Dr Keith Souter writes: The Beijing Winter Olympics is now in full swing with lots to watch and admire. Yet because of Covid the athletes will once again perform in front of much smaller audiences than normally expected. Whether this is a good thing for the athletes is a hard question to answer.
However, the pandemic has actually permitted psychologists to make an assessment as to whether an audience has an effect. The lack of spectators during the 2020 Biathlon World Cup led to the conclusion in a paper published in journal Psychology of Sport and Exercise that without an audience man ran slower and women ran faster.
Interestingly, they also noted that women performed better and faster in complex tasks, as exemplified by the shooting component when an audience was present while men did not.
Apparently, according to social facilitation theory a person’s performance is generally affected if other people watch them. It has been noted that an audience will tend to improve the performance of simple tasks. For example, it seems to help when stamina is involved.
Whether it aids or hinders complex tasks that involve coordination has been more open to question. Up until this study the overall assumption has been that performance deteriorates when an audience is watching.
In this study the running times and shooting successes of male and female biathletes from 2018 season were compared with their performances in the 2020 season in the sprint and mass start events. They found that the men ran faster with an audience present but did not perform as well in shooting.
The women had the reverse results. They ran slower when an audience was present, but they performed better at shooting and had faster shooting times.
The biathlon was a good event to test because the cross-country skiing demands stamina, while shooting is a complex task involving coordination.
This was the first time that a study was able to show a different effect of the audience on men and women. Previous studies have been done on men only, so the pandemic situation gave the opportunity to test this out on large numbers of highly competitive individuals of both sexes.
It raises many questions and while further research is needed it will make watching the Winter Olympics very interesting.