Author: Rachel Kent*
*Corresponding Author Address:
To review Great British (GB) athletes’ perceptions of home court advantage and competing ahead of the 2012 London Olympic Games a qualitative study using semi-structured interviews was conducted. The seven topics discussed in the interview were based on previous research. Five female GB Olympic sprinters were interviewed at their training facility in West London as they trained for the 2012 Olympic Games. Athlete responses were coded into categories then analysed using phenomenological analysis.
Athletes had a range of reasons why they believed they had a ‘home advantage.’ All athletes agreed that media representation could be good if media was positive but was bad when the media coverage was negative. Athletes reported a range of expectations some expressing high expectations and associated higher levels of performance anxiety. Athletes reporting lower levels of expectations had lower levels of performance anxiety. Athletes reported different sources of expectations and the significance of the source to them and their anxiety. The implications of the research findings suggest recommendations for media and sponsors, coaches, family, and friends to help provide the athletes with the optimum levels of unconditional support to aid in performance and prevent pressure, stress and pre-competitive anxiety.
KEYWORDS: Olympic Games, Olympics, Home Court Advantage, Expectancy Theory, Self-fulfilling prophecy, Media bias, Athletes, Phenomenological Analysis
The Olympic Games are one of the largest global media events in the world, and indeed, more and more sporting events such as the World Championships; the Commonwealth Games; the Football World Cup and the Super Bowl, are emulating the prestige and media interest once reserved for the Olympics, as an entertainment industry for the public (Rivenburgh, 2003). Sports coverage in the media, which includes television and radio broadcasts, newspaper and magazine print media, and more recently using the Internet, has been steadily rising over the past decade to meet the demand of the consumers, including increasing interest in the athletes themselves (Chang, Taylor & Walker, 2011). Despite such a significant increase, there are few studies that have attempted to identify athlete responses to the portrayal of themselves in the media, the rise in reporting and glamour surrounding global sporting events typically seen today.
Athletes that excel, and athletes that choke have either exceeded expectations or underperformed to the expectations of others, which the media plays a crucial role in forming. One year ahead of the Olympics, the British media was already speculating and applying expectations for medal winning performances from home athletes who have won medals in previous international events.
The media is not the only source of expectations athletes face. Coaches form expectations for their athletes’ performances and act on them accordingly, which has inspired the development of Coach Expectancy Theory where coaches’ expectations are considered to have a significant and lasting effect on the athletes they train, (Becker & Solomon, 2005; Darley & Fazio, 1980; Wilson & Stephens, 2007; Wilson, Cushion & Stephens, 2006). However, few of the studies have attempted to elicit from the athletes their perceptions of the expectations their coaches have placed upon them, and how they believe it affects them.
A belief the media, coaches and indeed athletes themselves develop is an expectation of an advantage when playing at ‘home.’ This falls within the Home Court Advantage literature. Researchers are still trying to find definitive answers to uncover which variable(s) lead to home advantage with various studies finding significant results while another measuring the same variable(s) may find no significance, (Balmer, Nevill, & Williams, 2001; Bray & Widmeyer, 2000; Carron, Loughhead, & Bray, 2005; Courneya & Carron, 1992). There have also been studies which have found the same variables to lead to a home disadvantage due to perceived pressure to perform. (Voyer, Kinch, & Wright, 2006).
The purpose of this study was to identify Great Britain (GB) athletes’ perceptions of what it meant to them to be competing in the 2012 Olympic games within the key issues highlighted in the literature; Media/Sponsor’s, Coach, Family and Friends of the athlete, perceptions of Home Court Advantage, training for London 2012 Olympic Games, views of sportsmanship and any other concerns that may have been missed in earlier research.
In any athlete’s career, the Olympic Games are believed to be the pinnacle in sporting achievement and success (Gould, Greenleaf, Guinan, & Chung, 2002). However the athletes today play only a small, albeit central, part in the overall legacy of what the Olympic Games have developed into over the past 100 years. Kaplanidou and Karadakis (2010) summarised that the “Olympic Games is the World’s largest and most complex sporting event to host and manage” (p. 110). Countries hosting the games have to provide for “more than 11,000 athletes and officials, 20,000 media personnel and thousands of additional volunteers, protestors and spectators” Rivenburg, (2003, p. 43). It is interesting to note that there are more media personnel attending the games than athletes. With so many representatives of the media in and around the event reporting on the Olympics and related issues, it is not surprising the level of saturation of Olympic coverage seen in newspapers, on the television, radio, and Internet; especially in the host country.
Chang, Crossman, Taylor, & Walker (2011) examined the American newspaper, the Globe and Mail’s, articles on the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. They found that predicting game results made up 23.7% of total coverage which was the greatest theme found. The second theme was reporting game results, and the third theme was athleticism. Chang et al. reported that “athletes who had won medals in previous Olympic Games or international competitions were under excessive pressure to win from the media and the public” (2011, p. 33). Few studies have sought to examine the effects of this perceived pressure from the media and the public on the athlete’s themselves, and is one of the topics in the interviews discussed with the athletes.
There has been one study that asked wrestlers about how they perceived media coverage of them in their local and national newspapers and how they considered this had affected them as serious athletes. Sisjord and Kristiansen (2008) found athletes were portrayed as a form of entertainment, which was supported by the athletes in interviews, which Sisjord and Kristiansen (2008) believed could have affected audiences’ perceptions of the seriousness of the sport. If media coverage prior to the 2012 Games focused on scandals and sensationalisation of GB athletes, it is not unreasonable to expect the athletes to resent the media coverage of them, and for this to have a negative effect on their motivation, concentration and, as a consequence, their performances.
Nevertheless, even positive coverage of support can be detrimental to the athletes’ performance if the support implicitly applies increased pressure to perform to the high standards the media has imposed upon the featured athletes. No studies found to date have examined athlete interpretation of such positively insinuated media coverage. This is an issue addressed in the present study.
It is not only athletes the media has an influence upon, but the public too. Phua (2010) investigated public use of the media, the method of access, and the way in which the fans ‘identified’ with their teams’ successes and failures and how this state influences their collective self-esteem. The findings of Phua’s (2010) study showed that sports fans identify with their teams success and failures and internalise them within the fan’s social group. Another study examining public perceptions was by Wanta, Golan, and Lee (2004) who investigated how the American media influenced US public opinion of foreign nations during their reports of international news. Wanta et al. (2004) indicated that the media’s limited slots for news meant that only a small selection of stories would actually be presented to the public, which gives the featured stories relative importance. Once selected, further importance to the story is generated by the amount of coverage it is given, “thus the public learns the importance of issues based on the amount of coverage that those issues receive” (p. 376).
Based on this information, Wanta et al. (2004) proposed that the media not only influence what topics the public thinks about (first-level agenda) but how the public thinks about these issues (second-level agenda). These results were supported by a similar study into media slant on public perceptions of environmental articles in newsprint by Christen and Huberty (2007). A noteworthy result of this study was that significant results for negative coverage on that foreign nation being featured had a positively correlated negative public opinion on the same nation being featured. However, no significant results were found for positive coverage and a positively correlated positive public opinion. Christen and Huberty concluded that negative coverage generated significant negative bias in the public opinion of the featured nation in the story.
In contrast, a study by Green, Lim, Seo, and Sung (2010) found that positive images of Chinese culture and positive images of the Olympic Games ahead of the 2008 Beijing Olympics had a positive influence over public perceptions of China and tourism. Similarly though, negative media coverage had a negative impact on public perceptions. It can be extrapolated from the studies that the public would consider negative coverage as important, thus interpreting that information to form their own negatively biased opinions, based upon the slant created in the news report. Negatively biased public opinion could be interpreted by the athletes as unfair and unrepresentative of them and their sport (Sisjord & Kristiansen, 2008) and creates another impact from the media on the athletes, through the media’s manipulation of public opinion and the athletes’ interpretation of public opinion. This concept has not been looked at within a sporting environment, and is a feature in the present study.
Home Court Advantage
Athletes train in order that they can perfect a series of skills and constructs which are tested against other athletes who train for the same event in a competitive environment. Typically, the competitive environment for a sporting event will usually fall into either a home or away category. A key study defining the process involving the home court advantage, including producing a model to illustrate contributing factors to the phenomenon, was developed by Courneya and Carron (1992). While not the first of its kind, it is considered one of the key studies by researchers since its publication (Balmer et al., 2001; Balmer et al., 2007; Bray & Widmeyer, 2000; Carron et al., 2005; Courneya & Carron, 1992; Kaplanidou & Karadakis, 2010; Pollard, 2006; Pollard & Pollard, 2005; Unkelbach & Memmert, 2010; Voyer, Kinch & Wright, 2006; Wilkinson & Pollard, 2006). Courneya and Carron (1992) defined home advantage as “the consistent finding that home teams in sport competition win over 50% of the games played under a balanced home and away schedule” (p. 13). What is important to note is that most research that finds evidence of a home advantage is usually found in team sports (Bray & Widmeyer, 2000; Courneya & Carron, 1992; Pollard, 2006; Wilkinson & Pollard, 2006)
The Olympic Games do not have a balanced home or away schedule. It is unlikely the Olympics will return to London in the current athletes’ lifetime, or at least within their athletic career, in which case, the home court advantage as defined by Courneya and Carron (1992) does not apply. Therefore, perhaps it may be an idea to question the validity of the definition of court advantage by Courneya and Carron (1992) and instead focus on the variables believed to contribute to a home advantage. These variables are familiarity, (Wilkinson & Pollard, 2006) crowds/supporters, (Pollard, 2006) referee/officials’ bias, (Balmer et al., 2001; Balmer et al., 2007; Unkelbach & Memmert, 2010) travel, (Pollard & Pollard, 2005) tactics, (Pollard & Pollard, 2006) territoriality (Pollard & Pollard, 2006) and psychological factors (Courneya et al., 2005). Some variables receive more attention than others.
Many studies have found mixed results with both supporting evidence, and no supporting evidence, preventing researchers from establishing definitive answers of what variables are contributing factors to home advantage, and the context and degree of influence. Most studies mentioned exclusively examined team sports. The study by Balmer et al. (2001) however examined the Winter Olympics and covered both team and single competitive sports during the event. While not necessarily a limitation, it is a concern that only a few sports, mainly football and basketball, have merited investigation because they have reliably shown evidence of home court advantage. This could mean that alternative sports should be investigated to get a more universal overview of home court advantage, otherwise one risks limiting home advantage to these few sports and thus uncertain of the generaliseability of the theory. A more serious limitation is that many of the research articles have used archival data to calculate evidence of home advantage, and within the use of archival data, another trend has been identified by Pollard and Pollard (2005) that home advantage appears to be diminishing over the years of study, so the ‘evidence’ authors have been collecting, may be outdated, thus no longer appropriate in the current environment. Therefore only current games and competing athletes should be used when collecting data.
London spent 9.3 billion of Great British Sterling (BBCNews [online] 2007) building new sports stadia specifically for the Games. This creates the first conundrum; GB athletes have the advantage of playing at home, however they will be competing in new and thus unfamiliar venues. Wilkinson and Pollard (2006) found that basketball teams who moved to a new stadium had a decline in performance during the first season where crowd size was controlled for, but had an increase in performance during the second season. They concluded that after the first year, the home team had had enough time to become familiar with their competitive environment. What the study is unable to tell us is when the teams became familiar with the venue. Another notable variable Wilkinson and Pollard (2006) included was crowd support which was at its highest in the first season of the new stadium when the slump in performance after the move was recorded, thus concluding that crowd support does not contribute to home advantage in this instance.
In contrast, many researchers and the supporters themselves believe that crowds play a significant part in contributing to home advantage, more so in fact than familiarity. However, studies into the effects of crowd support have achieved very mixed results. Researchers have examined crowd density, volume and type of feedback and whom the crowd influences. Some studies claim that it is officials whom are influenced (Balmer, Nevill, Lane, Ward, Williams & Fairclough, 2007; Unkelbach & Memmert, 2010), others have indicated it would be the home and the away teams (Carron et al., 2006; Courneya & Carron, 1980). Pollard (2006) found “home advantage varied little over the four divisions of the football league in England, despite large differences in crowd size” (p. 177). This was interesting because crowd size varied from over 30,000 in top division teams to crowds of less than a hundred for the lower division teams, where the home advantage dropped from 60% to 55% between top and bottom divisions (Pollard, 2006). It is not only the number of spectators that could contribute to home advantage, but the context of the feedback from the crowd which has been found to have an effect, more so on the officials than the athletes themselves. There are many forms of officials’ bias, which in the Olympics would be most noticeable in judged events such as gymnastics and figure skating. Researchers have found evidence of biased officiating at the Winter Olympics producing significant evidence of a home advantage (Balmer et al., 2001). The authors used Kruskal-Wallis tests to measure between which types of events; either subjectively judged or objectively measured events, produced significant results. There was no significance between the types of events, but the subjectively judged events indicated a bias suggesting that with further work, or maybe examination of the summer Olympics, might produce more significant results.
At this stage, it can be subjectively suggested that a degree of home advantage exists in certain sports and in the Winter Olympics. The next process was to examine how the athletes perceive the Olympics, the concept of home advantage and the relationships with the other topics chosen to feature in this study.
To date, only one study has been identified that specifically investigates athlete perceptions of the home advantage and related casual factors by Bray and Widmeyer (2000) who examined female basketball players. Basketball was chosen because previous research had recorded high levels of home advantage in this sport. With reference to Bray and Widmeyer’s (2000) results, the athletes perceived familiarity to be the greatest contributing factor to their perceived home advantage. Specifically, familiarity was regarded in context of “lighting, rim tension, basket and boards” (p. 6). Second came crowd support. Third was not having to travel, and the remaining conditions were too diverse to categorise. Importantly, all athletes believed they had an advantage when playing at home and that they perceived the advantage to be slightly greater than it actually was.
These results provide further support for examining athletes’ perceptions of the home advantage phenomenon and how it affects them before, during, and after competition and especially after they have lost a competition they expected to win.
Athletes, coaches and spectators believe that when playing at ‘home’ the athletes have an advantage. In other words, they all form expectations of success. Forming expectations for success can be a motivator because it can increase confidence in ones ability to perform, or it can be a source of stress and anxiety if the athlete does not believe himself/herself able to meet the expectations for success that have been placed upon him/her. There has been no research found to date that investigated the effects of media expectations on athletes. However, there is a whole field of research dedicated to coaches’ expectations of their athletes’ abilities, how they form these expectations, the athletes’ interpretation of their coaches’ expectations, and the effects of these expectations on athlete performance and self-perceptions of ability.
Wang and Goldfine, (2007) wrote that “coaches’ power and their coaching behaviours have a profound impact on athletes’ psychological well-being” (p. 1). This indicates that the coaches directly impact on their athletes psychological mind set, motivation and performance. “Olympic or elite athletes’ peak performance in competition is largely determined by psychological factors because their skill levels and/or physical abilities are relatively similar” (p. 2), which has encouraged the development of research to examine various coaching effects, and their affects on the athletes, to better understand what traits makes a successful coach and what traits should be expunged from practice.
Coach Expectancy Theory owes its origins within the teaching literature. Darley and Fazio (1980) developed a six-stage Expectancy Confirmation Model for classroom teachers which was later adapted into a sports context for coaches as follows; (1) the coach forms an expectation about an athlete, (2) the coach’s behaviour towards that athlete changes in a manner which is congruent with that expectancy, (3) the athlete interprets their coach’s behaviours, (4) the athlete responds to the coach’s behaviours, (5) the coach interprets the athlete responses and behaviours (Wilson & Stephens, 2007). Using this model, coaches group athletes in what researchers have identified as high and low expectancy athletes. An important finding of this literature is that once the expectations have been formed, the coaches very rarely change them, choosing to interpret information about the athletes’ performance that fits with their original expectations (Wilson et al., 2006).
Based upon the nature of the sample used in this investigation, it could be argued that international and elite athletes are all high expectancy athletes. According to the literature (Wilson et al., 2006; Wilson & Stephens, 2005; Wilson & Stephens, 2007), these athletes should enjoy a positive and supportive relationship with their coach, benefit from constructive feedback and have a strong belief in their own abilities. This may be facilitative to performance, except for when the athletes fail to meet their own and their coach’s expectations for a particular competitive event performance outcome. However, we know from international events there is usually an ‘A’ and a ‘B’ string and they often have reserves in case of injury or illness, so it is an interesting concept that even with high expectancy athletes, we may still find evidence of higher or lower expectancy athletes at the elite level. One could imagine how much more frustrating and disheartening it could be to be a reserve at the Olympic games, so close to that global sporting event success, but due to a coach’s decision, not able to compete unless a first-pick teammate is unable to compete. Another source of expectations, which has received some attention specifically with child-athletes are those of parental expectations.
There are more youth academies designed to improve child-athlete performances in a specific sport than ever before, forcing children to specialise much earlier in their development to a particular sport that requires financial and time commitments from the child-athlete’s parent(s) (Collins & Barber, 2005).
As a parent who has potentially invested significant financial resources on his/her child-athlete’s career in a society where child prodigies are expected to be nurtured and supported, with those who ‘make it’ in the sporting industry entitled to fame, fortune, endorsements and sponsorships, it is no surprise that the parents of those child stars feel ‘owed’ their child’s success and consider their child’s achievements to be as much their own. Many child-athletes are aware of their parents’ expectations and the ‘cost’ of their participation. Parents who have invested time and money in their child’s early specialisation may be hoping that their child will be able to earn a scholarship to a university, not only saving the parents from increasing financial costs, but also increasing the prestige and value of their child in society, and improving their chances for a successful sporting career, a fact the child-athletes are likely to be well aware of.
Collins and Barber (2005) looked at the athlete’s perceptions of practical expectations. In their results they found that female athletes whose parents had higher expectations and placed greater importance on doing well “exhibited higher levels of confidence than those female athletes who had lower expectations and placed less importance on doing well” (p. 310). However, the athletes who reported greater confidence, also reported higher levels of competitive anxiety, indicating that parental expectations were a double edged sword, as they do not know at what stage the competitive anxiety overrides the confidence in ability and leads to choking behaviours. This in turn may result in child-athletes underperforming to expectations thus facing the potential financial and emotional cost of failure not only in themselves but their parents. At the elite level, there is not only public failure and embarrassment, but additional costs, such as loss of sponsors, endorsements, a place in future competitions, and the prestige of being a successful athlete at the penultimate athletic competitive event.
As argued earlier, there are growing examples of research articles which have begun to interpret the same variables associated with creating a home advantage to actually be a disadvantage for some athletes. Whilst not specifically mentioned as expectations for success, which has led to teams choking, Voyer et al. (2006) explained home disadvantage in terms of the self-redefinition hypothesis. Within that theory, they suggest that teams who have previously won playoff games and finals are more sure of their abilities and thus will benefit from the ‘home advantage’ whereas teams who have reached the playoffs and have not yet won one is more likely to under perform during these critical games than during non-critical games by exhibiting choking behaviours which inhibit performance. The understanding of this article was that expectations of a home advantage were higher than the athletes either perceived themselves capable or their levels of arousal rose above their optimum state for performance, which is believed to be an affect that can cause choking behaviours in those athletes who choke at crucial moments.
The argument this researcher is trying to establish, is that at specific global media events, such as the Olympic Games, there is already a degree of expectations the athletes attribute to their performance in relation to the event. They have their own expectations, expectations of significant others in their lives, and the hopes of the nation they have been chosen to represent. One could imagine this is probably the most pressure these athletes could expect to face and now imagine how much more the expectations of all these groups of people could potentially rise when correlated with the belief or expectation that when competing at home, those home athletes will be at an advantage. Researchers have investigated athletes’ perceptions of home advantage, but none found to date have examined the effects of home advantage on their expectations, and how this could affect the athletes’ performance and psychological wellbeing.
The aim therefore was to identify athlete perceptions of competing at the 2012 London Olympic Games within the topics previously discussed.
All participants were female Great British sprinters with an age range of 26-33 years (M = 28.8) who have competed at a minimum of one international competition. Two competed at Beijing Olympic Games in 2008, and the remaining three have not yet competed at an Olympic Games. The sample was chosen for homogeneity, ensuring they were of the same gender and competing in the same sport. All athletes were expected to compete in the 2012 London Olympics Games, which is the main criterion in the selection process and train together at the same venue.
This study was of a qualitative design, which has been purposefully sampled for. To ensure that every relevant topic was covered, the interview schedule was piloted on two male Great British Athletes from other sports. From their interviews, sportsmanship and sponsors were added to the pre-existing criteria. The athletes reported that doping was a concern, which was incorporated into another question in the interview schedule that also covered biased judging. No other concerns or issues were raised during the interviews which were not previously listed. A final question was added, “Overall, how do you feel about competing in the Olympic Games?” as a means of clarification of their overall feeling towards competing at London 2012 at which point the revised interview scheduled was deemed complete.
Initially, two participants were conveniently sampled because they were personally known to the author and were training to represent Great Britain at the London 2012 Olympic Games. The following three interviews snowballed from the previous two, to make up the five participants recruited for the investigation.
The athletes were approached to measure their interest in being interviewed for a research paper. Once a sample had been identified, interview appointments were arranged at the facility where all participants trained, for their convenience, either before or after individual training sessions depending on their preference and time constraints. Permission from the facility where they trained provided written consent for the interviews to take place and each participant completed an informed consent form just before the interview took place. The interviews were held beside the track in a specific area where athletes could relax or change before or after training away from other athletes and personnel in order that the athlete was in a comfortable and familiar environment. Each interview took approximately 45 minutes to an hour to complete. The interviews were recorded using a tape recorder the month before the athletics World Championships in 2011, and transcribed verbatim.
The interviews were transcribed then analysed verbatim by identifying themes and theories related to the athletes’ individual responses and then grouped for comparison using the guidelines for Interpretive Phenomenological Analysis (IPA) based studies set out by Smith, Flowers, and Larkin (2009). An external academic was used to triangulate the results.
The purpose of the present study was to discover athlete perceptions of competing in the 2012 London Olympic Games by asking them to explain how they felt and what they thought within four main inter-related sections believed to impact upon their experience. Then using IPA to analyze their responses and identify appropriate master themes and sub themes that would answer the research question.
From the athletes’ responses, the most significant master theme extracted from the interviews was the concept of The Self, or a person’s individual identity. This was then broken down into four sub-themes.
The first sub-theme was self-image, which was identified by comments such as the example below:
“It’s the gold standard, there’s nothing, there’s nothing that beats that.
Erm, I imagine, including myself, that if you ask a lot of athletes, then
you know, if they could win, I don’t know, a couple of world championships,
and whatever else, and would they exchange that for an Olympic gold
medal, most would say yes.” Participant K
Here the athlete is implying that to have an Olympic gold medal is more prestigious than any other gold medal from other competitions and that her self-image and the image the public sees will be heightened by being an ‘Olympian’ which is another term that was frequently repeated in the interview highlighting its importance.
The second sub-theme was self-worth, which was identified by comments such as the example below:
“To think, yeah actually it is quite an achievement just to compete for my
country, but when it comes to the nitty gritty, it’s a bit more than that.” Participant L
Self-worth in this statement is reflected in the athlete’s acknowledgement that competing for her country is an achievement but there is more to it than that, indicating that her self-worth relies in part on her international success, but it is not the only measure which is a useful and adaptive technique.
The third sub theme was self-expectations, which was identified by comments such as the example below:
“I did enjoy it there, but, umm, obviously some of the events I was just
reserve so I didn’t actually get to take part so that was a bit frustrating.” Participant Y
This athlete trained and competed in trials to be able to compete in international competitions. It is logical to presume that she had expectations that she would compete and that could explain the frustration she says she felt to be selected but only as a reserve and then not get an opportunity to compete herself.
The fourth and final sub-theme within the self was defence of the self, which was identified by comments such as the example below:
“I was expecting quite a lot, umm, I’d had a lot of injuries so it was
understandable, but it was still gutting to miss out.” Participant N
Injury was a reoccurring theme in this athlete’s interview and was identified as a form of defence either through self-handicapping, making an excuse if she failed to perform to her desire. This could also result in a self-fulfilling prophecy if by excusing her performance on injuries she may in fact fulfil her own prophecy and fail to qualify and compete in her event. However, it may be a realistic perception. Athletes know their bodies best and what they are capable of, and to acknowledge she has had injuries in the past that may affect her performance now could be a realistic analysis.
The second master theme was significant others in the athletes lives and the relationships between them. The coach-athlete relationship, desire for approval from significant others, social conformity, conditional versus unconditional support, and cost-value were the related sub-themes.
An example of the importance of the coach relationship was selected from Participant M’s interview. The athlete was asked what it meant to her, her coach’s expectations for her future performances. Initially she indicated that it was good, but then expressed uncertainty and doubt which could potentially indicate a poorer relationship than desired if communication is suffering.
“Special. Good. I don’t know, umm… it’s just yeah, I don’t know, alright
I think.” Participant M
Each athlete expressed views that competing in the Olympics was an achievement and that they made family and friends proud. Participant N who had competed in the Olympics before said;
“Well the Olympics obviously are important because they only come
around every four years so I think once you do one badly then that’s
even more disappointing.” Participant N
This statement reflects her disappointing performance in Beijing 2008 and her current desire to prove to herself, the public, and media who reported on her disappointing performance during the last games that she can do better and the London games were an opportunity to achieve the social approval that she may not have received previously.
Conditional versus unconditional support is an important motivational tool, one which the following extract from Participant Y highlights in a negative way.
“My family have helped me, so long as I quit after 2012.” Participant Y
This statement was quite shocking that the family wished their daughter to quit after 2012 rather than support her career, and is likely to de-motivate rather than motivate the athlete if regardless of her performance outcome, she will be expected to retire. Judging from her interview, this was not a condition she was happy about but felt powerless to protest.
Finally the cost-value of being an international athlete was prominent in each athlete’s interviews. All athletes expressed sacrifices that they had made in their career and the need to succeed to make those sacrifices worthwhile.
“I’ve sacrificed a lot of stuff to get to 2012 , so, yes I am, it’s so
important to me.” Participant Y
The third master theme was control. The first sub-theme is internal or external control, which was identified by comments such as the example below:
“I think what you try to do obviously first is to, to, is organizing
everything within, within my training to make sure that I peak at
exactly the right time.” Participant K
It was a strong theme in the athletes’ interviews that they felt the need to be in control over their training and performance.
The second sub-theme is emotional control, which was identified by comments such as the example below:
“I’m quite lucky in the fact that I am quite laid back and I don’t really…
I normally rise to the occasion of competition rather than letting
nerves or anything affect me.” Participant N
To avoid becoming stressed and anxious which could have a potentially negative effect on their performance, the athletes indicated different measures to alleviate potential stressors including their emotional control.
The third sub-theme is locus of control, which was identified by comments such as the example below:
“I feel like they… only focus on certain athletes who they think, you know,
will get them certain medals but it just makes me train harder.” Participant M
Who has control is a potential theme in the athletes’ lives because they do not have control over everything in their career such as their selection to compete, coaches, or the media reporting on them, which seems to have an effect on their motivation and can be a significant stressor.
The final sub-theme was locus of causality, which was identified by comments such as the example below:
“I tried my best ever, to train more, and I got more, I got lazy outside
of training, lethargic, and I… it was too intense.” Participant Y
Here, the athlete attempted to identify causes or explanation for their performances or their feelings, it was interesting to note, positives tended to be internalized, and negatives externalized or at least have the blame displaced as a way to protect their egos. This is useful to protect self-confidence, but it can be maladaptive, by placing control externally, they did not do anything about it, which may mean performance did not improve due to belief it was not within her control.
The fourth master theme was belief systems and constructs. Task and ego orientation, outcome orientation, realism, fairness and entitlement, and expectancy-value made up the sub-themes.
Task and ego orientation is used to identify how an athlete is motivated, whether intrinsically or extrinsically and the goals that will be made based upon this motivation. The following statement reflects an athlete’s goal setting process.
“I mean me and my coach have got a very clear goal what we’re
doing this year, what we’re doing next year.” Participant L
This is a progressive long and short-term goal setting process, and while the goals themselves were not discussed, the athlete clearly had precise goals in place.
Outcome orientation was the next sub-theme as each athlete identified the need and desire to perform at her best. What her best entailed was different between the athletes, falling into two groups, either by obtaining a medal in the 2012 London Olympic Games or by doing their personal best regardless of where she placed in her event.
“If I get there to compete, I will be, it’s my dream, like, that’s what
I’ve been aiming for.” Participant Y
Realism is an interesting concept because it can be relative to the individual, or be a practical assessment of a realistic outcome based upon available information. Participant N repeatedly referred to her injuries during her interview. Not knowing the extent of her injuries or the possible effect the injuries may have had on her performance it was impossible to deduce if her belief that her injuries may have held her back was a realistic assessment based upon medical knowledge or if her belief that her injuries would hold her back became a relative consequence because of her belief such as in the self-fulfilling prophecy.
“I have been there at one Olympics and won medals at the world
stage but again, I’ve been injured over the last few years so you’ve
got to kind of keep it realistic.” Participant N
Each athlete expressed a belief of fairness and entitlement towards her training, the expected outcome from her future performances, and her relationship with her coaches and sponsors. However, while the themes were consistent, the athlete’s belief in specific details of what was fair and what was not was different. The most obvious discrepancies were sponsors, an example of which is shown below from Participant Y.
“Me, I mean I’ve never had a kit sponsor, ever, and there’s people
who have achieved less than me who have got kit sponsors,
but then you say, have they achieved enough to warrant a kit sponsor
and you know, you don’t.” Participant Y
The expectancy-value theory expresses a quantitative measure of expectation and the positive correlation it will have on the perceived value. For example, high expectations would result in higher perceived value. In relation to the Olympic Games and the athletes; the greater the expectation on them and their performance, the greater the value that the athletes perceived the Olympic Games to be, and also the greater value they perceived themselves to be, thus making it an important and delicate measure to be aware of before and after the Olympic Games were over.
“Makes me want it more, because obviously I want to like, I don’t
want to let them down and do, you know, it makes me want it that
much more.” Participant M
The fifth master theme was concentration and focus which featured two sub-themes, the first being focus on self and event which incorporated the athlete’s attempt to focus on her performance during her event as described below by Participant K;
“So peaking at the, at our trials our national trials to make sure that
when you’re on the line lining up on that day, that you know, you’re
running, you’re running well enough to place, or come first or win
it.” Participant K
The second sub theme was the use of distraction coping mechanisms by the athletes when self-focus was not strong enough to cope with external distractions. An example of such coping mechanisms was described by Participant M during her interview and was a popular mechanism for all interviewed athletes.
“By putting headphones in my ears.” Participant M
The sixth master theme was how the athletes internalised and externalised their feelings, behaviours, and experiences.
The first sub-theme is whether or not their internalisations or externalisations were positive or negative. An example of which has been included below.
“Because of my aim, yeah. I have to get there first… yeah, I try to
be more positive than negative. Yeah.” Participant Y
It was evident in the interviews that the athletes attempted to internalize positive traits and externalize the negatives. The comment above highlights this as Participant Y clearly stated that she tried to be more positive than negative, so they were actively choosing which traits they wished to focus on, which would be expected as a more facilitative motivation.
The second sub-theme was the concept of ‘home’ where the athletes were competing for the 2012 Olympic Games and what they felt this meant to them and their performances regarding the home court advantage. An example of which is included below from Participant K.
“You have expectations when you’re at home, erm, which you may
not have when you’re, when you’re out of your environment.” Participant K
Negative traits, experiences and feelings can sometimes be interpreted as a form of pressure. Pressure can be debilitative emotion to an athlete’s performance and so the athletes attempted to deflect the pressure elsewhere to relieve themselves. An example of an athlete attempting to deflect pressure from spectators is included below.
“I kind of change it around and try and pretend that they are cheering
for me.” Participant L
The seventh master theme was the athlete’s narration during the interview and her use of language, the sub-theme was the use of key words and themes in narration. An example of this would be Participant N who constantly referred to her injuries throughout the interview. The constant referral to the injuries in relation to her previous performances, her training, future performances, personal expectations and the cost-value this has had on her career was a clear example how much of a psychological impact physical injury had on her. What is unclear is the physical effect this would have on her body and future performances but it likely had an impact.
“I’d had a lot of injuries so it was understandable.” Participant N
The results table below provides references for athlete quotes to back up the identified master themes and sub-themes.
The aim of the present study was to determine the perceptions of five female sprinters who competed at the 2012 London Olympic Games. To do this, seven topics of discussion were used that had previously been researched and found could affect an athlete leading up to the Olympic Games. These seven topics reduced into four themes based upon the results from the analysis of the athlete interviews.
In the introduction and literature review of this article, a concept was introduced that the topics of discussion were all inter-related with regards to the approaching Olympic Games. The theme tying these theories together was the home advantage Great British athletes were believed to have at the London 2012 Olympic Games, and the subsequent expectations this placed on the GB athletes. However two more themes were expanded from the expectancy theme due to the level of significance given by the athletes to the issues surrounding media support and family support, which are more than just expectancy influences which was the initial theory in which these issues were incorporated.
All the athletes interviewed believed in the concept of home court advantage and that they would personally have an advantage at the 2012 Olympic Games. The two common reasons for this home advantage were crowd support and familiarity, both uncontrollable but possibly predictable variables, which is why the athletes felt they were at an advantage over visiting athletes. Crowd support was the strongest variable coinciding with the expectations gained from previous experience at events. When competing in foreign countries the foreign home crowd cheered the loudest and generated the most support for their athletes, a difference the visiting athletes noticed. Having witnessed the support home nations provided their home athletes, the GB athletes expected that they would receive more support from their spectators than the visiting competitors and that this is what would give the ‘home advantage,’ indicating that it “spurs” them on (participant N) and is like “you know, got a bit of an army pre trotting on” (participant K). Pollard’s (2006) study found that large crowds of around 30,000 spectators present at premiership football games recorded a home advantage of just over 60%, which is the type of crowd numbers expected for Olympic competitions and more. Whether the crowd support is responsible for any advantage for sprinters is debateable, but the athletes believed in it, therefore, it could be that this belief was enough to provide a slight advantage.
A belief in an advantage is a motivational tool as it improves self-confidence and self-efficacy prior to competition. It also raises the notion of a self-fulfilling prophecy, which is appropriate in this scenario, but one which has not featured in any previous research in this field and may merit further investigation. “A self-fulfilling prophecy is, in the beginning, a false definition of the situation evoking a new behavior which makes the originally false conception come true” (Merton, 1948, p. 195). This theme also led to the development of self-handicapping which is a predominantly negative self-fulfilling prophecy where an individual intentionally compromises his/her own performance with either drugs or excuses for a poor performance, citing injury or illness to excuse the poor performance in order to protect himself/herself from embarrassing failure (Tenenbaum & Eklund, 2007).
Bray and Widmeyer’s (2000) study found that the basketball players they interviewed believed they had an advantage playing at home that was slightly greater than it statistically was. However, these athletes cited that familiarity was the biggest contributing factor followed by crowd support. A potential explanation for this difference is that in basketball, the type of rims, lighting, and flooring may be different from court to court. This possibly has a tenuous effect on home advantage which the basketball players listed, where as in UK athletics, the tracks are a uniform length and there is rarely much deviation in court surface or conditions apart from weather which is uncontrollable. As participant K indicated, “If you have competed at one track in the UK, then you have competed at all of them.” This familiarity may make them feel more comfortable, but could be the reason why the familiarity of the track was not considered an advantage because it was the same for everyone. However, not having to travel, knowledge of the food, culture, and language of home may have been the advantage of familiarity at home for these athletes. Therefore, from these statements, it would appear that it was external familiarity that may have contributed to home advantage in international athletics.
Expectations were not exclusive to the athletes, but nor were they uniform with a mixture of coaches displaying expectations and some that did not. The same of family and friends, sponsors, and the media which were interpreted by the interviewed athletes. Participants K and N reported that their coaches had not formed explicit expectations for their performances while participants L, M, and Y reported that their coaches did have expectations for their performances. It may or may not be a coincidence that the athletes’ perceptions of their coaches’ expectations in this situation mirrored their own self-expectations. It would be interesting to discover if the athletes were either mirroring their coach’s expectations and internalising it themselves to form their own expectations which would support stage three of the coach expectancy theory; the athlete interprets the coaches expectations and stage four, responds accordingly (Wilson & Stephens, 2007). Or were the athletes in this situation projecting their own expectations onto the coach whom they would hope would have the same expectations that they had for themselves. When each athlete was asked during her interview how the coach’s expectations (or lack of) made them feel, another mixed response was found. The athletes indicated that whatever their perception of their coaches’ expectations was of them, when reporting on their feelings they reported it was good, which is not surprising if they had projected their own expectations onto their coach. However two athletes, M and Y, seemed more hesitant when answering the question of feelings; “Special. Good, I don’t know” (participant M). The hesitant and unsure responses may be a possible implication of a poorer coach-athlete relationship than would be recommended and could explain the athletes ambiguous responses to how their coaches’ expectations made them feel, or else, they were possibly disagreeing with their coaches assessment of their ability, but felt powerless to change it and were avoiding discussing it in the conversation.
A distinctive theme in the type of support emerged from the athlete transcripts; conditional versus unconditional support. It would appear that conditional support was more readily associated with athletes’ perceived pressure because athletes who felt they would lose emotional, subjective or monetary support for failure, were more likely to perceive pressure than those athletes who believed, regardless of where they placed in competition outcomes, they would still have the unconditional support they desired; “they just want to see me compete as an athlete they don’t care if I come first or last, they are just very proud” Participant L. Notably, those athletes with family and friends who were knowledgeable about athletics and the demands on the athletes did not in the perception of the athlete have excessive expectations – they were supportive regardless of the outcome (participants L and N). The athletes whose family did place expectations on them were those less knowledgeable about the demands of the sport. The athletes claimed they “wanted to make them proud,” meaning that their families expectations and resulting pressure was more easily deflected because of their poorer understanding, while their coach who is more knowledgeable and responsible for their athletic training would be in a better position to assess their athletes ability which could explain why coach and athlete expectations were so close and why perhaps the coach expectations appeared to matter more.
The concept that expectations provide athletes an indication of their value and the value other people place in the athlete’s event was introduced by Eccles and various other colleagues as the expectancy-value theory. While this theory owes its origins and is associated only with child-athletes and parental expectations, which is a limitation of this model, the athletes’ interview responses and emerging themes suggested the theory is still applicable to adult athletes and warrants the expectancy-value model being extended to include this group (Dixon, Warner, & Bruening, 2008). The primary focus behind the theory was gender roles and that parents will form expectations and behaviours that will be determined by the gender of their child, the cultural influences of where they live, and the family’s socio-economic status. Parents also form specific expectations for each child and then communicate these role expectations, individual beliefs of ability, and values to their child-athlete who then interpret the value their parents have regarding their sport and the value the child has in their parents’ eyes (Tenenbaum & Eklund, 2007). Participant Y clearly showed evidence of this theory during her interview as she kept referring to the traditional nature of her dad’s side of the family and the constant pressure she was receiving to quit sports and get a job. This could be inferred that her parents did not believe that sports was an acceptable occupation for an adult daughter, but it would be interesting to see how they would have responded if they had an adult son in the same situation to see if their attitudes would have changed.
Expectations from the media were more difficult to assess. The athletes were distrustful and occasionally resentful of the media coverage surrounding them, their event, and the Olympic Games as a whole. However, they indicated that the amount of attention received and the level of expectations placed on them was an indication of their value. This was a trait shared with the families who had high expectations as the athletes interpreted the expectation as an indication of their value and self-worth. Media coverage of athletes and their perceptions of that coverage was investigated by Sisjord and Kristiansen (2008) who found that their athlete sample resented negative media portrayals of them and their event, which was also found with the athletes interviewed in the present study. For example participant N who said that she got “annoyed when they weren’t being very positive about it [the Olympic Games].” However despite the fickle nature of the media, the athletes did desire to have positive coverage of them to be featured such as after successful performances (participants L, M, & N).
The value athletes interpreted from the expectations of significant others and the media served to buoy their own self-image and belief in self-worth, important for an individual’s self-esteem.
Self-image and self-worth are two related but fundamentally different concepts. Self-image is how the athletes want to be portrayed to others. For the athletes used in the present study, it was about being seen as “an Olympian” and a successful athlete. Self-worth is more subtle, but is influenced indirectly by self-image, because success at the Olympics, which the athletes considered to be the ‘gold standard; life’s highlight and dream come true,’ would be proof of their self-worth. As the prestige of competing at the Olympic Games would transfer to them, which as a consequence made the athletes defensive of the Olympic ideals of fairness, excellence, and achievement. These are traits the athletes can internalise if they are successful, so to smirch the Olympic Games and the ideals it is believed to uphold, would also be transferred onto the athletes competing at the Olympic Games, which would be harmful to the athletes’ self-image and self-worth.
This Olympic ideal could also explain why all the athletes reported that sportsmanship was not an issue at the Olympic Games, believing it was a more communal sprit, where everyone was just thankful to be there (Participant L). Despite the consensus in the image of the Olympic Games, the concept of success was not constant among the five athletes. Participants K and M, were more reward orientated such as desiring to make the finals and achieve a gold medal. Participant Y wanted to secure a sponsorship deal due to pressure from family, indicating that these athletes are more ego orientated as they are motivated by reward and their self-worth and image is dependent on measureable success. Participants L and N were more concerned about doing well for themselves and are more task orientated, so success is more dependent on them running well for themselves rather than comparing themselves to other people.
Real World Application
The findings of the present study tentatively suggest the following recommendations for home nations during a global media event. The media should be encouraged to mediate the coverage they publish of the athletes and the games to be supportive without placing expectations on the athletes and report dispassionately without biased negative slants when reporting on issues around the Olympic Games.
Unconditional support is important for athlete motivation, the perception of home court advantage with reference to the crowd support and familiarity and reduction or prevention of pressure. Those athletes who believe that the support they receive is conditional on the outcome of their performance are more likely to exhibit stress, feel pressure and pre-performance anxiety, and possibly engage in mal-adaptive coping strategies. These may include signs of fear of failure such as participant Y who was aware of the consequences she faced already for her failure from her own family. Athletes needed to feel a sense of control over themselves and their training, so even those athletes who relied on their coaches for their training programmes still had control over their own pre-performance routine. This is expected because a pre-performance routine is unique to the needs of the athlete and all athletes should be encouraged to develop their own pre-performance routine to help moderate stress, anxiety, and to focus their attention on their event before competing. It may also be advisable to encourage athletes to work with a sport psychologist before and after the event.
Limitations and Future Research
There are limitations to the present study, such as inexperience of the author using interviews and IPA for data collection and analysis. However, these measures were considered the most appropriate for the aim of the study. Seven topics of discussion were used because it was believed that these topics would affect the athletes and their perceptions of the Olympic Games. Despite the intention not to force the athletes to answer within a limited field, they still may have been confined to the seven topic areas. A more experienced researcher could ask the research questions and allow the athletes to lead the discussion from there. IPA is interpretative, specifically the author’s interpretation, thus it is highly unlikely anyone else would have identified exactly the same emerging master theme and sub-themes.
An external academic with a history of sport psychology was used to triangulate results, and it was found that similar emerging themes were identified indicating, that the emerging themes identified were plausible. A final possible limitation of the study was the aim of pooling the seven themes together into one study to find a common link. This could be considered a strength of the study, but may also be over ambitious, future research may want to repeat the study to find whether or not the intention of combining the theories is viable under the emerging themes identified. It would have been interesting to repeat the present study a month before the Olympic Games to discover if athlete perceptions had changed or stayed the same. Meanwhile, other research may want to investigate the strength of the emerging themes on athletes leading up to global sporting events such as the Olympic Games, the World Championships, and the Commonwealth Games.
The results indicate the athletes all expected to compete in the Olympics, but that their personal reasons were very different. However, there are commonalities in the effects of some of the variables discussed in the interviews. Expectations of a home advantage were very prominent throughout all athlete interviews and had strong links to the athletes’ self-image, concept of self-worth, and desire for approval from significant others.
The media got a strong response from the athletes and was largely negative, due to the pressure the media creates, its influence on the public, and occasional critiques and unsupportive nature of its reporting.
Training was found to be un-affected, but reflected the athletes need to be in control.
Sponsors were not prominent within the athletes concerns, nor was sportsmanship which the athletes believed was positive throughout the Olympic Games.
Finally, previous experience had little effect as regardless of if the athletes had competed at the Olympics before or not, they all had personal expectations for their own success.
The Olympic Games and other large sporting events which, despite lacking the balanced home and away schedule which Courneya and Carron (1992) outlined as necessary when defining home court advantage, are still believed to have a home advantage for the home athletes. As indicated at the beginning of the present study, the definition of home court advantage does not apply to the Olympics, but the GB athletes interviewed all believed they would be at an advantage competing in London 2012. A study by Bray and Widmeyer (2000) introduced the notion that the athletes’ belief that playing at home may give them the advantage may be the reason why home court advantage has been found to exist in some studies.
Taking this idea forward, it is at this stage that this author would propose an evaluation of the current accepted definition of home court advantage by Courneya and Carron (1992). Where the balanced home and away schedule is a significant component of the definition removing this limitation and instead replacing it with athlete perceptions because it is the athletes’ ownership, or interpretation of the variables said to affect home court advantage, which causes potential home advantage, not the variables alone. For example, an athlete may find a supportive cheering home crowd motivational and perform better. Another athlete may interpret the same crowd as putting pressure on him/her and subsequently perform worse. In this scenario, the variable is the supportive home crowd, but it is the athlete’s own interpretation of the same variable which determines whether or not he/she was advantaged or not. This same theory could also be a possible explanation as to why researchers have found such inconsistent and varied results to previous attempts to quantify which variables give a home court advantage and why, but failed to acknowledge the athletes in most cases.
Thus, the author would like to propose that: home advantage is an athlete’s cognitive attempt to elicit motivational and highly efficacious states from familiar and predictable variables during a competition, where he/she believes he/she is more familiar with the environment, has greater support than his/her competitors, thus giving him/her an advantage over the competition.
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