Sport without fans challenges players in very different ways

Sport without fans challenges players in very different ways

Cork and Kilkenny fans watch the action in the league. Some players thrive under the pressure of performing in front of a crowd. Picture: INPHO/James Crombie

AT the end of the first leg of the 2013 Champions League semi-final, when Borrussia Dortmund had just whacked Real Madrid 4-1, the Dortmund players wandered down to their famous ‘Yellow Wall’ to soak up the applause of the adoring 25,000 supporters in that part of the ground.

After joining hands and lining up across the pitch, the Dortmund players sat down in the penalty area and just gazed in delight at the passionate scenes of delirium unfolding in the terrace before them.

The incredible atmosphere provided one of the most beautiful modern images in the too-often money-driven world of professional soccer - because the connection between a group of players and their supporters was never more palpable.

Most big modern soccer stadiums don’t have terracing but there has always been that special bond between Dortmund and the ‘Yellow Wall’.

When they played their first game after the lockdown in May, hammering Schalke 4-0, the Dortmund players continued their tradition of saluting the 'Yellow Wall' despite no supporters being present.

Dortmund and Schalke share a deep-seated rivalry dating back nearly a century, but there was none of that emotion audible or visible. The Westfalenstadion is built to house 81,365 fervent fans but there were just 213 authorized attendees that afternoon.

Borussia Dortmund supporters produce an atmosphere as intimidating as any in world sport. Picture: Dennis Grombkowski/Bongarts/Getty Images
Borussia Dortmund supporters produce an atmosphere as intimidating as any in world sport. Picture: Dennis Grombkowski/Bongarts/Getty Images

Geisterspiele, or 'ghost games’, was the nomenclature adopted to describe those early Bundesliga fan-less matches. But that has now become the reality for players everywhere.

The presence of supporters transforms the atmosphere and the games the fans come to watch. The emotional resonance supporters lend to those occasions is acutely felt when they are removed. Before sports reconvened during the summer, some commentators argued that the experience would be so emotionless that it would border on being pointless. Because supporters make sport mean something much more than just the result.

In a recent GPA Podcast, former Kerry player Jack O’Shea said that it will be difficult for inter-county GAA players to motivate themselves with the prospect of playing in front of empty stadia.

"I used the crowd to motivate me and I used them to inspire me,” said O’Shea. "Of course, they are a huge part of it. It's very difficult for county players to put in a big effort and know there are going to be no supporters there because that's part of our life.” 

Most players don't hear the crowd while they're playing, but they feed off the energy and atmosphere, especially after making a big play. On the other hand, plenty of other players completely mentally disengage from the crowd as soon as they take to the field before a big game. In the literal meaning of the phrase, they have trained their mind to ‘block out the noise’.

It will still be a new experience. Players won’t have the distractions of the stadium, the sounds, even the feelings, especially the momentum shifting with the crowd.

Some players may experience what some experts describe as “an audiovisual disconnect”, especially when humans instinctively form associations between what they see and hear. Even a ringing chorus of boos can be motivating.

Live and energetic crowds are a by-product of excellence because they also shape the standard on show, especially in pressurised environments. Some athletes feed off adrenaline, but other experts have argued that the rush can be counterproductive in sports that demand finesse and fine motor skills. Because we have such a strong association between our motor system and our auditory system, really loud crowd noise is tress inducing and can increase production of cortisol - the primary stress hormone.

Increased cortisol levels can cause muscles to tighten but that deafening noise can still be addictive for many players. Yet for all those who may feel empty inside when a brilliant score is greeted with silence, there will be plenty more players who may feel more comfortable, and less intimidated, from the pressure of playing in front of a packed stadium.

Each player is programmed differently but there is difference between mental toughness and mental resiliency. Most players have a tremendous resiliency when it comes to dealing with pressure, or other obstacles such as coping with injuries and overcoming poor form. So for those players who normally use the crowd as an energy supply, they will use that same resilience to cope with playing in empty stadiums.

The big advantage GAA players already have is that they have been used to the experience from the club game. No club game will pack out Croke Park but an empty stadium is an empty stadium, whether its club or inter-county activity on show.

That lack of emotional connection in large stadiums has also prompted some critics to conveniently point to the return of elite sport as a path chosen purely for the purpose of television, and the revenue it generates.

But the people watching on television are fans too. In that context, when games are being staged on TV, they are primarily being screened to many supporters who can never attend live matches. That is particularly relevant during the current crisis but it’s also a hard reality for many supporters, young and old, whose only way of consuming sport is through TV.

They may yet be some crowds at inter-county matches this year, but there certainly won’t be packed stadiums. That will inevitably dilute the power of collective imagining from the players and supporters. But competitive sports people don’t really need fans present to create a forced energy for them. Inter-county players’ energy and motivation largely stems from representing their clubs, communities and counties.

And doing their best to make their people – at home – as proud as they can.

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