How the Environment Impacts Sports Performance
Athletes must overcome many obstacles during their season. Many of them have to do with the environment they are placed in. Home-field advantage is one example.. The road team is at a distinct disadvantage because over 50% of games are won by home teams (Hermsmeyer, 2018). Another example is the uncontrolled environments such as temperature, altitude, and wind have a big impact on the team performance. Higher altitude with a lower partial pressure of oxygen alters physiological conditions (Tang, 2021). This affects the player's bodies which they have no control over. Lastly the surface the athletes play on like turf and grass. Many injuries such as knee and ankle injuries, concussions, heat-related illness, and abrasions, occur more frequently on turf than grass (Kerska, NCHR). This post will examine how the different environments like home-field advantage, uncontrolled environments, the surface they play on, and more can affect the athlete's performance in their sport.
There are many factors within the environment that are completely uncontrollable that play a large factor in how athletes perform. Temperature is known to affect athletic performance due to the changes in the core temperature of an athlete in action. Increased temperature has been correlated with decreased athletic performance as a result of excessive fluid loss and in extreme cases, impaired thermoregulation (Siegel & Laursen, 2012). Playing in extreme cold and heat is very uncomfortable for many reasons. In the heat, you must worry about things like heat stroke, dehydration, sunburn, and much more. In the cold, you have to overdress which can decrease your performance. While hot and humid environments could have deleterious effects on athletic performance, cold environments would also have similar effects, particularly on the pulmonary system. Dry and cold air could induce constriction of airways and, when coupled with intensive physical activities, result in bronchospasm and a higher ventilation rate, hence negatively influencing athletic performance (Lindberg et al., 2012).
Another large deterrent to athletic performance can be due to changes in altitude, especially in endurance athletes like runners, bikers, and triathletes. While the amount of oxygen in the air remains the same, the partial pressure on oxygen is the main factor that varies. A decrease in partial pressure makes it a lot more difficult to obtain higher amounts of oxygen, warm it up, and conduct filtration. With less oxygen entering tissues, physiological changes negatively affecting prolonged athletic performance are bound to take place. These changes include increased ventilation, heart rate, and cardiac output to compensate for lower oxygen uptake (Derby & deWeber, 2010). As a result, fatigue sets in quicker as athletes try to achieve optimal performance.
The final large environmental factor affecting performance can be wind. Especially in ball sports, wind plays a large role in the ability to perform tasks as best as possible. Large winds can alter the way that the ball reacts to force. It can also positively impact performance in sports like sprinting. In track and field, for example, a sprinter on lane eight would experience a greater benefit from a wind blowing straight from behind than one on lane one. Wind conditions are a determinant of velocity profile and could result in slower attainment of maximum velocity than in windless conditions (Quinn, 2004). In ball sports like football and soccer, when the ball is kicked over long distances it can have a large impact on the flight path of the ball. As position players, it is important to take into consideration that high wind speeds will have when you are playing because it could make the difference between success and failure.
Turf vs. Grass
Recently, this has been a large discussion in the world of sports. NFL players have been publicly stating that they prefer to play on grass rather than turf. Many athletes like Travis Kelce have stated that “I’d rather practice in sleet, snow, a thunderstorm with a chance of getting struck by lightning than run inside on the turf”. There has been a lot of discussion about the number of musculoskeletal injuries that have occurred on turf fields. Athletes have stated that while turf is cool, it does not give them enough time to plant and dig into the ground, it just stops their feet immediately which places more strain on the joints, tendons, and ligaments. The injury rates on turf vs. grass have been studied intensively over time. Although the properties of synthetic fields have improved, the high stiffness and grip of artificial turf remain the main cause of injury (Stiles et al., 2009). Friction is important for quick changes in direction, but too much can place an overload of forces on bones, muscles, and joints (Steffen et al., 2007). Dragoo and Braun (2010) concluded that many factors including surface type, surface condition, surface shock absorbency, and environment temperatures play a significant role in a player’s risk of being injured.
The NCAA conducted a study across all three divisions of NCAA Football regarding knee injuries of turf versus grass over the course of ten years. They found that posterior cruciate ligament (PCL) tears occurred almost three times as often on turf than on grass. Athletes playing at lower levels experienced anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) tears 1.6 times more often on turf than they did on the grass. There were 142 ACL tears on turf in Divisions II and III compared to 111 on natural grass despite athletes spending more time on grass (Kerska, NCHR).
Implications for the Practitioner
Sports practitioners can use this research to better prepare athletes for competitions in various environmental conditions. First, they can adjust training to account for the environmental conditions they may encounter during a competition (Kuok Ko, n.d.). For example, athletes who compete in a hot environment can practice in similarly hot conditions and adjust their hydration strategies accordingly. This can help athletes build heat tolerance and reduce the risk of heat-related illnesses. For teams that have domes and indoor practice arenas they could set the temperature to what it would be on game day to help the athletes get acclimated to the environment they going to play in. (Deanna 2013). As for crowd noise, it is hard to replicate but during practice, they could play the sounds of crowds through the speakers. This could help the athletes out when they have to travel for away games and are going to an environment that they aren’t used to (Frisco 2018). One of the biggest problems in sports is injuries. With playing surfaces like turf it has shown that there’s more risk for injury then playing on grass. Practitioners should opt in changing those turf playing fields to grass or have grass practice fields so athletes aren’t using turf fields as much and therefore could decrease injuries (Kerska 2021).
Second, practitioners should make sure athletes have access to sufficient resources during competitions. This includes ensuring athletes have adequate hydration, nutrition, and medical attention. This is particularly important for athletes competing in remote locations or areas with limited resources. (Kuok Ko, n.d.). Moreover, practitioners can educate athletes about the effects of air quality on performance. Knowing how air quality can affect performance can help athletes adjust their strategies accordingly. For example, athletes competing in areas with high air pollution levels can adjust their pace to ensure they do not overexert themselves (SIRC 2019). Athletes could also compete at different elevation levels in preparation for competition at higher altitudes. For example, in the NFL when players travel to play in Denver its harder for them to breathe. Allowing athletes to go and train at higher elevations can help when competing at high elevations but it will also increase performance when they go back to lower elevations (Deanna 2013).
Regardless of the environmental factors, and unless told otherwise, most athletes will train and compete under most conditions. As an athlete it is your job to learn the best ways you deal with the uncontrollable like the weather, and how crazy the environmental factors you must consider when playing an outdoor sport. Embracing the unpredictable ups and downs of the uncontrolables can help in an athlete’s performance.
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