There are many “performance” sports in which the sport itself built upon the measure of success based on judgement from a panel of professionals with in depth knowledge of the sport and its rules. These sports, such as ice skating, gymnastics, cheerleading, dancing, and others often attract an audience who come to see the show and are not much indifferent from other kinds of artistic performance, such as band and orchestra concerts, theatre and Broadway shows or other kinds of “performances” as an artistic expression of oneself.

However, these aren’t the only kind of sports that perform for audiences. Any sport that draws a crowd, whether its football, soccer, hockey, swimming, or roller derby, is performing for an audience and for whom the audience will express itself in response to the athletes’ and teams’ performance. Whether this is in support of your athletes and team, or they’re rallying for the opposition is entirely context specific, but it’s important to consider that there is always a relationship built up between the performers and the audience.

It has been well established that the audience has an influence on performance, with positive audience support associated with increased levels of motivation, more confidence, focus and engagement while negative audience support is associated with reduced performance measures, lack of confidence, less engagement and such (Calleja, P., Muscat, A., & Decelis, A. 2022). Audiences tend to go into sports events with a predetermined bias, they support *their* team and jeer the opposition, but even an audience can turn on its own team if they are performing poorly or even find themselves supporting the opposition who could be an underdog. But in many sports and unique situations, the audience is generally supportive of all the athletes who are competing, a recent example of which I experienced at the Pride Cheerleading Association cheerleading competition at the Sin City Classic.

Now I know ya’ll are tired of hearing about my adventures with the PCA, but there was a lot I’ve learned from my time with them. I spent two days as a videographer with them and I’ve watched the footage I shot too many times to count, so of course I can’t help but let the sport performance coach and sport psychology expert within me have an analysis of what I am seeing. The PCA cheer comp had two different divisions of competition plus exhibition team performances. The divisions were “partner stunt” in which groups of 2-3 athletes would perform, “group stunt” that consisted of groups of 4-5 and in the exhibition simply involved whole team performances. In the partner and group stunt divisions, the athletes were judged on the execution of certain skills and moves to be performed based on technical accuracy, competence, ability to perform the moves and other factors.

The audience of the cheer competition consisted primarily of PCA athletes and athletic supporters, including partners/spouses, sponsors, friends as well as a few people who are simply interested in watching a cheer competition. I highly recommend checking it out if you get a chance. The crowd was overall very supportive of all the routines performed and made sure to make noise, clap, shout words of encouragement and other exudations of positive energy and support.

While I am not experienced in cheerleading, I’ve had my fair share of performances in other types of events that inspired me to write this. I went through each performance from my footage at the cheerleading competition and could tell the differences in the routine execution among the different groups, understanding why certain routines did better in the competition than others. This is simply a natural part of the competition, athletes make mistakes, beats are missed, the performance may not be quite as rehearsed as it should be, etc. As a member of the audience myself, I could tell which athletes were lacking in confidence in their selves and their team as it was reflected within their performance and especially in some of the more subtle body language before, during, and after different parts of the routine. On the flip side, both athletes and full groups that exuded a lot of confidence in their performance, nailing certain moves and hitting the rhythm, performing in a flow state stood out to me as well.

I wasn’t the only one who noticed this either, or I could tell because it was reflected within the engagement of the audience. Like I said, the audience was overall supportive of every group that performed, but the groups that were less rehearsed and less confident in their performances had less engagement from the audience when compared to the groups that clearly showed competence and confidence within their performance.

Regardless of whether the audience is full of family and friends or complete strangers, every performance and performer must establish an immediate relationship with their audience, including the panel of judges. Even when it’s not a competition, positive support and high engagement from the audience adds energy and intensity to any performance that positively influence confidence, energy, and flow. This becomes a feedback loop that circles back around to the audience, driving further engagement, support and buy in which heightens the performance experience for everybody.

That sounds amazing! But how do you establish and build a relationship with your audience?

  • “Never underestimate the impact of a dramatic entrance!”– Po, Kung Fu Panda 3
    • Your first impression to the audience sets the tone for your whole performance. A good entrance sets the stage for your relationship with the audience and should tell the audience immediately who you are and what your about.
  • Practice competence.
    • Every performer has a certain level of competency in regard to their capabilities that are necessary for said performance. It is important for your audience to see and know this competency, so when they see you perform, there is no doubt you are able to execute your performance well.
    • Stunts and moves that are more difficult and riskier don’t necessarily translate to better scores or higher audience engagement. Some of the best performances come from performers who only know the basics but are well rehearsed. Advanced skill execution only matters if you are competent enough to perform them well, which takes a lot of practice and repetition.
  • Exude confidence.
    • Projecting confidence in every step, every move, every millisecond in a performance shows the audience that you are there to perform and immediately creates buy in.
    • Even when you make a mistake, make it with confidence, the audience may not even notice it was a mistake but rather think that it happened on purpose.  
  • When mistakes occur, be willing and able to adapt to recover.
    • Linking to confidence and competence, if you make a mistake, you must be able to immediately adapt to recover. Regardless of whether the audience sees or knows you made a mistake, the recovery is going to show the audience how competent and confident you are as a performer.
    • Making a smooth recovery from a mistake can even add an extra level to your performance, increasing audience engagement and further enhancing the audience relationship.
  • Make the hard stuff look easy, make the easy stuff look hard.
    • This may sound contradictory, but I mean this in the same sense in every regard, attitude, exudation of competence and confidence matters a lot.. Internalize the performance and make it an expression of yourself. Show the audience who you are and what you’re capable of. Leaving no doubt about it.
    • Even the most simple and basic skill execution can be performed in a way to leave the audience thinking “I wish I could do that” or even “wow, that looks like something I could do!”
  • Make eye contact with the audience.
    • As you perform, find members of the audience, and look them in the eyes. Remember, you are performing for them, not the wall behind them. You’ll find they’ll often be making eye contact with you too. When you got eye contact, you’ve got your audience.
  • It’s not about winning, it’s about performing.
    • While it may be a competition, the performance speaks for itself. A strong, solid, confident performance goes beyond simple fulfillment of judgement criteria and leaves a lasting impression on your audience. Even more so, it’ll leave a lasting impression on you and your teammates as well.
    • Put forth your best effort in every performance. You may not always win, but people will share what parts of their experience stood out to them and made them feel good.
  • Big Finish!
    • Finish strong, finish confident, leave no doubt in your audience that you nailed it and went out on top. Give the audience something to remember.
  • Most importantly, HAVE FUN!
    • If you’re performing for no other reason, do it for fun.
    • People who are having fun automatically exude an extra level of energy that you just cannot fake. When you’re having fun, your audience is having fun and people love to do things that are fun.

Photo Credit: Jessica Hamilton

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