29 March, 2023 | Posted by Dr. Susan Giblin

Performance Psychology: Exploring the Impact of Empty Stadiums in the Premier League

Performance Psychology: Exploring the Impact of Empty Stadiums in the Premier League

This article is an exploration of performance psychology, exploring the impact of empty stadiums in the Premier League written by Dr Susan Giblin for Portobello Institute.

In 2022, Liverpool lost their first home game in four years. It was Burnley who came away with a surprising victory from Anfield on the 68th attempt. That ended the second-longest unbeaten streak of its kind in the history of English football.

A home loss was inevitable at some point, so while it was a surprise that Burnley won, it was always coming eventually.

That one loss was expected at some point. The three that came with it weren't. Jurgen Klopp's success at Liverpool has been defined by the team's unconscionable consistency. Tiredness, injuries and the inevitability of a loss could explain that loss to Burnley, but Liverpool had gone 98 years without losing four straight league games at home.

Even at their lowest points during the 30-year title drought, Liverpool didn't lose four straight home games. Djimi Traore, Igor Biscan, Alberto Moreno or Salif Diao didn't lose four straight home games.

But suddenly one of the best teams Liverpool has ever had does?

Different reasons can be pointed to but it's not a coincidence that this unwanted record came in this Covid-impacted season. There were no crowds in the stands and more away teams won games than home teams have for the first time in the history of the Premier League.

When Project Restart initiated the safe return of players to training and competition, it ultimately allowed the remainder of the 2020 season to be completed. There were delays and alterations, but all domestic and European results were based on a full fixture list of games. But the reworking of the 2020 season impacted the schedule of the 2021 season.

This created a completely unique season of football for professional players.

It will always be easy to differentiate this season from others when we look back because of the empty stands. It was the most notable change stipulated as a requirement in Project Restart. Instead of actual human beings creating a wall of noise in stadiums, we got fake crowd noise on tv and the players got echoing silence on the field. We know the presence of an actual crowd has an impact on players' and referees decision-making in the way that cardboard cutouts and banners don't.

Research indicates that match officials have a tendency to make decisions in favour of the home team. The idea of home advantage has existed for fans forever, and the research actually backs up that conventional wisdom. Extremely loud noise or crowd reaction can be used as a proxy for the severity of a tackle among other things.

In a study published in the Journal of the Royal Statistical Society, it was found that referees gave more yellow and red cards to visiting teams. They adjusted their results to account for the quality of each team involved and still found a bias for the home team. Robert Simmons, who led the research, also noted that referees were impacted less by home-field advantage in stadiums that had racing tracks to push the crowds further away from the field.

Back in 2014, the Seattle Seahawks American Football team set a noise record for the loudest crowd in an outdoor stadium. The Seahawks specifically designed their stadium to naturally increase the noise levels of those inside the stadium. There was an explainable science and concerted effort behind amplifying their home-field advantage. It worked for them too as they continue to be one of the best home teams in the NFL.

Teams tend to perform better when playing at home across all sports, largely due to the instant feedback loop of information.

When a player performs well, the crowd responds. When a player performs poorly, the crowd responds. Some players thrive in front of a crowd and their energy grows as the match itself progresses. If the team is performing well, the player is encouraged to maintain or increase his intensity to elevate his own performance. Conversely, some players are negatively impacted or distracted by the crowd, which compounds any mistake they make and causes them to overthink what is normally a natural action or reaction.

Additionally, the alterations implemented to ensure player safety have undoubtedly impacted each player’s natural behaviour. Their patterns and routines are completely different now. During the early stages of Project Restart, players were implored not to celebrate in the ways they had previously. The Bundesliga was the first European league to return and it was startling how players could only celebrate individually while their teammates watched from a safe distance. That has eased off in the months since and players are back to celebrating in the ways they always have.

But there are still major concerns. The most notable failure of this kind came from the Los Angeles Dodgers after they won the World Series in baseball. Justin Turner played in the final game, was removed from the game late after testing positive for Covid-19, and was isolated but then escaped isolation to join his teammates in their trophy celebration.

That has been an outlier story so far but every player had to consider that one of his close teammates could be Covid positive despite the prevalence of testing.

Players have gone through extensive Covid-19 testing before playing and travelling. There have been intense restrictions on the modes of travel allowed to and from games, while many international games have been relocated completely. Liverpool beat RB Leipzig, a German team, in Hungary for their away leg in the Champions League because the game couldn’t be played in Germany.

Dressing room environments changed and players even lined up further apart for national anthems (see the Ireland rugby team). Those who didn't follow the regulations and celebrate together risked the spread of Covid (see the France rugby team).

All of these necessities may have increased player anxiety or decreased focus and attention during the match. Changes in fitness and conditioning were 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 introduced a mid-way water break during the first and second halves of games. Those were necessary during the hotter months of the year but were phased out after the first season was completed.

Ultimately, during the Covid-19 pandemic, performance routines were completely different to what they were previously. Players had to psychologically and physically adjust to the new pre-game, post-game and in-play requirements.

There have been very few instances in history where sports have had to play in empty stadiums. With the exception of basketball during the Measles outbreak in the USA in the 1990s, this was a unique time for research in performance science and performance psychology. This is an opportunity for sports psychologists and scientists to gain further insight into physical and mental performance.

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