Auditory Environments in Basketball and Rowing

In prestigious college athletics, spectators and fans often fail to consider the full range of factors that can shape the athletes’ performance. A game, race, swing, or other such competition is a complex environment, with many different stimuli determining the outcome. A big part of this is the soundscape, or auditory environment. These can differ greatly between sports. Rowing and basketball are two cases in which very different sounds cause a similar “amping up” effect in athletes. Basketball players enjoy a rowdy, noisy crowd that generates almost all of the sound making up their auditory environment.

Courtesy of News-Observer
Courtesy of News-Observer

On the court, players experience an almost physical, disconnected roar that can either help them focus and to perform better or force them inside their own head to shut down, and therefore perform worse. Rowing, alternately, does not attract the same crowds as most basketball games. The athletes’ auditory environment instead is made up of the sounds of teammates and coaches, as well as the sounds of the boat and river. This kind of competition has a more personal element; the boat’s coxswain passionately urges the rowers to push harder in order to cross the finish line first. Both sports have a quality that can make more noise better or worse for performance, but these environments vary greatly.

Varsity 8+
Courtesy of Duke Photography

At Duke University in particular, the environments surrounding these two sports are extremely different. Basketball games consist of a highly energetic crowd generating noise within the confines of Cameron Indoor Stadium. The athletes can hear the roar of the crowd, the buzzers signaling that time is running out, and the squeaking of shoes on a court. This stadium once had acoustic renderings installed, but were quickly removed to cause the Crazies to sound louder in games (Gomez 112 2008). The noise from the crowd echoes onto the court where the athletes are playing, increasing the sound level of the game time environment.  Rowing, on the other hand, is both less contained and more personal. Instead of strangers yelling at a player to make a basket or hustle down the court, a person the rower knows is addressing them personally to push harder for the people that are in front and behind them. There are still spectators for regattas, although not as many as at a typical basketball game. However, these fans are not directly next to the athletes; they are on shore, a significant distance away. To rowers, the sounds of spectators are indistinct background noise compared to the highly personal interactions within a crew. Coxswain  Courtesy of Shane Farmer

Not only are the coxswain’s calls personal, but the timing and efficiency of a boat hinge on rowers hearing each teammate travel up the stroke, place their blade in, and finish. Those in the boat can also clearly hear and see the other teams. During a race, a rower may hear another team’s coxswain call for a “power ten”, in which the rowers amp up their intensity for ten strokes. When one boat does this power ten, another may try to match their move with a “power twenty” in hopes to stay ahead and push away from the competing teams. Because rowers face backwards when rowing, they cannot see who is ahead of them or how far. Instead, they have to listen for the other boats’ strokes and coxswains to attempt to gauge how far they are from the other teams. These two sports’ surrounding auditory environments differ in many ways, but the central difference is the type of noise that takes place in competition. Basketball players hear rambunctious, externalized, impersonal noise from the surrounding crowd while rowers experience quieter, more personalized (and therefore internalized) noise. These dissimilar circumstances, naturally, motivate the athletes differently. With this externalized roar of the crowd in basketball, the players will be more motivated to perform well for their fans. Rowers, on the other hand, will attempt to perform well in order to to back up the people setting the pace in front of them, and to set the pace for those behind them in order to move the boat as quickly as possible. Different auditory environments, overall, can change the way athletes perform.

Silence, in general, is an uncomfortable auditory environment that few get to fully experience. In everyday life, a person may think they are sitting in complete silence but fail to realize the even minuscule white noise that encompasses humanity’s surroundings every day. In athletics, there is never complete silence since there is always sound created by all movements and equipment. Therefore, an athlete would struggle if they were to perform under total silence. An experiment in which different sounds was tested on a group of mice proved after repeated exposure to certain sounds that brains adapt to almost all sounds except the lack of one. Complete silence, after seven days of exposure to certain auditory environments, was the only environment that still sparked cell proliferation in the mice’s brains (Kirste 1221 2015). This response to the silent auditory environment proved that while other environments can be noisy and distracting, a brain can adjust to the noise levels with repeated exposure, such as everyday practice in athletics. Because this silent auditory environment causes the synapses to fire and more brain activity to happen, silence in important sporting events can throw an athlete off. These athletes, especially such as those who are used to roaring crowds to cheer them on, can be thrown off by silence.

Instead of the rowdiness they are accustomed to, there is almost an empty hole that is filled with all these new thoughts. Overthinking, which consists of high brain activity, is bad for the athletes because their success in their performance depends on nonverbal thoughts and muscle memory. Thoughts such as “will I make this shot?” will be circulating through the players’ heads as they try to score their team points. These thoughts can not only bring a player down and make them feel worse about their game, but can just distract them in general. For example, if a crowd wanted to make a basketball player miss his foul shot, suddenly going silent would be more unsettling for the player than screaming at and heckling. The heightened brain activity that follows could make him overthink his shot instead of relying on the rote mechanics learned in practice.

In rowing, races do not have as large of a crowd as Cameron Indoor Stadium, so some may think that it is a more silent environment. However, there are many different sounds within a rower’s auditory environment in both practices and races that can very much affect their performance.

Firstly, the sport of rowing can never be completely silent. Gaël Dubus performed an experiment in which he sonified the rowing stroke, which accentuated certain parts of the stroke’s sound and how an athlete could learn to perform better by listening to the sounds. This experiment was successful in speeding up the boat, and athletes reported better performance when rowing with the sonification system in place. Dubus performed experiments in hopes to increase the velocities of different boats by highlighting certain technical inefficiencies within the stroke. According to Dubus, “sonification is a domain of interdisciplinary sciences defined as the use of non-speech sound to convey information,” and he used sonification to better the athlete’s technique while rowing. Without a rower hearing their boat mates travel up the stroke, place the blade in the water, and push back towards the bow of the boat, they would not be able to have as efficient of timing and therefore, not be able to move the boat as quickly. In another experiment by Dubus, four sonification models were presented to the rowers while they were rowing. These models had four different sounds: wind, wind and car engine, pure tone, and car engine. The four sounds were being tested to see if they made any kind of effect on boat velocity, and also to see if the athletes had any particular favorites. Out of ten athletes being tested, eight said they preferred the wind model to any others. This overwhelming preference for the wind model proves that rowers prefer to compete in environments that have their usual outside auditory surroundings, such as the wind whooshing around the boat. This finding also relates to basketball in how the athletes will choke in the completely silent environment, because it is unnatural for them.

With a silent, unnatural sports environment comes choking. Choking is a psychological situation in which an athlete feels extreme amounts of pressure from the competitive environment and therefore, performs worse to the standards they are normally playing to (Gómez 111). There are two types of theories that attempt to explain choking in high pressure situations: the distraction theory and self-focus theory. Studies have shown that the last five minutes of basketball games are the most critical parts of the game, and can therefore lead to the most choking (Gómez 113).

The roaring crowd may pump up the athletes to perform better than ever before, or cause the players to crack under the pressure. But while active auditory environments can have alternately positive or negative effects on athletes, a silenced crowd or abnormally quiet soundscape would almost definitely hurt their performance. The resultant elevated brain activity would not allow for them to play at their best. Between the pressure of the situation, the critically short amount of available time, a full game’s worth of fatigue, and constantly firing neurons from the lack of a loud auditory environment, it would be incredibly difficult for a player to focus in on the play going on at the time. Although the reality is that this situation would rarely happen due to the hype at sporting events, it is better tactically for fans to remain silent at high pressure times in games in order to effectively influence the players. In addition, if a player has to make a free throw shot, silence is a similarly effective tactic in forcing the opposing team to miss the baskets they practice every day.

Choking is a common occurrence in all sports, just in different ways. In rowing, the athlete can choke in a few different ways. The most common way is by “catching a crab”. In doing so, a rower gets a bit disoriented and unfocused from the basic technique of the stroke. When they lose this focus, their oar is more prone to getting caught under the water at the end of the stroke, therefore slowing the boat down because they have to stop and get their oar out from under the water. Catching crabs can be prevented with sound. This sound, unlike basketball’s external crowd’s noise, comes from within the boat. The boat’s coxswain, who is the person who steers and coaches the boat through the race, is supposed to give technical help during the race to prevent mistakes from happening and more importantly, to make the boat faster. Therefore, every stroke the coxswain is supposed to speak to try and better the boat as a whole and make everyone work as one, instead of separate beings.

The coxswain works as both an active, emotional source of encouragement and a metric for the rowers to stay in sync. Each technical issue and missed stroke at the end of the race is something the coxswain takes accountability for, so they must ensure that they better the boat. Without the coxswain’s calls during a race, any boat would fall apart. Rowers would not know the sequence of strokes the start with, when to go faster, and what technical changes to make in order to balance the boat and send it at the highest velocity possible. Another major type of choking in rowing occurs at the start of the race. In a sprint two-thousand-meter race, which is the main event in rowing, it is a significant competitive advantage to be the first off the line. Different races have different starting sequences, some of which are a silent start. A silent start is when the dropping of a flag replaces the standard call for “ready, attention, row.” If a rower is not paying attention, they could miss the call or flag drop and become disoriented during these crucial strokes of the race. In addition, it is advantageous to start the race with short, hard, fast strokes in order to pick up and move the boat from rest the fastest. Without the call of a coxswain to command the rowers to row at half and three-quarters of a stroke, along with their voice on the speaker to match the timing of the strokes up with, the crew can easily fall out of time and not get the starting sequence correct. Technical changes and calls for timing come from a voice playing on a speaker throughout the boat; without this voice of reason, rowing would be a disorganized mess for those who are competing.

Overall, although the sonic environments of each sport differ greatly, more sound typically helps both rowers and basketball players perform better. In basketball, fans may want to try to increase the amount of cheering for their team in the stadium. More cheering is likely to hype up the athletes in question and shield them from silence’s deleterious effects. In rowing, more sound is beneficial because of the motivation and technical changes it can bring to the boat. Coxswains, therefore, should attempt to coach their crew as much as possible with the hopes of motivating the athletes and getting the boat to move as fast as possible. A lack of noise from the coxswain may make the rowers think that they are giving up or not paying attention during the race, which could lead rowers to putting less effort into their strokes. One approach for coxswain to try is cursing at the crew more during the race. There are studies that have proven how swearing releases the same hormones associated with pain, and therefore, this could help lessen the burn the rowers are feeling during the race (Stephens 1056 2009). These curse words can also be used to motivate the rowers to pull harder and push beyond they thought possible, since these words are more motivational than some more ordinary words. These strategies can help Duke’s athletes and fans  — and, hypothetically, those everywhere — lead our teams to success in major sporting events.

Works Cited:

Dubus, Gaël, and Roberto Bresin. 2015. Exploration and Evaluation of a System for Interactive Sonification of Elite Rowing. Sports Engineering 18 (1): 29-41.

Dubus, Gaël, musik och hörsel Tal TMH, KTH, Skolan för datavetenskap och kommunikation (CSC), and Musikakustik. 2012. Evaluation of Four Models for the Sonification of Elite Rowing. Journal on Multimodal User Interfaces 5 (3-4): 143.

Gómez, Miguel Ángel, Alberto Lorenzo, Sergio Jiménez, Rafael M. Navarro, and Jaime Sampaio. 2015. Examining Choking in Basketball: Effects of Game Outcome and Situational Variables During Last 5 Minutes and Overtimes. Perceptual and Motor Skills 120 (1): 111-24 Installation Spotlight: Cameron Indoor Stadium, Duke University, Durham, NC. 2008. Vol. 26 NewBay Media LLC.

Gray, Rob, and Rouwen Cañal-Bruland. “Attentional Focus, Perceived Target Size, and Movement Kinematics Under Performance Pressure.” Psychonomic Bulletin & Review (May 2, 2015): PsycINFO, EBSCOhost (accessed November 3, 2015).

Kennel, Christian, Lukas Streese, Alexandra Pizzera, Christoph Justen, Tanja Hohmann, and Markus Raab. 2015. “Auditory Reafferences: The Influence of Real-Time Feedback on Movement Control.” Frontiers In Psychology 6, PsycINFO, EBSCOhost (accessed November 3, 2015).

Kirste, Imke, Zeina Nicola, Golo Kronenberg, Tara Walker, Robert Liu, and Gerd Kempermann. 2013. Is Silence Golden? Effects of Auditory Stimuli and Their Absence on Adult Hippocampal Neurogenesis. Brain Structure and Function 220 (2) (March 2015).

Schaffert, Nina, and Klaus Mattes. 2015. Interactive Sonification in Rowing: Acoustic Feedback for On-Water Training. IEEE Multimedia 22 (1): 58-67.

Stephens, Richard, John Atkins, and Andrew Kingston. 2009. Swearing as a Response to Pain. Neuroreport 20 (12): 1056-60.

Woods, Elizabeth A., Arturo E. Hernandez, Victoria E. Wagner, and Sian L. Beilock. 2014. “Expert Athletes Activate Somatosensory and Motor Planning Regions of the Brain When Passively Listening to Familiar Sports Sounds.” Brain And Cognition 87, 122-133. PsycINFO, EBSCOhost (accessed November 3, 2015).


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