Sideline support can boost athletic performance: British study

A British study, released on Tuesday, reveals the benefits of social support to an athlete's performance in high-pressure situations.

Athletes with social backing perform better in high-stress situations

Adam Creek, of London, Ont., and Jake Wetzel, of Victoria, celebrate after winning Olympic gold in the men's eight rowing final at the Beijing Olympics. ((Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press))

Having a mom, dad, best friend or sibling on the sideline can mean the world to an athlete, a British study suggests.

The study, released Tuesday,  indicates the benefit of social support to an athlete's performance in high-pressure situations.

The research was conducted at the University of Exeter in England and published in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology.

"Our study reveals the ongoing support of friends and family to be one of the most important factors influencing sports performance," Dr. Tim Rees said in a release from the university's school of sport and health sciences.

"While training … the encouraging words or kind gestures of a partner or friend can make the difference between a footballer scoring that winning goal, or a sprinter achieving a record time. The encouragement and support of friends and family clearly plays a massive part in building confidence, which is so important when the pressure is on," he said.

In the study, only those with the highest levels of social support were able to maintain good performance during a high-pressure game or when experiencing personal problems.

Although the research focused on golf, the researchers believe their results are relevant for any sport and probably for other areas of performance, including work.

Olympic gold medallist Kevin Light, a member of the Canadian men's eight rowing team, says support from family and friends has been crucial to his athletic career.

Act of faith

For instance, during training, his parents would bring him specially prepared breakfasts so he could eat properly before practice. He says the act was just one of many that showed they believed in him.

"Just the acceptance in their eyes that I was doing something valuable was really important," Light said, also noting his best friend attended both the Olympics in Athens and Beijing to see him compete.

"He delayed his wedding one month [to September] so I could be in his wedding and so he could also be in Beijing with me as well," Light said.

Researchers of the U.K. study also point to Olympians Dame Kelly Holmes and Sir Chris Hoy, who expressed the importance of support from family and friends as crucial to their Olympic success.

Holmes won gold in both the 800-metre and 1500-metre track events in Athens 2004, while Hoy claimed his three gold medals as a track cyclist in Beijing 2008.

Golf studied

In their study, researchers looked at 197 British male amateur golfers who played at a high level (handicaps ranging from +2 to 4).

The golfers answered questionnaires about the level of peer support they usually received. They were also asked about their confidence level before competition and what could make them feel stressed or anxious.

The quality of their performance was measured, considering their final score, handicap and the conditions on the day. Statistical analysis then showed the relationship among these sets of results.

The study concluded that when playing golf under stress, social support could improve performance by nearly one shot per round.

Researchers say this significant difference is the result of increased confidence linked to social support. For players with the lowest levels of support, increases in stress caused a performance deterioration of up to three shots per round.