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How Competing Without Fans In The Stands Could Affect Olympic Athletes' Performances

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

For athletes, this sound can be a source of motivation or dread.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

CHANG: At the upcoming Olympic Games, it's a sound that competitors will not be hearing. After Japan declared a state of emergency due to a spike in coronavirus cases, Olympic organizers announced that the games will be held without spectators. So we wondered, what effect will this have on athletes? To talk about that, we're joined now by Daniel Weigand. He's an adjunct professor of sport and performance psychology at the University of Western States. Welcome.

DANIEL WEIGAND: Hi. Good to be with you.

CHANG: Good to have you. So first, let's just talk about what effect crowds generally have on athletes. Like, at the Olympics, you usually picture these stadiums full of people watching track and field or gymnastics or whatever event. Can you just talk about what an in-person crowd does for competitors?

WEIGAND: Well, with most things, it depends on the person. What we try to do is we try to get athletes into an optimal zone of arousal. So over time, we train them using mental skills techniques where they can manipulate their heart rate, their breathing, their sweaty palms and interpret it as excitement.

CHANG: So for athletes who thrive off of that crowd energy, like, say, the gymnast Simone Biles, who has said that she's a little worried about not having her fans around her, is there a way for athletes to sort of create that energy for themselves?

WEIGAND: So you're going to use imagery, the five senses, to imagine what it's like performing in front of a crowd and simulate that experience because the crowd's not going to be there.

CHANG: So can you give examples of how an athlete can do that with their five senses?

WEIGAND: Sure. You're going to picture in your mind that you're performing in front of the crowd. You're going to hear the crowd noise. You're going to feel the tension. You're going to smell the arena. And you're going to practice that over and over again until it feels comfortable. So, for example, a long jumper might clap his or her hands to get the crowd's attention, to have them clap and cheer for him so it increases his arousal level. He's going to have to practice doing that without having a crowd there.

CHANG: That's so interesting. I didn't yet picture that the training these athletes have been going through has had to integrate that simulation of crowds in order to prepare for these unusual Olympics.

WEIGAND: Absolutely.

CHANG: Well, what about athletes who may perform better without a crowd?

WEIGAND: Well, and the irony here is that a lot of Olympic sports are performed without crowds. So being at the Olympics, where there are no crowds, for the individuals who prefer that lower level of arousal, don't necessarily like performing in crowds, it might be ideal for them.

CHANG: Right. What about the camaraderie between athletes? Like, I know that unnecessary forms of physical contact are prohibited at these games, like high-fives, hugs, and athletes can't watch events as spectators and cheer on their team members from the stands. How do you think that might impact performance?

WEIGAND: Well, I definitely think it'll impact their enjoyment of the events. First time you get to go to an Olympics and you can't do those things, it's going to be very frustrating. I saw the other day where they're going to have to put the medals on themselves rather than have somebody put the medal over their neck.

CHANG: Whoa.

WEIGAND: That's got to be frustrating to not be able to get the total experience. So, again, for some individuals who prefer that team environment, they're going to suffer, or at least they're going to have the potential to suffer if they don't prepare well. The ones who don't want that, again, may have an ideal scenario.

CHANG: Daniel Weigand is an adjunct professor of sport and performance psychology at the University of Western States. Thank you very much for joining us today.

WEIGAND: Thank you - appreciate it.

(SOUNDBITE OF FEIST SONG, "I'M NOT RUNNING AWAY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.