I Am Legend: How Audiences – Real Or GoPro'ed – Can Affect Your Mind And Performance

Could selfie sticks actually make us better athletes? Tiffanie Wen asks the experts...

Credit: Barry Nobles/GoPro

Words by Tiffanie Wen

Adventure enthusiasts have known about so-called ‘Kodak Courage’ for decades. Point a camera at someone and suddenly they go bigger and bolder and try tricks they ordinarily wouldn’t.

But why do cameras make us go harder? And what do experts know about those who choke when the cameras are rolling, and those who don’t?

As filming ourselves gets cheaper and easier and adventure selfies become more ubiquitous and central to our own identity, research on audiences, both live and digital, might help explain their effects on our psychology and physical performance.

At the mildest end, joggers might cheekily speed up when there’s someone on the street, only to slow down to catch their breath as they round the corner. Science confirms this phenomenon.

“There’s research showing that the mere presence of an audience can affect your speed as you run down a path,” says Harry Wallace, a psychologist and associate professor at Trinity University, “Even if they’re not looking at you, most times people pick up the pace.”

And research from 2012 also shows that joggers improve their overall runs with the presence of a digital audience, in this case a quad copter (drone) equipped with a camera, dubbed “Joggobot,” which flies above you as you run.

That’s all well and good when you’re going for your morning jog, but what about when you’re falling out of an airplane or coming in for landing? Brad Patterson is a professional skydiver working in California who films himself hurtling through the sky or during one of his other low key hobbies—snowboarding, motocross and mountain biking.

He says that from his experience, there’s no question that people crank up their behaviour in extreme situations when the cameras are rolling. If a photographer is shooting photos in the landing area for example, divers will swoop in fast and hot, doing turns and tricks and get injured a helluva lot of the time.

He says he also sees a lot of issues with new base jumpers. “A lot of kids set their goals as wanting to BASE jump and go wing suit BASE-jumping. They have this ‘YouTube dream’—as we call it—they’ll do anything to get that perfect shot. They’ll risk their lives to get it,” he said. “It kind of gets scary, because sometimes they do the minimum amount of training and get into situations they don’t even know are dangerous. It can even become deadly.”

So why do some people kick ass in the presence of an audience, while others choke?

“All things being equal, if you’re performing with awareness that there’s an audience or an audience that will be privy (as in recording) to your performance, it makes the performer care more and raises the stakes. This creates more motivation and anxiety,” says Wallace, “If it’s a simple and effort based task, motivation makes you perform better. But it becomes more complicated if it’s a skilled-based task.”

Michael Gervais, an expert on the psychology of high performing athletes, explains that an external audience can trigger at least two different responses. In one type of response—like in the quad copter/ running study—an awareness of an audience can improve performance, especially for those in which spotlight attention enhances focus, drive, confidence and commitment to the task.

When Ulf Schwekendek, the head engineer at Detour and avid paraglider, heads out with his wing, he and his friends will sometimes actively seek out an audience. He says it’s more fun to practice in front of people, but that it also motivates them to go bigger and make their moves cleaner and more precise.

“When we practice acrobats, we’ll definitely look for a group of people sitting around watching to practice in front of,” he says, “Especially when you’re doing acrobatics, you want to show off how crazy you are when you’re being filmed. I’ll fly lower to people for example, or higher and try more dangerous tricks. I’ll also fly closer to the ground, do fly by hi-fives, that sort of thing.”

According to Gervais though, these types of heck-yeah-I’m-awesome responses are less common than the second type of response that performers can have when there’s an audience around. “(Audiences) can trigger a host of internal distractors, such as self evaluation, doubt, self-critique, fear, worry, and/or an obsessive need for perfection.” In other words, for some people, more attention can be distracting more than anything else, mess with their heads and lead even an expert athlete to choke.

Beginners versus Pros

The theory is in line with other experts and research. One analysis, for example, says that athletes choke when they’re distracted or when they have too much self-focused attention, while another emphasises that self-monitoring can disrupt normal athletic processes.

Schwekendek says that in his experience, the people that are doing acrobats in the air are also the people that are extroverted anyways. “We wouldn’t want to fly in front of people in the beginning when you’re still learning, but as you get better you want an audience,” he said.

That might be at least partly because how distracted you get by an audience depends on how skilled you are.

Patterson says that cameras, especially selfie sticks, are a problem with people who have fewer than 200 jumps.

“We see the biggest issue is students wanting to get cool shots with selfie sticks, who immediately want to post on Instagram. They become ignorant of their surroundings without realising it and travel aimlessly in the sky into another skydiver,” he says.

“Before some people jump the number one thing they’re worried about is their camera rather than their safety. When it’s like, dude you’re about to jump off a 4,000 foot high mountain or whatever it is, relax.”

Gervais emphasises that if an athlete views audience attention as a negative experience performance is negatively impacted, regardless of skill level.

“That being said, when we compare expert performers with non-expert performers in stress induced circumstances (in which audience impact could be such a variable), highly skilled athletes, due to the robust nature of their base performance levels are often able to tolerate higher stress demands, both psychologically and physiologically, which can have a less dramatic effect on technical skill (when compared to lower skilled athletes).”

He says, “In other words, the larger the base of skill, the more it takes to knock them off their game.”

But folks with advanced skills can fall into a trap too, especially if their identity is wrapped up in their performance and the stakes are high and important to their self esteem.

In 2010 Gervais conducted a study with his colleague Leslie Sherlin on how audiences affect golfers with varying skill levels, from novice to advanced to expert. (For now, the skills of golfers are probably a lot easier to measure and quantify for researchers than BASE jumpers and big wave surfers).

What they found was that novice and expert golfers performed better under stress than advanced golfers.

“The take-away finding was that the novice golfer did not have his identity at risk during the pressured experience, the expert golfer had enough skill to get through the pressure, and the advanced golfer (who performed the worst) reported that he felt like the pressure was not that different than a life and death circumstance,” he explains.

“In an a way, he was right, as his complete identity was involved in ‘being a great golfer’ and the pressure-packed circumstance was threatening his complete identity.”

He says the lesson here is that if you’re not an expert, those who can decouple their identity from their skill will perform better.

Moving Forward

Regardless though, cameras are obviously not going anywhere. “If there are four of us, we’ll have at least five cameras,” says Patterson. And while awareness on how to use, or not use cameras is increasing (Patterson requires that his students hit 200 jumps before they can wear a camera, for example), they remain an amazing tool that allows adventurers to evaluate and improve their technique in countless ways.

“The flip side of course is that we do advanced coaching with cameras. We do drills with manoeuvres and when we land we can break it down step by step and improve for next time,” says Patterson. “It’s a great learning tool. We debrief students after nearly every jump.”

And Gervais says all those YouTube videos create a global learning environment that pushes us as a community forward. “Twenty-five years ago athletes didn’t have a way to know, in real time, what other athletes were capable of,” he says. “In current times, video technology and internet capability has created an accelerated and progressive learning environment that has had an incredible impact on exploring human potential.”

When in doubt, you can always do what the pros with psychologists do and conceptualise the added stress as a good thing. Gervais says there are a few conditions that facilitate performance in an audience setting. These include a sense of gratitude for the opportunity to perform in front of others, excitement to show off and prioritising improving your skills over what other people think.

Or our personal favourite, seeing an audience as a challenge and thinking to yourself, “People don’t think I have what it takes…fuck that, watch me run the show.”

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