Every athlete dreams of the moment.
The game is on the line. Maybe it’s for a championship or a gold medal or a record. But all those years of training were for this.
The focus is singular. The tension builds. And the fans are going …
Wait, what fans? This is 2020.
Stadiums, arenas and other venues are entirely or partially closed to fans as part of social-distancing efforts to curb the spread of the coronavirus.
Although Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced Thursday that outdoor stadiums can host fans up to 25% of capacity. It’s unclear when spectators will be permitted to fill stadiums to capacity across the country. Polls show many people are not comfortable being in large crowds at sporting events.
So how will athletes who are accustomed to playing in front of large crowds react to a new environment? USA TODAY Sports canvassed several sports psychologists and mental skills coaches to find out.
‘The audience is the drug’
Following the Los Angeles Lakers’ March 6 game against the Milwaukee Bucks, LeBron James fielded a question about the possibility of playing without fans.
“I ain’t playing,” James said. “I ain’t got the fans in the crowd. That’s who I play for. I play for my teammates. I play for the fans. That’s what it’s all about. If I show up to an arena and there are no fans in there, I ain’t playing. They can do what they want to do.”
Of course, James — like most people — didn’t realize the magnitude of the pandemic until about a week later when the sports world shut down.
James expressed a common feeling among athletes: “Doing it for the fans.” Carrie Wicks, a sports psychologist based in California who counts a few Major League Baseball players as clients, said she recently had one player tell her, “the audience is the drug.”
“It’s not just competition. It’s a performance,” she said. “Many athletes have a schtick that brings them to peak performance, and that is brought out by the audience.”
“Just like making a shot and having the same form every time, the reaction to how the crowd reacts to them — even though they appear like they’re Teflon dons and nothing impacts them — is very much a product of they’ve been watched their entire life,” said Eric Kussin, the founder of We’re All A Little Crazy, a non-profit that seeks to eliminate the stigma of addressing mental health in sports. “They appreciate the adoration or how they’re (admonished).”
Graham Betchart, a NBA mental skills coach who works with Aaron Gordon of the Orlando Magic, among others, likened the athlete to a lead singer and the crowd to the band.
“It feels good to be watched by everyone,” he said.
It will lead to an uneasy adjustment period for those used to the big stage, Kussin said, whether they’re supposed to experiencing cheers or jeers.
“From the time you were 12 or 13 in AAU games,” Kussin offered as an example, “all the way to three months ago when sports stopped, you were always surrounded by people watching you. That was always a piece of the puzzle.”
Energy deficiency, increased focus?
Jonathan Fader, who served as the team psychologist for the New York Mets for nine years and the director of mental health conditioning with the New York Giants for two years, sees energy deficiency as biggest obstacle for athletes to return to peak performance in an unfamiliar setting.
“Athletes are just like anyone else,” said Fader, who now runs SportStrata in New York. “We all require community. Athletes are performers. If you were at a meeting with your co-workers and only one showed up, you’d have a different energy level.”
The absence of fan energy could lead to heightened concentration in some cases, Fader said, such as a field goal attempt. But he also predicted lower scoring contests as a result.
Fader used football to convey the ideas of “low activation” and “high activation;” the more physical the sport, the higher impact the lack of fans can have on players, he said. Low activation players are a kicker, a punter, a long-snapper, a quarterback — someone not physically engaged on every play.
“Everything shifts to the right (increases), and everybody has to be a little more activated, because you’re not getting that natural activation from the fanbase,” he said.
Betchart referred to “a magnificent lack of energy” during potential games without fans. He said he believes athletes will have to strive for meaning and purpose from within.
“Really, they’re just not there in person for you,” he said. “But the fans are still there. I bet the TV ratings are going to be insane when these guys come back on. … It’s just they’re not going to have any energy to help push (the athletes). That’s a big difference, right?”
Things might become more heated on the court or field because of this, Betchard added.
“The energy might come from ‘F this dude guarding me, there’s no one here to watch.'” Betchart said.
Some players already tick in that manner. (Example A: Michael Jordan.) The absence of fans may reveal who else can mentally go there.
While energy may be down, focus may go up, according to one researcher. Oliver Stoll, a professor of sports psychology and and sports pedagogy at Martin Luther University of Halle-Wittenberg in Germany, said he thinks athletes will be able to concentrate more with no fans — distractions — around.
Stoll said the lack of fans is more of an issue for the news media and the economics of sport than one athletes must reckon with.
“(Fans) are not so important for the sport itself. Because the athlete has to be focused on the game, and not so much on spectators. My hypothesis: if they were focused on what was going on around them, they would be completely out of the game. You can’t do that. You have to be fully focused in what you do if you want to perform your best,” he said. “I know that spectators don’t want to listen to that because they see themselves as important parts of the game. They pay money for it. I understand it.”
What teams, athletes can do
In Germany, the Bundesliga, the country’s top pro soccer league, returned to action on May 16 — fans not included.
Stoll said four teams in the league asked him and colleagues for advice on how to train players. He counseled clubs to practice in their main stadium to simulate the feel of matches and for players to consider visualizing empty venues.
When it comes to half-full venues, Stoll said an obvious difference will be felt by players once attendance jumps from 0 to, say, 20,000 spectators. Jump from 20,000 to a sellout, though, and the difference is hardly felt, he said.
Betchart said the athletes honing their mental skills game before the pandemic will have an advantage. He’s said his colleagues in the industry have fielded more requests from pros to help gain an edge when competition resumes.
“You have to go to that vulnerable space and go ‘You know what, I’m going to show up anyway,’” he said.
Using baseball players as an example, Wicks pointed out athletes are often creatures of habits. She’s intrigued to see if teams can be creative and virtually bring fans into the stadium. Wicks also placed the onus on coaching staffs to bring out the best in the players.
“The coaches are going to have to find a lot more tricks in their bag to motivate,” she said. “And the players are going to have to work with themselves. Or, it’s going to be a significantly different game.”
Wicks’ biggest hope is that the execution on the field or court or track can reach a level seen only in the most controlled settings. But athletes may not be able to reach “flow state” — a psychology term for “in the zone,” without fans present.
“They reach flow state and their optimum performance through this bigger energy: the ‘collective unconscious,’ we call it,” Wicks said. “The energy, the expectation, the noise is a big thing. I think the silence is going to echo.”
Follow Chris Bumbaca on Twitter @BOOMbaca.