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Elon researchers examine factors of “home field advantage”

Why do sports teams perform better in their own stadiums or arenas than they do on the road? New research by assistant professor L. Kimberly Epting and Kristen Riggs ’10 suggests that it may not be the overwhelming applause that gives athletes a “home field advantage,” so much as it is the taunts that can ding their opponent.

Though data shows that home teams perform better than their opponents in some sports, little research exists to answer the "how" and "why." Work by assistant professor L. Kimberly Epting, Kristen Riggs '10 and others explores those questions in basketball, golf and baseball.

“Cheers vs. Jeers: Effects of Audience Feedback on Individual Athletic Performance,” published this summer in the North American Journal of Psychology, examined the way collegiate golfers, baseball and basketball players performed particular tasks in a controlled setting as volunteers applauded, taunted or offered them silence. The research is one of only a few experimental studies in the area, and “possibly the only study” ever conducted where audience behavior was systematically altered.

Researchers observed several effects:

• For basketball players, neither cheering nor jeering affected their ability to hit free throw shots.

• For golfers, both cheering and jeering harmed their ability to land a ball near a stationary flag. Only in silence did the test subjects find success at the task.

• For baseball pitchers, silence and cheering had no effect on hitting a strike zone. Jeering, however, caused a significant decline in accuracy.

“We assume that sitting at games, clapping our hands and going ‘yay!’ makes a difference, but no one has ever tested that directly. … We just don’t know what home field advantage is about,” Epting said. “We won’t know until we do experimental studies, and this is a small first step.”

Several published studies confirm that home teams win more games and perform better than opponents in some sports. The “how” is still unclear. Given her own research team’s results, and noting the baseball findings, Epting suggests that perhaps the home advantage is actually a “visiting team disadvantage.”

Epting and Riggs co-authored the article with Joseph Knowles and John Hanky, alumni from Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia who initiated the research with Epting in 2006-07 prior her joining the Elon University faculty. Hampden-Sydney alumnus Brian Rolander also contributed to the study.

While her “cheers vs. jeers” findings fascinated the researchers, Epting is quick to show that their work is only a tiny fraction of what can be studied.

She also offers several caveats to the current research. The sample sizes in the study were small, and though the athletes who were tested often performed in front of audiences, it was still a contrived situation where data was collected. Plus, athletes use multiple skills in any contest, and the study was able to only test one per sport. Epting said that free throws might not be impacted by crowd noise, but perhaps three-point shots? Or rebounds? It’s difficult to say what’s helped or harmed until more studies are complete.

If you want to keep claiming home field advantage, let’s find out what’s happening,” she said.

A graduate of UNC-Wilmington, Epting earned her doctorate in experimental psychology from Auburn University. She is an experimental psychologist with interest in learning, language and cognition and currently is conducting research in the area of self-editing behavior and its connection to thought and other variables such as print exposure. She teaches general psychology, learning, cognition, language and research methods.

Eric Townsend,
6/22/2011 8:26 AM