The Psychology Of Being A Sports Fan

The adrenaline rush prior to a tournament; religiously following every match; and fanatically obsessing over a team’s victory or defeat—there is a part of the human race that lives for moments like these: the sports fan. 

Everyone has encountered at least one seemingly “crazy” sports fan, and it often leaves people wondering why someone spends so much time and effort indulging in an activity that has no real consequence in the world?

The truth is sport has an enormous consequence in the life of a fan. It is not just an activity they observe from the outside; it forms their identity, and their sense of self. Being a sports fan defines who they are and how they perceive themselves. Sports fans tend have high self-esteem, as they derive confidence and pride by identifying with their team.

It also impacts their social health. They are a community within themselves, and it provides them with a sense of belonging. This community leads to enduring bonds that play a significant role in their well-being. The entire experience of watching matches together, discussing them with passion and bonding over favourite teams is equivalent to any other community bonding—it creates a sense of togetherness. The team becomes an extension of the self.

It is not surprising then that they often judge their own abilities in relation to their teams. A study found that those who witnessed their team win were more likely to judge themselves higher on various competencies than those who witnessed their team lose.

With some sports fans, a curious phenomenon to be observed is that when their team wins a match, their reaction would be, ‘We won!’. When the same team loses a match, the reaction changes to, ‘They lost.’  The tendency to associate closely with the team in victory is known as ‘Basking in Reflected Glory’. These fans will don the team jerseys following the win and passionately display their pride. But the moment the team loses, they distance themselves from it, a phenomenon known as ‘Cutting Off Reflected Failure.’ They are quick to blame the team, and in extreme cases (think the 2007 Cricket World Cup) will even physically inflict harm upon the team. These fans are known as fair-weather fans, sticking to their teams only during success.

Irrespective, what sport really gives the fans is an escape from the mundane realities and stresses of life to a world where the players fulfil their childhood dreams; a world that works on hard work and fair-play. It allows fans to experience positive, enjoyable levels of stress and gives them a sense of achievement. The team’s performance has an obvious impact on their emotional states. Watching their team inching towards a historic win can be one of the most euphoric experiences of their lives. That Ind-Pak T20 World Cup final will be forever etched in our minds. Conversely, a historic defeat can be equally dampening. And yet, even through all the defeats, the loyalty persists.

The feelings of togetherness make watching matches together more enjoyable. What often results from such experiences is disinhibition. The fans will yell, shout, cheer loudly, and high five strangers around, even the ordinarily reserved individuals get sucked into this and give in to bouts of exhibitionism. If you have ever been to match, you must have seen absolute strangers passionately discussing the match like they have known each other forever. If you are a sports fan, you’ve probably been part of such experiences. These are often cathartic experiences, particularly for men. Traditionally, men aren’t allowed to express emotions and a sports ground provides them with an outlet for all emotional expressions. Sport is almost like therapy.

Sports fans are also particularly susceptible to superstitious conditioning. Sitting at the same spot, wearing the same shirt, not changing a lucky position – every sports fan comes with his or her own set of superstitions that they believe helps their team win. B.F. Skinner was the pioneer researcher of such behaviours, who found that organisms tend to repeat even meaningless behaviours if followed by a reward. Sports fans do just this. Any action, however trivial, can be attributed as the cause of victory and develops into a tradition.

Such is the passion and dedication of a sports fan. Simply talking about the games makes their brains light up. Their physiological state changes – victory leads to sharp rise in testosterone while defeat leads to a sharp fall. Even pictures of their players can lead to heightened arousal; a study found that seeing team pictures aroused the same part of the fans’ brains as seeing erotic pictures.

Sport fans have consistently reported higher levels of happiness and satisfaction. It improves the quality of life and their social experiences. They are less likely to experience feelings of alienation and depression, and in fact experience greater self-worth.

So, as the T20 World Cup approaches, the country prepares for another bout of passion from these true loyalists. The joy derived from watching matches is unparalleled, the adrenaline rush experienced is unexplainable, and the passion felt is truly beyond comparison. And while sports fans may continue to be a mystery to many, they will continue undeterred. Because the truth is, it is not just a game. It’s much more.

Chinmayee Kantak