of writing, last night the NBA finals were won by the Golden State Warriors, in a dramatic win over the Boston Celtics, to much jubilation from fans and supporters of the former, and anger and sadness from those of the latter.

Pic by Racor

But behind all the obvious sporting aspects, there’s a growing problem for the NBA; the increasing hostility directed at players by fans. The victorious Warriors, and Draymond Green in particular, who was the specific target for the most of the vulgarity from the Boston crowd, may have been able to make light of it, but that doesn’t make it less of an issue.

It’s by no means a basketball-specific issue, though. The aggressive, even violent conduct of ‘fans’ is increasingly becoming an issue across sport.

The socio-political issues and factors behind this can be (and regularly is) debated at length, but here’s a question; what effect does the behaviour of fans have on sportspeople, and their ability to play the game? I’d argue the answer is more profound, and complex, than most people realise.

Breaking the fourth (red) wall

As a Welsh person, living in Wales, with a 10-year-old son obsessed with the sport, I’m painfully aware that Wales recently qualified for their first football world cup in 64 years. Meaning they’ve now qualified for three major tournaments in six years, rather than the usual rate of one per century.

This golden age of Welsh football is pinned on several factors, like Gareth Bale, greatest footballer to ever don a Welsh shirt, or the impressive leadership of the Football Association Wales. But credit is also regularly given to Wales’s passionate supporters, particularly the die-hard fans in the ‘red wall’. They’re constantly recognized as making a real difference to the outcome of matches.

However, whether it’s people rooting for the opposition, condemning mistakes, or vocally expressing dissatisfaction at a particular performance, any sporting crowd inevitably includes critical voices as well as supportive ones.

This has long been a normal part of sport, but in recent years it’s seemingly taken an alarming turn. From the grim abuse heaped on Marcus Rashford following the 2020 Euros final, Bale’s public response to constant negative, and alarmingly personal, coverage from Real Madrid publications, to the aforementioned and problematic aggression from NBA fans, sporting crowds (and beyond) are crossing the line increasingly often with their critical and hostile actions.

Alternatively, many insist that athletes paid millions to play a sport should just ignore or tolerate this inevitable occurrence. But is it realistic to expect sportspeople to just endure the violent taunts and angry condemnations of strangers, without it affecting their performance? Or do attacks from the crowd have more of an impact than many assume?

All for one, one for all – the tangible impact of crowds on sporting performance.

Successful sportspeople invariably express appreciation for the vocal supporters who watched them win. The pandemic made really hammered this home, with many sportspeople expressing their joy at the return of supportive crowds. They’re not just pandering; a supportive, enthusiastic crowd can make a great deal of difference to a team’s performance.

Professional athletes may be physically more adept than most humans, but their abilities are still the product of a human brain, which is alarmingly susceptible to what other people are doing/saying/expressing.

A small group of strangers disagreeing with them can make us doubt our own senses. We have whole emotional expressions, like shame or embarrassment, which only exist in the context of other people’s reactions. Social phobias, fearing the negative judgement of others, are the most common anxiety disorders. These are just some of the ways in which our brains react strongly to those around us.

And if all this happens with just a few other people around, if it’s thousands, tens of thousands, all chanting, singing, or roaring in unison, surely that’ll have an even bigger impact? That seems to be the case. For instance, one study noted that a unified, energised, vocal crowd can produce a 7% increase in effort and output from a sports team.

Why? Well, while its difficult to make out specific words emanating from an impassioned thousands-strong crowd, such large groups are still good at conveying emotions. The process of emotional contagion means we’re regularly infected by the emotions of others, without realising. We laugh if everyone else is even if we don’t get the joke, we feel sad at funerals even if we never knew the deceased. Emotional contagion plays a big role in such experiences.

Neurologically, emotions are heavily intertwined with motivation. An athlete who’s given their all, physically and mentally, for most of a game will probably be feeling rather spent. But if there’s still time on the clock, a positive, emotionally aroused crowd may well provide the necessary mental boost to ‘close the deal’, so to speak.

Ultimately, there are good reasons why goals in away games in football count for more. The home team inevitably has the most supportive voices in the crowd, and it turns out this can often make a considerable difference.

Singing your praises or baying for blood

Sport is, by its very nature, competitive. In every instance, there’ll be winners and losers. And if a crowd is invested in helping their side win, one way to achieve this is to make the opposing side’s job harder. If this involves distracting them with jeers or catcalls, direct insults, or any other negative ‘interventions’, assuming no rules are broken, then so be it.

There are also subtler, less obvious ways that negativity from the crowd can affect outcomes. One study suggests football referees award harsher punishments to away players who commit fouls, something that may stem from officials subconsciously reacting to the overly-negative home crowd reaction such fouls elicit. You’d think if anyone could completely ignore comments from the crowd, it’s referees. But no, they’re affected by it too. They’re only human (despite many who insist otherwise).

Obviously, there are a lot of nuances and variables to consider. On a recent episode of The Socially Distant Sports Bar podcast, comedians and sport lovers (and friends of mine) Mike Bubbins and Elis James, with sports journalist and lecturer Steff Garrero (who seems great, and we were once in the same room at the same time) argued if a player from the rival team is about to take a penalty, try for a conversion, or whatever, it’s fine for those in crowd to try and put them off, by making distracting noises etc.

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This is a fair point, and a view held by many. And logically, if a team happily takes the crowds money and regularly refer to them as an integral part of the game, then they should accept every aspect of this, ‘warts and all’. To expect a crowd to be in full cry when their team needs a boost but to adopt a respectful silence when their rivals are trying to win does seem inconsistent.

Pic by Repsol Honda Press.

But for many, it’s how the opposition are ‘distracted’. Making noises to throw them off? Fair enough. Trying to blind them with a laser, or hurling dangerous projectiles? Absolutely not on. 

Distinguishing between ‘distraction’ and ‘assault’ shouldn’t be difficult, but the problem is that, thanks to our highly social brains, when a big enough group of people, all unified around a common goal (e.g., wanting the team they all support to win) are sufficiently fired up, it can have significant, and alarming, detrimental effects on individual members’ abilities to think and behave rationally. This is how mobs occur, and why people caught up in them engage in impulsive, destructive behaviours when they never normally would.

Group identity is also a big factor here. Someone who’s invested significant time, money, and effort into supporting a particular team, then this will form a big part of their identity. Particularly if they’re part of a like-minded community. They’ll feel personally invested in the team’s success. So, if someone threatens that, they’ll become very angry. And if that someone is a player on their team who’s going through a bad spell, or makes an understandable but significant mistake, they’ll potentially become even angrier, because this feels like betrayal.

And negativity coming from what are ostensibly your own supporters can potentially hinder a player’s performance even more, because criticism from your own group cuts deeper than that from those outside it, e.g. supporters of rival teams. This has the potential to be considerably demoralising, meaning a player’s performance slips further, leading to yet more condemnation from the home crowd, and a negative feedback loop is created.

How to break out of that is hard to say. But it does show that negativity from a crowd can sway a game as much as positivity can. So much so, it can be self-defeating for the home supporters if it goes too far.

Superhuman, but still human

What of the argument that highly paid professional athletes should be able to simply ignore crowd aggression and insults? They’re paid astronomical sums to play a game after all, so dealing with hostility without being affected by it should be part and parcel of that.

Unfortunately, that’s not how we work. You could pay me £10 billion to jump the English Channel. You could bring me the money in person, in big white sacks with a ‘£’ sign on the side. However, and not matter how much I may want to, at no point will I be jumping the English Channel. Because it’s not possible for me to do that. The same applies here, albeit to a less ridiculous extent.

As stated, even the best athletes in the world still must rely on their all-too-human brains, and some things the brain simply can’t do, no matter how much you pay them. One of them is to completely close yourself off to any external distraction. Particularly when it’s emotionally stimulating stuff coming from other humans.

Undoubtedly, the best sportspeople put everything they have into their performance. But even if you can successfully dedicate 100% of your conscious resources to the task in front of you, there’s always the unconscious parts of your brain looking for things to be wary of. In high-stakes, finely balanced, demanding contexts like professional sporting contests, even the most minor thing that causes your brain to divert resources elsewhere can make a difference.

Case in point; studies reveal that goalkeepers who wear red kits are more successful. Similar studies also suggest that red kits give teams a slight advantage. Why? Well, it seems the human brain associates the colour red with aggression, and therefore danger. So, looking at a red kit when taking a penalty will mean the player’s brain is slightly more distracted than they would be with another colour, meaning they’re not focusing as much on the penalty kick, which is, despite appearances, a rather demanding process. It’ll be an incredibly minor factor in the overall process, but sometimes, that’s all it takes.

If, despite their best efforts, a specific colour of garment can distract top athletes, wouldn’t thousands of bellowing individuals in a crowd would surely be far more effective? Particularly if they’re negative; the ever-defensive ultrasocial human brain puts more weight on criticism than praise, so a hostile crowd would require far more cognitive effort to ignore than a friendly one.

Pic by Darren Neil

Admittedly, top athletes would likely be more adept at dealing with this than most. After all, countless people want to be professional footballers and the like, and very few make it that far. Presumably those who achieve this feat do so in part because they have the necessary mental fortitude and discipline to handle the demands of such a career (although there are always exceptions).

On the other hand, what if an athlete’s primary motivation is to be the best and earn the praise of others? Human self-worth is extensively tied up with social status and approval. Being vilified, even briefly, could impact on pro-athletes more.

Even if that weren’t the case when they started, if sportspeople end up in a situation where millions of people are depending on them in a very high-pressure situation, they may find their ability to absorb negativity and abuse has been maxed out. We never really know our mental limits until we exceed them.

Ultimately, to expect professional athletes to just absorb the negativity of the crowds and not let it affect them is expectingthem to do something that isn’t humanly possible.

Crossing the line too many times

It would be fair to say that there are times when a hostile interjection from a sporting crowd is OK, and times when it’s not ok. Trying to distract a rival penalty taker with noise or outbursts? That’s part of the game. Trying to blind them with lasers or concuss them with hurled coins? That’s literal assault, unforgivable in any context.

But there are times when the line is crossed in less obvious ways. The idea that ‘words will never hurt me’ is hilariously inaccurate, because they absolutely do. If a sportsperson is subjected to criticism that’s intensely personal, involves their families, or is openly racist, sexist, or freighted with some other prejudice? That’s definitely crossing multiple boundaries of acceptability, and it would be hard to see how that couldn’t harm them.

Many people feel abuse towards sportspeople is on the rise. As stated, this is a salient issue for the NBA right now. There are many factors potentially behind it, like the rise in gambling on games meaning people are more invested in outcomes, the crowds being closer and more present than in most other sports, the post-pandemic aspect meaning people forget behavioural norms, and more.

LA Lakers player Russell Westbrook has been very vocal about how vocal fans of his own team have been getting towards him. Pic by Erik Drost

Also, it’s hard to avoid wondering if there’s a racial element at work. Basketball is a very lucrative sport in a country as polarised as the US, played predominately by highly-paid African Americans, but largely run by wealthy middle aged white guys. That NBA players can be fined five figure sums if they react to outright abuse from fans sits very uneasy in this context.

Beyond Basketballs, there’s also consumption of alcohol at sporting events. And the omnipresence of social media, meaning countless strangers can feel more connected to athletes, and subsequently more willing, and able, to insult and abuse themwhen they’ve earned their displeasure.

These are all potential explanations for increasing vitriol and attacks on sportspeople by those in the crowds. None of them are justifications. The truth is, we currently know far more about sport and how people work than we ever have. The fact that the top athletes, for all their fame, wealth, and admiration, are humans like the rest of us, with all the inherent flaws and vulnerabilities that implies, really shouldn’t be overlooked.

Saying that abuse and attacks are something sportspeople sign up to as the price of their success is the same argument as insisting that big celebrities have given up the right to privacy by courting fame in the first place. Just because a lot of people agreed with it didn’t make it right, then or now. Here’s hoping the sport lovers of the world can quickly arrive at the same conclusion.

Dean Burnett is responsible for the Accelerate Sport eLearning programme ‘Understanding Mental Health in Young Players’. His latest book, Psycho-Logical, explores how the brain deals with stress and adversity in even more detail.

Dr Dean Burnett is a neuroscientist and best selling author of such books as The Idiot Brain and The Happy Brain. His former column Brain Flapping for The Guardian (now Brain Yapping here on the CSN) was the most popular blog on their platform with millions of readers worldwide. He is a former tutor and lecturer for the Cardiff University Centre for Medical Education and is currently an honorary research associate at Cardiff Psychology School and Visiting Industry Fellow at Birmingham City University.  He is @garwboy on Twitter.

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