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Is there science behind the hometown advantage in sports?

The question

Is there any science behind the hometown advantage in sports?

The answer

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The biggest edge gold medalists Maëlle Ricker and Alexandre Bilodeau had over their Olympic opponents may have been from their brain chemistry rather than the roar of Canadian spectators at Cypress Mountain.

A series of studies over the past decade has debunked the long-held theory that home advantage stems primarily from external factors such as an enthusiastic crowd, a familiar venue, travel-weary opponents and officials whose calls are swayed by the crowd. While these factors can play a role, a more basic biological imperative may be at work, as athletes display an evolutionarily driven desire to protect their territory.

The pregame elevation of testosterone for home games was demonstrated in a 2006 study of Northern Ontario Junior Hockey League players carried out by Justin Carré, a PhD candidate in the psychology department at Brock University. That confirmed similar results found in an earlier study of British soccer players.

It's not just the pregame levels that matter. Winning any sort of competition triggers a further rise in testosterone, while losing triggers a drop - an effect observed, for example, in Barack Obama and John McCain voters on the night of the 2008 U.S. election. Another hockey study published by Mr. Carré last year found that winning a home game triggered a much larger rise in testosterone than winning on the road.

"That increase in testosterone during a victory prepares athletes to engage in subsequent competitive and aggressive behaviour," Mr. Carré says.

In other words, winning once helps prepare you to win again, and the effect is amplified if you're on home turf - good news for Canadian teams that perform well in qualifying rounds.

This physiological explanation for home-field advantage could fill a gap left as researchers eliminate other, seemingly obvious explanations. For instance, a study to be published by the Journal of Applied Social Psychology from Niels van de Ven of Tilburg University in the Netherlands shows that a supportive home crowd isn't needed for home-field advantage.

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This study took advantage of 20 games in Italian soccer leagues played with no crowd whatsoever during the 2006-2007 season because the home teams were being penalized for safety infractions. After controlling for the quality of opposing teams, Dr. van de Ven found that teams still had a significant home advantage without the crowd (he suggested that could be related to familiarity with the stadium).

This may spell trouble for the Olympic hockey team, only one of whom (Roberto Luongo) plays for the Vancouver Canucks. But it's possible they may still benefit from a broader sense of being at "home," Dr. van de Ven says - familiarity with the streets, language and routine could influence performance.

Mr. Carré agrees. Studies have found that rats do better in fights held in their home cage, compared with fighting in an identical "neutral" cage or their opponent's cage, he says.

Even players from, say, Cole Harbour, N.S., may feel similarly territorial about Vancouver when they face foreign players.

One thing that isn't entirely clear is how hormone levels respond to playing on the road. While some studies suggest that the home advantage comes from a testosterone surge in the home team, other studies raise the possibility that it's actually a dip in testosterone for the visitors. Either way, the effects will cancel out for visiting athletes during the Vancouver Games. Happily, that won't affect the Canadians.

Alex Hutchinson blogs about research on exercise and athletic performance at SweatScience.com.

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About the Author
Jockology columnist

Alex Hutchinson writes about the science of fitness and exercise. A former national-team distance runner and postdoctoral physicist, he is the author of Which Comes First, Cardio or Weights? Fitness Myths, Training Truths, and Other Surprising Discoveries from the Science of Exercise. He is also a senior editor at Canadian Running magazine and a contributing editor at Popular Mechanics. More

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