Performance Psychology in the Premier League: Playing without a crowd
The Premier League, like all other sporting events, was halted in the midst of COVID-19 restrictions. Project Restart was initiated to plan the safe return of players to training and competition and ultimately to play out the remainder of the 2020 seasons albeit with delays and alterations. The purpose of this blog post is to explore the changes that have been implemented to ensure the safety of players (and general public) and to discuss the potential impact of these changes from a performance psychology perspective.
The most notable change stipulated as a requirement in Project Restart is the absence of fans in the stadium during matches. We know that the presence of the crowd has an impact on players and also on referee decision making. Some research indicates that match officials have a tendency to make decisions in the favour of the home team i.e. ‘home advantage’. Research has shown that in some cases the decision can be associated with crowd noise e.g. extremely loud noise or crowd reaction can be used as a proxy for severity of tackle etc. In the absence of the crowd it is likely that there will be a change in the decision making process for match officials. Early games have shown a reduction in Home Advantage (in Germany) but will the absence of the crowd have a negative effect on players performance?
Teams ten to perform better when playing at home, largely due to the instant feedback loop of information. When a player performs well, the home crowd responds. This can of course work in either direction, some players thrive in front of the crowd and energy grows as the match progresses if the team is performing. Conversely some players are negatively impacted or distracted by the crowd.
Additionally, the changes and alterations implemented to ensure player safety are undoubtedly going to impact players natural behaviour patterns and routines. For example, players might be restricted from high-fiving or hugging in celebration post-goal. Players will have to go through extensive COVID-19 testing before playing and traveling. Intense restrictions on the mode of travel allowed to and from games will be implemented as well as alterations to the dressing room environment. All of these necessities may increase player anxiety or decrease focus and attention during the match. Changes in fitness and conditioning are also a concern for returning players who have not had the typical pre-season preparation. To cater for these potential reductions in performance readiness Project Restart has introduced a mid-way water break during the first and second halves. Ultimately performance routines are going to be utterly changed from what they previously were and players will have to psychologically and physically adjust to the new pre-game and playing requirements.
Despite the difficult circumstances, it is a very exciting time for research in performance science and performance psychology. With the exception of basketball during the Measles outbreak in the USA in the 1990s, there has been very few instances in history where sports have had to play to empty stadiums. Sports psychologist and sciences will harness the opportunity to gain further insights in to physical and mental performance in the wake of COVID-19.
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