When major sporting events are broadcast to the world, when the camera cuts to the spectators in the stadium you will always see a range of emotions on display. From the cheerful faces of those supporting the current frontrunners to the looks of anguish from fans who are facing up to the prospect of a big loss for their team, there is a lot going on in the minds of the thousands in attendance as well as the millions watching at home.
So what it is that evokes such fervour amongst fans and is there a way of understanding their psychological makeup that helps explain the passion they feel for their sport of choice?
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Joining the gang
There is no doubt that a big part of the appeal of sporting fandom has a lot to do with tribalism. By aligning yourself with a given team, whether it is a local, regional or national side, it is possible to create and ‘us’ and ‘them’ divide which strengthens bonds with those who are in your tribe, while giving you an outside enemy on whom you can focus your ire.
In the context of a competitive match, some argue that tribalism in sport is part of what makes it so special. It also doesn’t stop fans getting stressed over internal issues, or being critical of their own tribe. However, this can tend to spill over into the real world in ways that at times proved problematic.
Escaping the everyday
Life is relatively unexciting for most of us; there are no big wins or losses from day to day and only the occasional peaks and troughs that crop up over the years. Watching sports is a way of extricating yourself from the drudgery of existence, and especially ardent fans get a weekly fix of adrenaline and emotion from seeing their team play that not much else can match.
This can become quite addictive, with fans essentially integrating their team into their own psychological makeup, adopting them as a surrogate partner or child and thus having incredibly strong feelings, whatever the outcome of each match that is played.
This is also why it is very difficult for fans to make others understand their psychological attachment to the teams they follow; it is equivalent to saying that you are in love with an inanimate object. Brains are brilliant at forming associations and relationships. It is simply the case that sometimes this can be with an amorphous entity like a sports team, rather than with another person.
Any fan who is invested in their team’s success will also feel partly responsible for any victory that is achieved, just as they will feel a crushing sense of personal failure whenever a loss inevitably comes along.
This creates an interesting link between self esteem and the sports team you support. It also means that those who support teams which are more often the victors than the losers can develop a degree of self confidence to the point of outright arrogance, at least in certain unchecked cases.
Of course such psychologies tend to play out more conspicuously in short bursts, immediately following a good or bad result for the team. Positive thinking and confidence can come about in the wake of a well deserved win, while gloominess and frustration can bubble away in the aftermath of a loss.
Fans can make the best of things by being aware of the psychology at play so that they can process its effects on their mental health, rather than ignoring potential pitfalls or indeed overlooking the benefits.