As an athlete, have you ever been suddenly thrust into a position in which you were the one to make a move, score a goal, or do something glorious to bring your team to victory, while at the same time becoming keenly aware of all the eyes of the observers upon you? How did it effect you? Did you pull through and perform or did you choke only to walk away red faced and embarrassed. I recall when I was learning to surf and got way in over my head at Ocean Beach in San Francisco, on a double overhead barreling day. I toasted my arms on the grueling paddle out and then sat far on the outside just so I didn’t get caught on the inside. But a half hour later, sure enough a macking set rolled in from the horizon, and I just happen to be the only surfer, out of hundreds out there, sitting right where the crushing waves would peak. In a moment of almost humorous terror, I could hear the masses of talented OB surfers on the inside, yelling and cheering me on. Next thing I knew, I was chest down on my board paddling against my own conscious will into the first wave of the set. My arms felt like logs, I was barely moving and my mind was running through all the things that would keep me from doing the infamous beginner pearl or the embarrassing skipping chest ride down the face of the wave. Trying to avoid both of those disastrous endings, I stood up way too early and for a moment thought I might get this thing! But sure enough, with such little paddle speed, I ended up on the lip of the wave as it pitched hard. In the curtain, free-falling to the bottom, my mind was thinking of how funny this must look to all those surfers watching and the morbid entertainment value they were getting. Within a second, I was pounded into the peaceful darkness with only my leash indicating which way to go up. But for a moment, I didn’t want to go up. But when the drive to breathe overrode that reservation, I surfaced and was happy to find there was so much swell that nobody could even see me. I then caught a glimpse of all the surfers getting pounded in their own right, by the other waves in the set.
This experience hammered home to me the power of group influence and the role of social facilitation. It goes on all the time in most areas of life and influences behaviors and decision making in profound ways. Much like many athletes I’ve known over the years, I liked to believe that I’ve approached my sports in the ways that I have purely “because of my love for it”. We’ve heard many athletes during interviews, including myself, comment on this. For some reason there is an inherent reservation for us to admit that we enjoy doing things for the audience or out of being influenced by spectators. What is quite interesting about social facilitation, is that it is bred very deep in evolution and probably has effects upon us that we may not necessarily like to admit. Some of it’s effects are positive and some are negative. It’s quite probable that decisions that result from social facilitation have a net positive effect and somehow have benefited the survival of many species. In 1969, a study by Zajonc, Keingartner, and Herman showed that even cockroaches were subject to changes in behaviors in the presence of other cockroaches. Cockroaches exposed to other cockroaches completed complex tasks more slowly than when alone. But if the tasks were simple, they would complete them more quickly in the presence of other cockroaches than when alone.
So what does this mean for athletes? If you are good at something you will generally perform better when in the presence of others than when alone. But if you are not good at something and the task seems relatively complex to you, you are more likely to choke in the public eye.
How might you be able to harness this effect to enhance your athletic performance or to shift your decision making towards a goal of long term health in your chosen recreation? The first step might be accepting that social facilitation exists. The second step would then be training enough in your chosen sport so that the tasks begin to look simple before putting yourself on the public stage.