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By Anthony Lopopolo

Ali McComb knows how it feels to have a surge of energy in the middle of a game.

As a third-year interior design student playing for the women’s volleyball team at Ryerson, she often found extra encouragement from her parents on the sidelines.

Despite living in Ottawa, the Mc- Combs appeared at most of the team’s home games.

It became a weekly routine, a practice simply driven by the notion of witnessing their daughter play.

“When family come to watch you play, of course there’s some motivation,” she said. “It gives you something else to play for, to kind of play for the moment.”

A new study by the University of Exeter in Britain suggested the empty seats at Ryerson games could be the downfall of varsity athletics at the university. Although student fees include free admission to varsity games, attendance is usually sparse.

The study said social support from peers, teachers, friends and family can all contribute to an increase in athletic performance in stressful situations.

Although the original assessment was based on golfers’ level of support, Tim Rees, the lead author of the study, said all sports can be considered in the same vein — even more so with university students.

“University athletes are under pressure when they compete. They also have concerns over maintaining their scholarships and their places on the university teams and so on,” Rees said in an email.

“The support they receive can play a massive role in increasing their sense of self-confidence, thus helping to at least prevent them from suffering the potentially negative influences of stress.”

But Rees said a rise in performance cannot be solely attributed to support from the bleachers.

Informational and tangible encouragement can also spur positive influences, whether it is constructive criticism or other forms of encouragement.

“In our study, it was those with the lowest levels of support who suffered the most in terms of poor performance,” he said.

“Those with high levels of support maintained performance levels as a result of the increased confidence brought about by the support.”

Ivan Joseph, Ryerson’s director of athletics, agreed with Rees’ observations. But Joseph, who is working on his PhD in sports psychology, also said university students require more direction, saying it often begets success and confidence.

“It can be the role of the athletic therapist, it can be the role of the student trainer, it can be the role of the head coach, assistant or faculty mentor,” Joseph said.

“It doesn’t necessarily mean just fans watching the game. We know that students will persist and succeed in academics as well as athletics based on the number of connections that they make at the university.”

Academic life is affected by a systemic support system, Joseph said, as it coincides with levels of “student engagement,” a principle he preaches to many of the students that come across his path. Any type of social backing can make an educational environment seem much more comfortable.

“One of the things to look for when you come to a big city like Toronto and big university is that there are a bunch of things students need to learn how to navigate: How do you drop a class? How do you add a class? Who are the best professors? What time should you take a class? With all these little things, there really is no formal rule book,” Joseph said.

“Some of these things are cast around word-to-word … and you need to have connections in order to learn the tricks of the trade.”

If students can grasp knowledge on the field, around the court or in the lecture hall, Joseph believes all could be a potential source of stimulation.

For McComb, however, one of the many positive undercurrents in her athletic and academic life is provided by her parents — even if it takes them several hours to arrive.

“My mom is like my biggest fan and the enthusiasm is there.”

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