PHOTO 10 OF 10 - 2011-12 SEASON TOP GOAL CELEBRATIONS The captain is clutch against the Canadiens

Sports and the Human Brain

PHOTO 1 OF 10 - 2011-12 SEASON TOP GOAL CELEBRATIONS Martin St. Louis breaks it down after scoring a goal against the San Jose Sharks

Whether you’re a die-hard fan, or merely a bandwagoner, we all experience the emotional ups and downs when watching our favorite team play. No matter what the sport, fans are affected in so many interesting ways. From ridiculous superstitions to a stick stomach, the affects on fans created by his or her favorite team vary tremendously.

Fans rooting for a team has been traced back to our tribal times. That’s right, our fandom may be a direct result of our ancestors’ behaviors. If you think deeply about it, our ancestors (Native Americans and such) had similar outlooks when it came to rooting for groups of people. During these early times, people would live in groups, often called tribes. These tribes would be territorial and would have a set number of allies to cooperate with. Of course, with allies comes enemies. As a member of your tribe, you would root for those in your tribe who fought against the opposing tribe. Of course, this was more of a war-like occurrence, but still bares a significant similarity to how we root for sports teams in the modern age. James C. McKinley Jr of the New York Times outlines this theory:

One theory traces the roots of fan psychology to a primitive time when human beings lived in small tribes, and warriors fighting to protect tribes were true genetic representatives of their people, psychologists say. – James C. McKinley Jr, New York Times, para. 6.

“Genetic representatives.” Those two words stand out to me. If tribes were “genetic representatives” of those who supported them, what does that mean about us fans now? You could argue that fans often root for teams that are compatible with his or her individual personality. In other words, a person with a personality type that is short fused and constantly moving at a high rate of speed may root for a team that employs high aggression. This isn’t necessarily a negative aspect (although it can be). High aggression in sports usually refers to risk taking. Aggressive teams take more risks, and are usually more dramatic than teams that are conservative. Of course, this is not to say that an aggressive-minded person (one who would rather take a risk than take the safe route) can’t root for a conservative team. In the end, this is just a theory based on what researchers have found out looking through history. Of course, sports teams now are not genetically tied to the population of its home town.

The biggest insult to a loyal fan (or a fan who thinks he or she is loyal) is to be accused of being a bandwagoner. True fans consider the acts of bandwagoners as sacrilegious. Fans sometimes have zero tolerance for bandwagoners. What makes a bandwagoner though? The definition is fuzzy. I’ve had some people tell me that some bandwagon fans are heavily influenced by his or her environment (i.e family, friends, location). This is not a case of the “sacrilegious” bandwagoner, as these fans usually admit to not being a true fan. Heavy duty fans usually don’t mind bandwagoners as long as the person in question doesn’t claim to be a true fan. Arguments between fans in regards to bandwagoners often occur when a team is suffering and playing badly. A term coined by Susan Krauss Whitbourne describes what bandwagoners may resort to after loses:

… “CORFing” means that you “Cut Off Reflected Failure.” Your team was trounced and now you want to distance yourself from them and their disgrace as much as possible. It’s not “we,” who lost, it’s “they.” The last thing a CORFer wants to wear on the day following the team’s loss are hats or shirts with the team’s logo. This is the test of the true vs. fickle fan. It’s the CORFers who are the fickle fans. – Susan Krauss Whitbourne Ph.D, para. 3.

Pretty easy to see when arguments between fans occur. Of course, Whitbourne also has a term for those true fans. Don’t feel left out all of you die-hard readers out there.

First, let’s look at “BIRGing.” … the phenomenon called “Basking in Reflected Glory.”When your team is doing well, you feel great.  Research shows that on the day after a team’s win, people feel better about themselves. They say “we” won, and by “we,” they don’t mean themselves, personally. The closer you identify with the team, the more likely you are to BIRG. People who BIRG also are more likely to wear their team’s regalia on the day after a victory. – Susan Krauss Whitbourne Ph.D, para. 2.

PHOTO 7 OF 10 - 2011-12 SEASON TOP GOAL CELEBRATIONS Purcell Precision

Of course, once again, the bandwagoners make an appearance. Those bandwagoners aren’t busy, as Whitbourne would say, “CORFing”, they are likely amongst the group of true fans basking in the team’s big win. It’s easy for any bandwagoner to disguise him or herself as a true fan when the team is winning. But once the team in focus hits a few bumps, the bandwagoners are always the first to fall.

How is it that every day people like you and me can invest so much emotion in athletes making millions of dollars every year? Rooting for a sports team can actually be a healthy experience. Fans who root strongly for a specific team usually do so because it gives the fan a sense of belonging to a community. This sense of belonging can help a person feel more confident in his or herself. Of course, you don’t need to have a lack of self-esteem to root strongly for a sports team. Rooting for a sports team and being loyal through thick and thin can create a sense of accomplishment within the fan. Meeting other sports fans and rooting together can also help build strong relationships that may wind up lasting forever. I mean, I’m not implying anything, but I’m pretty sure there’s a couple I know (possibly part of the staff here, hint hint) that would know a thing or two about relationships created through fandom (hint, hint!).

Okay, so we’ve gone through some of the emotional products of rooting for a sports team, along with how some fans root for a team. So, what happens to those who are truly emotionally invested in a team during the games? Physiological changes in sports fans are always present during games. The heightened heart rate, the sweaty palms, the sense of relief when your team finally scores; all of these can be connected to your physiological being. I mean, according to some experiments, some fans even feel less attractive after their team loses:

Working with fans of Indiana University’s basketball teams, Dr. Hirt showed zealous fans pictures of very attractive members of the opposite sex after a game and asked them to rate their ability to get a date with them.

The results demonstrated that men and women who were die-hard fans were much more optimistic about their sex appeal after a victory. They were also more sanguine about their ability to perform well at mental and physical tests, like darts and word games, Dr. Hirt found. When the team lost, that optimism evaporated. – James C. McKinley Jr, para. 35, 36.

The emotional roller coaster involved in rooting for your favorite sports team is phenomenal. A fan’s emotions can change in a split second during a game. A fan can be left either ecstatic or bitterly disappointed after the game goes final.

I have always said that hockey is one of the most stressful sports for the fans. The stress for some fans.. or entire fan bases.. can sometimes boil over, creating negative outcomes. The reason behind it?

Sporting events are emotionally charged. There is a reason why individuals who love sports are called “fans.” The term fan comes from the word fanatic and yes, a lot of us have sounded or behaved like fanatics during sports games (much to the chagrin of our loved ones who just don’t care about sports and cannot understand why we do). This is why we become so invested in them. – Maneet Bhatia, para. 6.

According to Maneet, this is a direct cause in why Vancouver Canucks fans rioted a year ago after their team lost in the 7th game of the 2011 Stanley Cup final to the Boston Bruins.

The emotional stakes could not be any higher for the fans: Game 7, Stanley Cup Finals in a Canadian city. Therefore, for some fans, rioting is a way to cope with their frustrations and actions. In order to deal with these overwhelming feelings, individuals become aggressive, violent, and destructive. It does not make it right because this is an unhealthy way to express frustration but this does play a factor in people’s behaviour. – Maneet Bhatia, para. 6.

Whether you’re a fan, staff member, coach, manager, or anything else related to hockey, the emotions felt while watching your team play are not comparable to any other sport. The feelings present during a game can be tough to keep up with, as they change within split seconds of each other.

Fear, anger, guilt/embarrassment, surprise, sadness, happiness, and interest are often part of every day in hockey. -Cal Botterill, The University of Winnipeg, para. 31.

So in the end, sports goes much farther than just watching your favorite teams play. It goes farther than just showing up to games for fun, and buying memorabilia and team equipment. There’s something behind the thought process of every fan, but those who remain true will always join together in hopes of watching their team battle to success, riding the emotional roller coaster all the way to the end.

Sources:

Reflecting on Vancouver: Why do people riot?

The Psychology of Professional Hockey

Sports Psychology; It Itsn’t Just a Game: Clues to Avid Rooting

The Psychology of Sports Fans

Follow me on Twitter: @Gabriel0430

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