Sports Psychology: Being a Fan
October is a pivotal time in sports. Autumn is as synonymous with football as it is with falling leaves, anticipation builds as hockey season starts, and the baseball playoffs reach a fever pitch leading up to the World Series.
Here in Michigan, our beloved Detroit Tigers have made the playoffs, but they lost a tough one last night, blowing a comfortable lead with questionable decision-making late in the game. One day earlier, the University of Michigan football team suffered a head-scratching loss at Penn State.
The mood around my office was sullen. Some people sulked. Others complained about poor officiating. All of this got me thinking about sports fandom and the psychological issues it invites into our lives.
My Team: Belonging vs. Obsession
Among t-shirts, hats, window decals, car flags, and other regalia, it's easy to discern team affiliations. Some people put a lot of effort into advertising their team by wearing their colors like badges of honor. A camaraderie develops among like-minded fans of the same team - a band of brothers battling the rest of the sports' world.
While this sense of belonging can benefit us emotionally, it's often taken too far. As intensity snowballs into fanaticism and even obsession, things can turn negative. As rabid egocentrism builds with the success of a given team, fans wearing the wrong colors are berated for their converse affiliations. This mentality dabbles in the same arena found among rival street gangs.
The Thrill of Victory: Excitement vs. Unmet Expectations
No one can deny the excitement of a close, hotly-contested sporting event. The tension of a tight game is a bona fide rush. Sometimes things go our way, and sometimes they don't. The mark of a well-adjusted spectator is that they lick their wounds, and they move on. Problems only arise when we can't move on, when we continue to exist in bewildered disappointment.
Sometimes this state is fed by a built-up superiority complex. When faced with the notion that my "clearly superior" team was beaten by that other "inferior team," defense mechanisms kick in, and we immediately begin placing blame (poor officiating, weather conditions, etc). The possibility that the other team was simply better on that day is an option many find difficult to accept.
Fantasy Sports and Gambling
Occasionally, sports fandom can take a risky turn, and the personal stakes become higher depending on a team's performance. Gambling increases the stakes and can enhance the excitement, but it's a slippery slope for many individuals. Ultimately, regardless of how you may consider a bet a "sure thing," there's a reason they actually play the game, and everything is left to chance once the games start. Countless sports gamblers have fallen to ruin, turning a once-innocent passion for a sport or team into a destructive path tainted with obsession, addiction, loss, or some combination of the three.
In addition to gambling on the games themselves, fantasy sports have created a new angle in fandom. Teams are drafted by choosing skilled players from various teams and assembling a unified "fantasy" roster. Once the teams in a league are set, players' statistics are assigned a point value and a team's overall score is placed in opposition of another team in the fantasy league. For many countless hours are consumed playing out this fantasy, so caution must prevail. Such pastimes are enjoyable, but they also have the potential to steal precious time away from family, employment, and other commitments.
Larger than Life
When my son was seven, I took him to a high school football game in our community. While I made sure he had his coat, he was set on bringing a paper and pen. During pregame warmups, he lined up along the chain link fence with his elementary classmates hoping to get autographs from their high school idols.
This put things in perspective for me - sports fandom has the potential to lead to idolization, creating "larger than life" situations. We see this playing out in egos based on tremendous salaries and pressures to enhance performance. All this is a far cry from the neighborhood pick-up games and genuine love of sport.
Sports are fun and exciting; there's no denying that. Watching the game can deliver thrills and a sense of affiliation to a team. If not kept in perspective, however, obsession can surface, leading to financial and mental harm. So, keep sports in perspective, and keep them fun!