Bodywork

Q:

Is Home-Field Advantage a Real Thing?

There's no place like home--except the winner's podium. At least Brazil got one of the two.     Photo: Agência Brasil/Wikimedia

A:It may not be coincidence that led host country Brazil to the World Cup's semi-final round for the first time in 12 years. But if Brazil really did have a home-field advantage, what do we make of the team's tournament-ending, humiliating loss to Germany Tuesday?

While a large number of studies suggest that athletes, no matter the sport, tend to perform better when competing at home, home-field advantage isn't as simple as you might think. It fact, it can come with some disadvantages that might help explain Brazil's defeat.

Home teams win approximately 60 percent of all athletic contests, according to a 2010 Northeastern University analysis. In an attempt to explain why, British psychological scientists Mark S. Allen and Mark V. Jones looked at nearly 40 studies on the topic, and published their conclusions in the February issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science.

Among spectator sports, they say, favorable officiating may play a role (your shouting at the screen may be justified). Despite attempts to make play calling as neutral as possible, referees still do tend to award discretionary decisions to the home team in the presence of a noisy crowd.

But even when officiating doesn't play a role (like in the sport of running), home-field advantage seems to persist. Another potential reason is the lack of travel-related fatigue: One study found that a home team's advantage increases by as much as 20 percent for each time zone its opponent has crossed. Another suggests that the effects of travel on performance are potentially greater when athletes are traveling eastward.

Interestingly, there are home-field disadvantages, too. Athletes tend to record higher levels of both testosterone and cortisol before home competitions than they do at away ones. That may provide some benefits, say Allen and Jones, like better muscle metabolism and an increased likelihood of risk-taking behaviors. But it also suggests that athletes are more stressed—and could buckle under the pressure to do well in front of a home crowd. 

The authors point to another study that shows that people often choke when they’re focusing too much on something they usually do pretty automatically (ahem, we're talking to you, Team Brazil). “And studies of professional sports leagues have demonstrated a disadvantage for home teams during win-imminent (high-stress) situations," they write. Could’ve been good news for the underdog U.S. team...

Bottom line: Home-field advantage does seem to exist, but it's not as simple as you might think. If you're looking to run your fastest race, it's probably smart to consider more tangible factors first—like course elevation, terrain, and weather.

If you can find a favorable event close to home, all the better. After all, there's a lot to be said for sleeping in your own bed the night before—and spotting your friends and family cheering along the way—that can't be quantified by science.

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