When pro sports return, fans won’t be there due to COVID-19

Every athlete dreams of the moment.

The game is on the line. Maybe it’s for a championship or a gold medal or a record. But all those years of training were for this.

The focus is singular. The tension builds. And the fans are going…

Wait, what fans? This is 2020.

Stadiums, arenas and other venues are entirely or partially closed to fans as part of social-distancing efforts to curb the spread of the coronavirus.  

So how will athletes who are accustomed to playing in front of large crowds react to a new environment? USA today sports canvassed several sports psychologists and mental skills coaches to find out.

‘The audience is the drug’

Following the Los Angeles Lakers’ March 6 game against the Milwaukee Bucks, LeBron James fielded a question about the possibility of playing without fans. 

“I isn’t playing,” James said. “I isn’t got the fans in the crowd. That’s who I play for. I play for my teammates. I play for the fans. That’s what it’s all about. If I show up to an arena and there are no fans in there, I isn’t playing. They can do what they want to do.”

Of course, James — like most people — didn’t realize the magnitude of the pandemic until about a week later when the sports world shut down. 

“It’s not just competition. It’s a performance,” she said. “Many athletes have a shtick that brings them to peak performance, and that is brought out by the audience.”

Graham Bet chart, a NBA mental skills coach who works with Aaron Gordon of the Orlando Magic, among others, likened the athlete to a lead singer and the crowd to the band. 

“It feels good to be watched by everyone,” he said. 

It will lead to an uneasy adjustment period for those used to the big stage, Kussin said, whether they’re supposed to experiencing cheers or jeers. 

“From the time you were 12 or 13 in AAU games,” Kussin offered as an example, “all the way to three months ago when sports stopped, you were always surrounded by people watching you. That was always a piece of the puzzle.”

Energy deficiency, increased focus?  

Jonathan Fader, who served as the team psychologist for the New York Mets for nine years and the director of mental health conditioning with the New York Giants for two years, sees energy deficiency as biggest obstacle for athletes to return to peak performance in an unfamiliar setting. 

What teams, athletes can do 

In Germany, the Bundesliga, the country’s top pro soccer league, returned to action on May 16 — fans not included.   Stoll said four teams in the league asked him and colleagues for advice on how to train players. He counseled clubs to practice in their main stadium tosimulate the feel of matches and for players to consider visualizing empty venues. 

When it comes to half-full venues, Stoll said an obvious difference will be felt by players once attendance jumps from 0 to, say, 20,000 spectators. Jump from 20,000 to a sellout, though, and the difference is hardly felt, he said.

Betchart said the athletes honing their mental skills game before the pandemic will have an advantage. He’s said his colleagues in the industry have fielded more requests from pros to help gain an edge when competition resumes. 

“You have to go to that vulnerable space and go ‘You know what, I’m going to show up anyway,’” he said. 

Using baseball players as an example, Wicks pointed out athletes are often creatures of habits. She’s intrigued to see if teams can be creative and virtually bring fans into the stadium. Wicks also placed the onus on coaching staffs to bring out the best in the players.  

“The coaches are going to have to find a lot more tricks in their bag to motivate,” she said. “And the players are going to have to work with themselves. Or, it’s going to be a significantly different game.”