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Competitive Sports Performance With an Audience

Performance changes when others are watching.

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Runners in competitive sports

Men run slower and women run faster in competitive sports without an audience, according to research published in Psychology of Sport and Exercise (2021; 55 [33], 101943). The lack of audiences for competitive sports during the pandemic offered a chance to study the impact on performance.

A large body of research from “social facilitation theory” shows that a person’s performance is impacted when others watch. In general, this theory states that audience presence boosts simple task performance and diminishes complex task achievement. Researchers in Germany tested this theory with elite male and female biathletes over 117 events prior to and during the pandemic with or without an audience.

Data analysis showed a clear gender distinction. “The men’s results were as expected: They ran faster with an audience present, but performed more poorly in shooting,” said lead study author Amelie Heinrich, PhD candidate, Martin Luther University, Halle-Wittenberg, in Halle Germany. “Interestingly, it was the other way around for women.” When competing in front of spectators, women ran slower but took an entire second less when making a shot. “Our study raises questions about the generalisability of the social facilitation theory and indicates there might be a previously unknown difference between men and women.” Researchers note that gender should be taken into account when drawing conclusions about psychological factors.

See also: Music for Running Performance

Shirley Archer-Eichenberger, JD, MA

Shirley Archer, JD, MA, is an internationally acknowledged integrative health and mindfulness specialist, best-selling author of 16 fitness and wellness books translated into multiple languages and sold worldwide, award-winning health journalist, contributing editor to Fitness Journal, media spokesperson, and IDEA's 2008 Fitness Instructor of the Year. She's a 25-year industry veteran and former health and fitness educator at the Stanford Prevention Research Center, who has served on multiple industry committees and co-authored trade books and manuals for ACE, ACSM and YMCA of the USA. She has appeared on TV worldwide and was a featured trainer on America's Next Top Model.

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