Rugby World Cup at home…Grasping the advantage

England 2015, the Rugby World Cup is fantastic for UK Rugby Union fans. Masses of world class Rugby to watch, at decent times of the day, at stadiums close to home. And for the players? Well, while we in England may not have the greatest weather to play in, or the excitement and adrenaline for our players of being on a tour; the evidence from a range of sports suggests that playing at home will give our athletes a competitive edge; a home advantage. When UK Sport launched a campaign to get Olympic and Paralympic qualifying events held in the UK the build up to Rio they highlighted that, as elite athletes are so often closely matched in talent, training, coaching and sports science support, what can make a difference will be an athlete’s resilience and adaptation to the specifics of that competition, the venue and the environment. They argue that getting these structural, geographic and psychological factors right for an athlete can make a significant difference to their performance.

There are four key ways teams and athletes can prepare effectively for major events like a World Cup; in ensuring consistency in their planned preparation programmes, minimising external pressures and distractions, familiarisation with the competition environment and enhancing their sense of well-being. All of these elements are easier to control at home events where host nations can exert greater control over these variables. The evidence backs this up. Home advantage has been demonstrated as a very real phenomenon in both team and individual sports. Home winning advantages (no advantage would be 50%) have been consistently found at 53% in baseball, 55% in the NFL, up to 64% in football and 67% in rugby.

The most common reason given for this home advantage is crowd support. Bigger crowds make more noise. Football research in 2014 found that for every 10% increase in crowd size the home advantage increased by 3.3%. Dina Asher-Smith, silver medalist at the recent European Indoor Athletics Championships, has backed this up saying: “there’s no better feeling than racing in front of a home crowd and hearing their cheers. It can really inspire you.” The closer the crowd are to the athletes also has an impact, with home advantage being 4% lower in stadiums with a big separation between the crowd and the athletes.

This crowd element means home athletes feel better supported with athletes competing at home saying they view fans as an important part of their support network who influence both their performance and confidence giving them greater feelings of familiarity, control, and dominance at home with the effect being enhanced by clear fan support for the home team.

Judges and referees can also be influenced by the bigger and louder crowd noise and the intensity of the crowd support which can cause bias towards the home team. Research in 2002 analyzed the decisions of qualified referees watching video recordings of games with and without the sound of the crowd. They found that, when the crowd noise was switched on, the referees assessing free kicks, favored the home team significantly more.

But it is not just the crowd that has an impact. A group of researchers in Sweden looked to see if home advantage exists in events with neither crowds nor referees; chess. They found that home advantage still existed. It has been suggested this could be due to athletes feeling much more comfortable in a familiar environment. The familiarity can come from the specific venue, the language being used, the court or pitch surface and the humidity or weather. It can also prompt higher feelings of security and dominance. British London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic athletes have been clear their lives were easier and more comfortable during their home Olympics. They enjoyed quicker, more direct access to the Village, the best, quietest and most spacious holding camps in accessible locations, effective but unobtrusive security, quick and easy accreditation and kit-distribution arrangements, the use of ‘home’ changing rooms, enabling kit and possessions to be left in situ and dedicated transport. This comfort and familiarity may also explain why athletes have been found to use psychological skills much more frequently at home compared to when they away.

Travel has also been found to be important as it disadvantages those travelling due to fatigue, disruptions and time differences. In football it has been found that the greater the distance a team traveled to a game the worse the team performs and in rugby researchers found that the number of time zones crossed accounted for about 1% of the game outcome. That sounds very positive for our matches against Australia (10 hours time difference) and Fiji (11 hours difference). Less so for our match against Wales!

Finally, simply knowing about home advantage appears to breed home advantage. Athletes often report higher self-confidence, collective efficacy and self-efficacy and lower state anxiety before games they are playing at home rather than away. This has been put down to athletes simply believing in the phenomenon of home advantage. Their belief that it exists increases their confidence and itself contributes to the continuing existence of the advantage.

It is most likely is that home advantage results from a complex inter-relationship between many of these factors so with every marginal gain being vital to the England 2015 Rugby World Cup campaign it will be an area the England team should milk to the max.

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