Is the Home Advantage Overrated in Sports?
When the stakes are high, does it really help to compete at home?
Posted Apr 30, 2015
Here we are: Spring is finally here; nature is coming back to life for us “lucky” people in the Great White North. However, Spring also means championship playoff time for two of the main North-American professional sports leagues, the National Hockey League (NHL) and the National Basketball Association (NBA). Millions of fans are now hoping that “this is the year” for their team. Of course, I am one of them as I cheer for "my" Montreal Canadiens.
Playoff time is when the stakes are the highest in the world of sports. Really, the regular season is just to find out who makes the cut for the playoffs and who will get home advantage. In fact, most teams work very hard during the regular season to get the home advantage because it is well known that most teams have a better record at home than on the road. Of course, there are obvious advantages to playing at home, like home cooked meals, sleeping in your own bed, no traveling, etc. In fact, others have even suggested officiating bias as a potential factor in this effect (Wright & House, 1989). However, there are also the intangible advantages provided by a supportive audience (Baumeister & Steinhilber, 1994). Essentially, the idea is that having a supportive audience should increase motivation to perform well and win.
Interestingly, it has been proposed that playing at home can become a disadvantage when the stakes are high. Indeed, Baumeister and Steinhilber (1994) reported from archival data that the away team is more likely to win critical (series ending) games than early games in a series in both Major League Baseball World Series playoffs and NBA playoffs. Essentially, what this means is that the winners of a series are more likely to receive their trophy away than at home. This finding has also been reported for NHL hockey (Wright, Voyer, Wright, & Roney, 1995) and even for British golfers in the British Open Golf Championship (Wright, Jackson, Christie, McGuire, & Wright, 1991).
Why does the home advantage seem to break down in critical games? Baumeister and Steinhilber (1994) argued that the presence of a supportive audience might actually hinder performance. Essentially, when they are competing for a first championship, players have a chance to redefine themselves as champions and this presumably affects their level of self-attention. The end result is that well-learned tasks are given too much attention and execution suffers as a consequence. Obviously, poor execution produces poor performance in the complex tasks of the type involved in sports activities, hence the loss in front of a supportive audience in critical games.
Taking into account this self-redefinition hypothesis in their study design, Wright et al. (1995) included only critical games where a first time champion would be crowned. In contrast, Voyer, Kinch, & Wright (2006) challenged this view, arguing that the home disadvantage is more likely a manifestation of the good old Yerkes-Dodson law (Sarason, 1984), referring to the fact that optimal arousal is required to achieve optimal performance in complex tasks. In the case of sports events then, as the players approach a highly desirable goal (i.e., a championship), their level of arousal is more likely to increase beyond the optimal level and their performance suffers. Essentially, this is what most sports fans would describe as “choking”.
Voyer et al. (2006) supported this view by considering all critical games in NHL playoffs in the same range of years covered by Wright et al. (1995: from 1956-1993). Therefore, Voyer et al. included repeat champions as well as first time champions. With this approach, they replicated the results obtained by Wright et al. Interestingly, however, Voyer et al. found that the home disadvantage effect was stronger in first-time winners than repeat winners for the championship (final) round whereas the reverse was found for the non-championship rounds. Voyer et al. concluded that generalized arousal following the Yerkes-Dodson law was a more likely explanation than redefinition of the self to account for the home disadvantage. Essentially, repeat winners would meet fan expectations just by reaching the championship round and this would reduce pressure on them, whereas the highest level of pressure would be in the championship round for first-time winners as they have never won before.
What do these complicated explanations really mean? As you watch your favorite team move forward toward a championship, they might be more likely to win away from home in any series “clincher”. The lower likelihood of clinching a series at home than away makes it rather strange that teams compete so fiercely during the regular season to gain the home advantage in the playoffs. After all, there might not be such a thing as the home advantage in crucial games. Still, there is some pride in being the regular season champion. However, the "real" champion is determined in the playoffs. That is what makes the playoffs so much fun to watch!
In closing, here is an important message to all Canadiens fans: Go Habs Go!
Baumeister, R. F., & Steinhilber,A. (1984). Paradoxical effects of supportive audiences on performance under pressure: The home field disadvantage in sports championships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 47, 85-93.
Voyer, D., Kinch, S., & Wright, E. F. (2006). The home disadvantage: Examination of the self-image redefinition hypothesis. Journal of Sport Behavior, 29, 270-279.
Wright, C.R. & House, T. (1989). The diamond appraised. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Wright, E. F., Jackson, W., Christie, S. D., McGuire, G R., & Wright, R. D. ( 1991 ). The homecourse disadvantage in golf championships: Further evidence for the undermining effect of supportive audiences on performance under pressure. Journal of Sport Behavior, 14, 51-60.
Wright, E. F., Voyer, D, Wright, R. D., & Roney, C. (1995). Supporting audiences and performance under pressure: The home-ice disadvantage in hockey championships. Journal of Sport Behavior, 18, 21-28.