Ask any NBA player or coach where they would prefer to play a high stakes game, home or away, and the vast majority will choose being in the friendly confines of their home arena. Overall, the win-loss records of most teams would support that, but they would do even better if they taught their home fans a lesson in performance psychology.
When it comes to sports skills, research has shown that we’re better
off to just do it rather than consciously thinking about the mechanics
of each sub-component of the move. Waiting for a pitch, standing over a
putt or stepping up to the free throw line gives our brains too much
opportunity to start breaking down the task. Add competitive pressure
brought on by a close game watched by a loyal home fans and we can
easily slip out of the well-practiced mental map, known as automaticity,
that usually gets the job done.
But what about elite athletes who are the best in the game? Surely,
they’ve found ways to handle pressure and keep their brains on
auto-pilot without getting an online psychology degree? Actually no, says researchers Matt Goldman and Justin Rao.
In a study presented at the recent Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, they revealed an interesting paradox; playing in front of a home crowd can be both a benefit and a curse for NBA players.
For most of a basketball game, players are in constant motion
reacting to their teammates and opponents. They have very little time
for “self-focus” or thinking too much about the dozens of small
movements that make up their motor skills, except for one event – the
free throw. After being fouled while taking a shot, the play comes to a
halt. The aggrieved player stands at the free throw line, fifteen feet
from the basket, with the other nine players as well as thousands of
fans staring at him.
The crowd, thinking they’re doing him a favor, gets eerily quiet.
The pressure builds as he’s allowed to remember the score of the game,
how much time is left and the disappointment that he and almost everyone
else there will feel if he misses this shot. To counter this, he
starts running through his mental checklist; find a focus point, keep
your elbow in, bend your knees, follow-through. Bringing all of these
pieces into his conscious mind will most likely cause him to miss the
shot, only adding more pressure if he’s fouled again.
Goldman and Rao compared the stage fright of shooting free throws
with another very common basketball skill, offensive rebounding.
Recovering the ball after a missed shot is vital to a team’s chances of
winning since it provides another possession opportunity to score.
It’s also a task that is done in the constant motion of the game with
the crowd cheering. There is no time to self-reflect on the skill
components of rebounding, it just happens. If a player does not get a
rebound, there is no obvious public shame as the play immediately
So, could playing in front of a home crowd affect one part a player’s game but not another?
Using detailed play by play data from every NBA game from 2005-2010
(six full seasons), including 1.3 million possessions and 300,000 free
throw attempts, they first found an expected result that, in general,
home team players have a higher overall free throw shooting percentage
than the visitors. However, Goldman and Rao then looked at what happens
in clutch situations, which they define, in a detailed mathematical
formula, as being late in the game when the score is close. In those
high pressure moments, the home team does significantly worse at the
charity stripe than their opponents. They blame this mostly on the
actions of the fans. To go from constant noise and fast action to
perfect quiet and stillness is enough to take even the best basketball
players in the world out of their rhythm and into a damaging self-talk
At the other end of the court, when visiting players are taking free
throws, the crowd, again thinking they’re helping, goes crazy with
waving arms, signs and noise. However, the data showed that the free
throw percentages of the visitors in clutch situations remains unchanged
from their normal away percentage. The researchers argue that the
distractions actually help the opponents at the line by not allowing
them to think about their complicated motor skills.
To show that the pressure doesn’t affect all skills, the stats also
showed that the home team’s offensive rebounds got progressively better
in clutch situations supporting the theory that positive support can
increase effort. As with free throws, the visiting team’s clutch
performance in rebounding was unchanged from normal game situations.
Not all players are created equal. The study called out a few NBA
players as being either clutch at the free throw line or chokers under
pressure, including two of the game’s top stars. Manu Ginobili of the
San Antonio Spurs, who has a career 83% free throw percentage, is the
player you most want at the line when the game is close. On the other
hand, Paul Pierce of the Boston Celtcs, with an 80% career percentage,
was the second worst free throw shooter in clutch situations.
Maybe a few brave Celtic fans at the Garden can begin to reverse the
trend and go crazy when Pierce is at the line. Just be sure to be near
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