Is 'home advantage' an advantage at all?

"East, west, home’s best." 

Great Britain’s Olympians might well take comfort from this proverb when they consider the merits and demerits of performing on home soil (or sea), writes Dr Paul McCarthy, a Chartered Psychologist from Glasgow Caledonian University.

There appears to be an advantage to performing at home because gathering evidence suggests that athletes and teams perform better at home compared with away. Research has shown that home nations win approximately three times more medals in home Olympics (compared with away).

Not only do the home nations win more medals at home Olympics: they also win more medals in Olympics Games either side of their home Olympics. So far so good for Great Britain’s Olympians.

But a recent article by Persaud and Furnham questioned whether Great Britain’s Olympians might suffer a psychological disadvantage being the host nation. They highlighted research by Desmond McEwan, Kathleen Martin Ginis and Stephen Bray examining shootouts from 2006-11 in the National Hockey League. Their research suggested that a home advantage emerged in loss-imminent situations (i.e. when the shooter has a chance to score or the team loses the game) but a home disadvantage emerged in win-imminent situations (i.e., when the shooter has a chance to win the shootout for the team). This detailed analysis suggests a home advantage does not exist in all types of situations. In some instances, athletes might ‘choke under pressure’ of expectations from the home crowd.

Winston Churchill noted that “A medal glitters but it also casts a shadow”. He was referring to the envy that a military honour stirs in those who miss out on the award. As well as being awarded subjectively, perhaps a medal also throws a shadow on those toiling for decoration on the Olympic podium?

Sports such as boxing and gymnastics are predominantly subjectively judged whereas athletics and weightlifting are predominantly objectively judged. Research has examined the significance on home advantage in a subset of Summer Olympic Games event groups. A significant home advantage emerged in event groups that were subjectively judged or relied upon subjective decisions but not for objectively judged groups. The officiating system was critical for the existence and degree of home advantage. Their findings suggested that crowd noise influenced officials’ decisions more than players’ performances.

In general, the accumulating evidence suggests that home support might have more to grant than to deny, Great Britain’s Olympians. But perhaps it’s the will of the athletes themselves that paves the way to the podium. This thought is epitomised beautifully in Ella Wheeler Wilcox’s famous poem, “The Winds of Fate”:

One ship drives East and another drives West,
With the self-same winds that blow,
‘Tis the set of the sails,
And not the gales,
Which tells us the way to go.