success, home advantage & the Commonwealth Games
My last few working weeks have been an absolute whirlwind. I have been in the privileged position of working closely with a number of athletes and sports from Team Scotland at the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games, through my work as a psychologist with the sportscotland institute of sport.
What an incredible experience it has been. I’m sure anyone reading this with even a passing interest in sport would agree that Glasgow delivered a simply outstanding Games, possibly the best ever (I certainly cannot think of a Commonwealth meet that has surpassed it). In addition to the high levels of sporting endeavour, I was really impressed with the way the city embraced the spirit of the games. I previously have lived in Glasgow for several years, and I have to say, I’ve never seen the city looking so good, or in such a good mood! The whole place was buzzing from start to finish. At points, I had to remind myself I was in western Scotland and not on the Mediterranean.
On a psychological level, it interests me how such a large sporting event can influence the public mood in such a direct way. We have seen it recently with other cities. It will be fascinating to see the legacy of this on Glasgow, and on Scotland at large, particularly given the political debates and big decisions of the weeks ahead.
During the Games themselves, Team Scotland performed brilliantly, surpassing the levels we had hoped for - so many athletes and teams were able to raise the bar on their performances and achieve incredible successes. Following on from this, questions I have been asked and have considered often over the past few months, include what are the key factors in success, and, why is it that home teams tend to perform so well?
From my point of view, having spent a fair bit of time up close and personal with a number of the sportspeople involved in the competition, I would certainly pick out key factors that make a significant difference. It can often be multi-factorial and quite complex, but the first thing to say is that success is not an accident. Here are some areas that have struck me as important:
Talent: Clearly, in order to be successful in a sport, you have to have a natural aptitude and talent for it. The skill levels and abilities of some of the people I have worked with have been, frankly, amazing. Talent is a dynamic concept, and one worthy of a book, let alone a passing reference in a blog post. However, I do subscribe to the view that we are born with elements of sporting talent – for example, rhythm and timing, hand eye coordination, or muscle memory. How, or whether, these abilities are moulded into sporting achievement, are then down to a combination of individual and environment. You have to have the right opportunities to allow your talent to develop.
Teamwork: Teamwork is huge component of sporting accomplishment. This is true even for individual sports. If an athlete has the right combination of coaches and support staff - along with friends and family - to meet their physical, emotional and psychological needs, success and achievement becomes infinitely more likely. Of course, dynamics in teams and between people can often get complicated, so having the right blend of people around you is pretty fundamental.
Attitude: This is crucial. I would even argue that attitude is more important than talent as an influencing variable in success. To an extent, in the same way as physical skills and abilities, we are also born with a certain attitude or temperament, but this I think that this more than anything is shaped by our experiences and development. When people have the ‘right’ attitude, it is reflected in their commitment, drive and motivation for their sport. I know what it looks like – I have seen it in the driving wind and rain of a wet Glasgow February, as I watched sportsmen repeat the same tasks over and over, beyond the point of being bored and cold. Why did they do it? Because they wanted it what it would yield more than anyone else, and the end results are the gold medals now hanging around their necks.
Home advantage can also be a game changer. This was true in London 2012, and it has been true again for us in Glasgow 2014. It is quite an interesting concept, and on the surface of it, a purely psychological variable. However, in my experience some elements of home advantage are simple and practical. One of these is familiarity – simply, we are more familiar with our home turf. The more familiar you are with something, the more comfortable and confident you will be when you are around it. And this is about more than just a running track or patch of grass. It is about the whole set up, stadium, changing rooms, places to eat, drink, relax or sleep, go to the toilet, or buy coffee, as well as the people you see there day in day out.
In addition to the practical, support is obviously a significant element of home advantage. Some of this will come from family and friends, and some from the public. I think that people will tend to try harder (or will be more afraid to lose) when they are performing in front of those that they know. Of course, this is a double edged sword, as it can also bring pressure with it as well, and not everyone will cope with this.
These points are by no means exhaustive, and this is certainly not an academic article – they are simply my thoughts as I sit at an airport contemplating my experiences of the last few weeks. It does strike me that there are valuable lessons to be learned from these experiences though, for anyone preparing for anything, not just in sport, but in business as well. I would be interested in anyone else’s opinion, feel free to comment!
For those interested in reading more, I came across this article recently on the BBC website - it poses some interesting points about the phenomenon of home advantage - http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-28560479.
Yours in psychology,