A Whole New Game: How no fans in the stands affects top golfers

The absence of fans due to COVID-19 at major events is a new and fascinating phenomenon. In this article, I share insights into how it can help and hurt performance and the strategies that support top players to best adapt.

In 2020, amidst the struggles the world has faced trying to contain the novel coronavirus, the world of sport has looked and felt very different for professional athletes and fans. Sports officials found no safer alternative than to bar spectators from all major events and it has created in many ways a ‘whole new game’ that we all have been forced to adapt to. The NBA resorted to broadcasting crowds into the arena by way of 17-foot LED screens which has been described by coaches and players alike, “as if we are playing in a video game.”

In the football arena, Los Angeles Football Club coach, Bod Bradley explained to reporters for the LA Times that, “the game is always better with fans”, and “spectators bring the game to life.” Similarly, professional footballers across the globe agree that competing without the adrenaline buzz from fans has affected their passion and drive. Dan Weigand, former editor of the Journal Applied Sport Psychology said, “it’s like a stand-up comic performing in front of a camera instead of a live audience.”

This Year at Augusta National
In November 2020, when the best golfers in the world teed up at Augusta National the course looked eerily deserted. Without the family inspired par-3 tournament and traditions that make it a special event every year in our golf calendar, it seemed to me, like the heart and soul of the tournament was missing. This year, the stillness of the course at the Masters brought to life the sacred or holy ground of golf that commenters have respectfully painted the Masters to be. As day one of the tournament rolled into day two, the incredible contrast of scenes from previous years seemed to elevate. As you watched Tiger walk the fairways on the second nine of day two, the defending champion was surrounded by unfamiliar, long shadows of the trees in the twilight, instead of dense, eager crowds ready to roar at an inspiring shot.

How Have No Spectators Affected Top Golfers?
Now it might be true, that no player misses the beer-guzzling fan yelling “get in the hole” every time they swing. But, not having a crowd to play to can immensely affect the performance of professional golfers. Jordan Spieth said, there are no bodies to stop wayward tee shots from bouncing into the woods. Other players have pointed out that, when you don’t have the roar of the crowd to signal a birdie from your opponents on another hole, it forces you to review the scoreboard more than usual when you are in contention. The more a player’s eyes meet the scoreboard the more time they spend thinking about scoring or predicting the results. Instead of playing their own game, they become majorly distracted and shot-making declines rapidly.   

The Intersection of Athlete and Audience
It seems there are many disadvantages to performance for elite athletes when the crowd is removed from the arena. However, I believe that the greatest disadvantage in this circumstance, is the removal of “social facilitation” – the urge humans feel to be at their best in front of others. This is the intersection of athlete and audience. Seasoned elite athletes not only learn to embrace the crowd over time but use it as an instrument to propel momentum and drive. Some athletes, feed off adrenaline, harnessing the extra strength and endurance, sharpening their focus.

On the flip side, spectator presence isn’t welcomed by all elite athletes, especially those inexperienced with crowds. Performing in front of others can heighten self-consciousness and increase anxiety, causing athletes to ‘choke’ in their performance. The absence of crowds at tournaments has possibly created the perfect opportunity for rookies on the PGA tour to thrive in major events. Navigating the overwhelming crowds for the first time in big events simply wasn’t a hurdle that rookie players had to overcome this year. Rookie player Scottie Scheffler seized the opportunity, playing incredibly consistent this year with back-to-back T-4 showings and shot 59 in the second round at TPC Boston.

The athletes who have best responded to these new circumstances have seen it as an opportunity for growth, refinement, or learning. Seasoned athletes accustomed to receiving a boost from spectators in competition, now have to be more self-reliant and find the drive within. Tiger’s performance on the final stretch of holes at the Masters this year was a perfect example of an athlete accessing the inner drive to recover from a major set-back and finish strong without the crowd there to spur him on. After making a 10 at the treacherous par-3, 12th hole, Tiger birdied five of the last six holes, which is an incredible display of focus and determination.

Mental Preparation is the Key to Finding Inner-Drive
There is no doubt that elite athletes have had to refine and strengthen their mental preparation before competing this year to self-motivate better than ever before. The most powerful way to self-motivate and find your inner drive is by using a ritual or routine to mentally prepare before the day starts. A ‘pre-performance routine’ is separate from the warm-up and is a series of thoughts and actions that help athletes activate their mind and body ready to perform. It can be a very individual sequence of steps, for some it includes stretching and movement, for others, music and meditation. I believe the most effective routines are 5-15 minutes long, just enough time to feel focused and energized, but not so lengthy and involved that it becomes difficult to sustain.

Here is a simple but powerful 5-step routine I created to introduce the concept of pre-performance routines to athletes I work with. It only takes 5-minutes to perform and was a staple technique in the Singapore Sailing team’s daily preparation at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games.

1. Pick a Focal Point
Zone your visual focus to a point on the wall in front of you. This is the first step in engaging full focus to minimize distractions and quiet the mind.

2. Form Your Clear Intention for the Event
A clear intention is in essence a goal statement. What do you intend to do today once you step into the performance arena? Form images of yourself performing well in the moment. Imagine and feel the type of emotion and attitude you want to demonstrate and not simply in terms of tasks you need to complete.

3. Trigger Your Performance Focus
Think of a few words that sum up how you want to carry yourself today and the presence you want to display (e.g., “committed”, “fearsome focus”, “ready to adapt”). This will create your guiding attitude. Repeat that word over to yourself. This word will act as your performance trigger.

4. Breathe Deeply and Release Tension
Focus intently on your breathing, taking deep breaths in through the nose and out through the mouth. Scan your body for excess tension in the major muscle groups and imagine that tension being released on the exhale.

5. Power Pose
Continue to breathe deeply while engaging in a powerful posture. Lift the body, stand tall, draw the shoulders down and back, and stand with your hands on your hips. Positive body language can configure the mind to feel more grounded, confident, and composed.

Enjoy experimenting with this routine before your next round and feel more energised and focused than ever before, no matter who is or isn’t there to cheer you on.

Dr Jay-Lee Nair PhD | Psychologist MAPS
Book an appointment with Dr Jay-Lee at the Singapore Sports Medicine Centre to master your own pre-performance routine, with or without fans.