For a sports fan is it just a game?

Written by Anupriya Jain under Dr. Anu Goel for – 03 April, 2013

Published on

Sports fans are often asked the question ‘What’s the big deal? It’s just a game!’ People who are not attached to any sport simply can’t understand why are people ready to do anything to watch their favorite team play, and more importantly, win. On a day when IPL-6 is set to begin, understanding fan-following will shed light on how people are avid fans of their IPL teams and players.
We see all over the television before a big match how fans pray in groups, give donations, spend thousands of rupees, see crazy predictions happening and many such things so that our cricket team wins. Similarly, we have crazy fans in football, rugby and other sports all over the world.
Being a crazy fan of cricket myself, and seeing a nation obsessed with this sport so much so that they can kill or get killed just over a game of cricket, has always fascinated me. We see how people attach themselves to a sport or sportspersons despite the fact that they have no apparent benefit from following it.There is no direct influence of the team or sportsperson’s performance on the person following it. There is no direct personal relation. Why is it then that people are obsessed with sports, would not miss a game, would be heartbroken if their team loses and would be on cloud nine if it wins?

Psychological research on sports fans focuses largely on the effects of sports rooting, for instance, the violence and aggression, which may result from being a fan. However, little is known about the entire process of becoming a fan. Therefore, the question arises, how and why people form fan identities?

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, say psychologists. In modern society, professional and college athletes play a similar role for a city in the stylized war on a playing field, the theory goes. ”Our sports heroes are our warriors,” Robert Cialdini, a professor of psychology at Arizona State, said about sports fans, reported The New York Times.

Except for the commonly known reasons like need for self-esteem and aggression there are many other factors behind fan behavior such as identity formation, classical conditioning, operant conditioning and other learning principles involved.

During childhood, parents encourage their children to follow the same sports that they are passionate about. Thus, they praise the child (unconditioned stimulus) whenever he/she shows interest towards a particular sport. The child slowly starts associating the sport with pleasurable feelings that earlier came from praise.

Similarly, we can take the case of peers. When a child starts moving in a social setting, our society encourages sports attachment. It may lead to a sense of pleasure when the person is able to relate to his peers and them in turn to him/her. This feeling of attachment with the peers is the shifted onto the sport thus leading to an emotional attachment to the sport.

Being attached to a sport lets people be free of social inhibitions and express themselves freely. The constraints on behavior such as self-monitoring and awareness no longer hold and people feel free and unrestricted.

The attachment to a sport is more like a para-social relationship. There is no fear of rejection and comes without the risk of being criticized or rejected. It allows people to express themselves in whichever way they want, express their unconscious emotions and connect with other people.

People remain loyal to their teams even after repeated failures because they are the proud of “standing by” their teams which gives them the right to revel in its success when things turn around for them. Also these days many traditional institutions like family, religion etc., are breaking down. In such cases sports provides people with some form of attachment and support. It fills an important void.

Fans experience euphoria during moments when the competition is going well for their team, and stress when play is going against their team. The switching between these two emotions creates a heightened level of pleasure. It has been known to increase certain hormones and testosterone levels in the body. A study states that such hormones can buffer depression and increase feelings of self-worth.

So if you simply can’t do without watching your favorite team play, if you lose you are sad for days and if you win nothing else matters, you are not alone – welcome to fandom!


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