Dealing with hecklers

A screaming crowd may be great for a footballer, but terrible for an archer. Or golfer.

Holding his nerves: Unruly crowds are intimidating. Former England goalkeeper David James trained himself to deal with the crowd abuse.   -  Getty Images

During a phase of his career, Ravi Shastri had to put up with a remarkably puerile crowd reaction to his presence. ‘Shastri hai, hai’ chanted the crowds in stadiums across India.

Shastri never reacted; no raised finger, no wisecrack, no complaints, only total indifference. “I don’t let it bother me,” he said, “In fact, it helps me get pumped up.” He used the energy of the crowd to boost himself. It soon became a running joke. When he wished journalists, “Hello”, they would respond, “Hi, hi Shastri”

“Crowds are excellent for getting adrenaline pumping in an athlete,” says Dr. Natalie Newton, an Atlanta-based sports psychologist. “Unfortunately, adrenaline is the last chemical you want flooding your system in any finesse sport.” A screaming crowd may be great for a footballer, but terrible for an archer. Or golfer.

Which is why you can sympathise with Justin Thomas who had a heckler ejected from the Palm Beach Gardens on his way to winning a PGA Tour event. The heckler kept screaming “mashed potato” (no, I don’t know why either) and “get in the bunker” at him before Thomas had him thrown out.

Golfers seem to get the worst of it. Rory McIlroy expressed a new respect for Tiger Woods recently. “Playing in front of all that (crowd noise and distraction), Woods gives up half-a-shot a day on the field,” he said. “It’s two shots a tournament he has to give because of all that that goes on.”

Fans fail to realise that while they are watching and joking and betting and having a good time, the players are earning a living. When a phone rang while Vijay Amritraj was on court, he picked it up and said in a pleading voice, “Ma, I told you not to call me when I am at work!” It raised a laugh, but couldn’t hide the truth: sportsmen are working on the field.

Imagine you are an accountant in an office, how would you like a bunch of guys surrounding you and screaming, “Hey, you got that wrong. C’mon, add correctly!” Or calling you a mashed potato.

Or indeed any kind of potato, as Inzamam-ul-Haq was during an international in Toronto some years ago. Inzamam ran into the crowd swinging a bat brought to him by a thoughtful team-mate (Pakistan were fielding). He sought out the megaphone-wielding heckler who had kept up a string of insults, “aloo” being the operative word.

Inzamam swung a bat, Virat Kohli made creative use of his middle finger, fast bowler Sylvester Clarke, struck by an orange, threw a brick into the crowd in retaliation.

“It takes a Herculean effort to ignore a stand full of fans shouting abuse, no matter how experienced you are,” wrote former England goalkeeper David James. “That is why I decided to train myself to deal with the abuse.”

As James pointed out, “If players cannot handle abuse then how bad must it be for referees who are modestly paid and certainly don’t have any fans?”