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Will Josh Allen regress with the return of crowds?

Always something to worry about...

If you’ve been a fan of the Buffalo Bills for any length of time, there’s a good chance you have a bit of ingrained pessimism. We’ve seen the rug pulled out from under us in so many ways it’s hard sometimes to feel like this time it’ll stay put, and continue to really tie the room together.

Despite the great season the Bills just had in 2020 there are some possibilities for...gasp...REGRESSION! And with how unique this past season was, one common fear keeps coming up. Namely, Josh Allen’s best year as a professional was played largely without crowds. It doesn’t help us feel any better that two of his worst performances came against hostile audiences. Should we be worried?

Probably not. But feel free to continue reading for the “why.”

In the world of psychology, the concept of changes in performance due to the presence of other persons is a concept that’s been deliberately studied for over a century. As you might expect, the bulk of the research seeks to determine if crowds hurt or help performance. In fancy-schmancy terms, these phenomena are known as “social inhibition” and “social facilitation” respectively.

Here’s a good resource for the vocabulary and overall concepts. For this crash course let’s start with the fact that there’s no single answer. Both inhibition and facilitation exist with a couple other key factors usually determining which way things go.

Rehearsal

One of the most important facets in facilitation vs. inhibition is how well-practiced the person is at a particular activity. In general, something you’ve done a million times will lean toward social facilitation. A person will generally experience social inhibition when doing a new activity with others watching.

Now let me be clear, I’m not saying something as simple as “practice makes perfect.” Of course the millionth time you’ve done something will go better than the first time. Social facilitation means that the person with lots of practice is not only better than when they first started, an audience pushes them to be even better. Speaking from the other direction, you’re usually better off trying something new without the peepers staring at you.

Think of this in terms of “automation” or in the sports world “muscle memory.” The more you practice something, the less you need to concentrate on the task at hand. That frees up cognitive and emotional resources to cope with external stressors such as that dreaded audience. Practice also increases confidence/decreases anxiety. Now the athlete can deal with whatever emotions the crowd is eliciting with less “clutter” from personal insecurities.

There’s no consensus on why some people perform better with an audience, but some theories are the evolution of the paragraph preceding this one. Essentially, with the action being so routine as to be automatic, it frees up the athlete to ride the emotional wave. This excitement/arousal is similar to an adrenaline rush, which is the body’s naturally occurring PED.

Personality

Not everyone reacts the same way of course. Social inhibition is a concept dating back much further than the time in which it’s been formally studied. The concept of “stage fright” flirts with the idea that audiences can negatively impact a person’s ability to perform. Performance anxiety, however, does not always lead to bad outings. Barbra Streisand is one notable celebrity who has performed to rave reviews despite well documented struggles with anxiety.

The above example might seem a bit extraneous to the conversation but it should drive home the idea that there’s no one way to respond to an audience. With that in mind, one personality factor that likely does have an impact is whether a person is an extrovert or introvert. If you’re interested in further reading, this paper is a good place to start. The short version is pretty straightforward. Extroverts are more likely to experience social facilitation than are introverts.

What might this mean for Josh Allen?

Let’s get personality out of the way first. Depictions of Josh Allen from teammates, coaches, and more describe an outgoing person who makes friends easily. Sideline shots show a player who frequently makes the rounds to interact with everyone else. Based on available evidence, Josh Allen leans toward the extrovert side of the personality coin. That’s great news in that it increases the odds he’ll experience social facilitation rather than inhibition.

When it comes to the other important factor of practice, there’s more good news. Josh Allen was always been seen as a developmental prospect who might need more practice than other quarterbacks to develop the level of automation you’d like to see. Allen’s 2020 campaign was not only successful, it was habitually successful. Many of the positives that contributed to his massive leap occurred over and over again. Even if a lack of crowd noise helped him develop good habits, he’s had an entire year to practice these same good habits (plus this offseason). That rehearsal is important.

Ultimately, every person is unique and there’s no way to guarantee which way crowds will take Allen. The best guesses we can make from research though are promising. His practice time and personality correlate well to social facilitation.

Let me finish this by reiterating exactly what that means. Social facilitation is the improvement over a baseline due to the presence of other persons. Last year’s smaller audiences would be closer to the baseline. If Allen does indeed experience social facilitation, there’s a good chance he’ll only be better with the return of fans.