What Exactly is Home Field Advantage?

By Zack Etter

It’s a month of championships in professional sports. The NBA and NHL seasons are concluding with their respective Finals series, and both teams in each series are vying to steal games on the road and turn the momentum in their favor. Coming off one of the wildest Champions League semifinals ever, one that saw dramatic comebacks and home field advantage playing a huge role in the outcomes of all four matches, let's discuss why playing at home is so beneficial. 

1. Humans are creatures of habit, so we function at a higher level when our behaviors are repetitive. Home teams are able to stick to their routine. Away teams can't. Home teams can stay at home or in their usual hotel the night before the game, in the same beds they always sleep in, eat in the same place at the same time they always do, and they don't have the physical and mental stress of traveling. The entire purpose of what we talk about with mental performance revolves around creating a routine that facilitates performance. Away teams must travel to the game, sleep in a place they never/rarely stay, prepare for the game in an unfamiliar locker room and training room, and must adapt to a new field, visual landscape of the stadium, etc. Playing a road game makes it nearly impossible to stick to the same routine — physically, mentally, or emotionally.

2. Psychologically speaking, the home crowd provides Positive Reinforcement to the home team when they're doing well, and Positive Punishment to the visiting team when they're playing poorly.

Positive Reinforcement - Providing a desirable stimulus so the behavior continues

The cheers and excitement from the crowd rewards the home team for their positive results. They also are an unwanted consequence for the visiting team when they don't play well. This can generate and sustain momentum in the home team's favor. Going back to #1, if nothing else, the home team is familiar with the crowd — where the bleachers are situated, what songs the stadium plays over the loud speakers. They may even be able to communicate with the crowd, asking them to be quiet or to get louder.

3. Playing on the road challenges the 3 Basic Psychological Needs of an athlete. As discussed in an earlier blog post, these three needs that an athlete must have met in order to perform at a high level are: Autonomy, Competence, and Connection. The nature of an opposing crowd is to erode the visiting athlete’s feeling of competence. They want the athlete to lose confidence and become distracted. Teams are more likely to be overwhelmed and think, “this hill is too big to climb” when trailing in a game on the road. Playing an away game also hurts an athlete’s feeling of connection. The “us against the world” mentality is easier said than done. Isolation and being harassed by thousands of individuals who you don’t know, but they don’t like you, is mentally taxing for most athletes.

How can you battle through these challenges and perform at a high level on the road? Email me for tips and strategies for your team!

zack@mymentalplaybook.com