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Division of Sport and Exercise Psychology

Crowd Support at Mass Events – How Should We Encourage, and How is it Experienced?

11 January 2022 | by Division of Sport and Exercise Psychology

The following article has been provided by Alister McCormick and Sophie Gibbs-Nicholls of Plymouth Marjon University.

People enter mass-participation running events like 10ks, half-marathons, and marathons for a range of reasons relating to challenge, health and fitness, mental health and wellbeing, raising money for charity, and being part of a community.

Crowds of family, friends, and strangers often show their support through their clapping, cheering, and spoken and written words of encouragement.

As runners pass by – whether excited or dejected, energetic or exhausted, resolute or unsure – crowds are a key form of support that can help or hinder with runners’ motivation, emotions, and confidence.

For runners aiming for a ‘PB’ or another performance goal (e.g., completing a certain percent of the event without walking), the impact of the crowd can be substantial – as big as any intervention in a sport and exercise psychologist’s arsenal (McCormick et al., 2015).

But, based on what we know in sport and exercise psychology, what should crowds (and in our context, ‘psyching teams’, e.g., Meijen et al., 2017) shout or display on motivational boards, if they want to make a difference? Are some words consistently helpful or unhelpful? And how is the encouragement experienced by runners? What meaning do they find in it?

Sophie explored these questions through her BPS Stage 2 research project for Key Role 3 (Gibbs-Nicholls et al., 2022).

In Phase 1, she analysed survey responses from 861 runners where they named examples of helpful and unhelpful encouragement. In Phase 2, she interviewed 14 runners about their experiences of encouragement at a mass-participation 10k in 2017 or half-marathon in 2018.

The surveys helped us to differentiate between instructional and motivational components of helpful and unhelpful support.

Helpful instructional encouragement related to the process of running (e.g., ‘keep the pace’, ‘run tall’) and course information (e.g., ‘downhill next’, ‘this is the last hill’). Helpful motivational encouragement related to praise for participation and effort (e.g., ‘brilliant running’) or verbal persuasion of belief in the runner (e.g., ‘you’ve got this’). Further, personalised support was particularly encouraging, such as through use of runner names, club names, or charities.

In contrast, distance-related information could be unhelpful, especially when the details were inaccurate or early in the course (e.g., ‘saying “not far now”. That’s the worst when you still have 3 miles to go’). Well-intended motivational comments (e.g., ‘when someone shouts “keep running” when you are struggling and obviously not running for a good reason’) and effort-related critical comments (e.g., ‘you look like you’re struggling but keep going’) were also unhelpful.

Together, these findings showed that instructional and motivational encouragement is valued by runners (mirroring instructional and motivational self-talk literature), but that the runner’s appraisal of encouragement can be influenced by contextual factors (e.g., the runner’s perceived state and the accuracy of course-related feedback).

Such contextual factors provide applied implications for supporters, such as the need to demonstrate empathy and consider the accuracy of course-related information.

The interviews highlighted that runners drew pride in participation and belief in their capabilities from crowd support; in turn, runners perceived this to foster their determination and physical effort. They experienced a reciprocal relationship with the crowd, whereby the quality of support (e.g., the enthusiasm shown) was reflected in runners’ emotions and running behaviour.

Although support was widely appreciated, at times it created a pressure to ‘perform’ for the crowd. This pressure was experienced as feeling a need to maintain or increase pace, when psychological and physical reserves were low such as on the final hill.

Finally, the interviews highlighted core qualities of helpful support, in terms of creating a connection with the person you are supporting. This connection was made when the crowd or psyching team members used their name, made eye contact, or said something that was meant for them.

This connection was seen by some participants as the most meaningful way a crowd member could make a difference.

Applying our combined findings, we recommend that crowds, event organisers, and psyching teams consider encouragement ‘with IMPACT’:

This approach could be shared with crowds using infographics on social media, webpages, and blog posts affiliated with a mass event, and through race packs, if practitioners collaborate with event organisers.

Psyching team members could also wear shirts or hold signs that have messages encouraging the crowd to ask questions about how to encourage (e.g., “Ask me what runners like to hear”) or with QR codes linked to online guidance and examples.

We also recommend that psychologists and psyching teams apply Carl Rogers’ core conditions of empathy, being non-judgemental, and genuineness in their encouragement, and that they are cautious of encouraging injured runners to continue or push harder:

  • Empathy – Try to empathise with how the runner is feeling.
  • Non-judgemental – For example, try not to judge someone for dropping their pace or walking for a while. Each person has their own goals.
  • Genuineness – Share messages that feel right for you.

You can read the full report of the findings in The Sport Psychologist!

Contact: [email protected]

Acknowledgement:

Thank you Melodie Benson for creating the infographic. Melodie created the infographic as part of Plymouth Marjon University’s Student-As-Researcher scheme.

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