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The Psychology of Sports

Sports is one of those subjects which causes people to divide into two camps: the dedicated fan and the disapproving skeptic. I’m one of the fanatics, but I don’t fit the stereotypical idea of a sports fan. I was athletic, yet brainy. In fact, I don’t think a typical football fan or baseball fan exists. Each person has their idea of the archetypal sports fan, but one doesn’t exist. The truth is a lot more complicated. Sports fans are like music genres: if the fans all appear the same, then you aren’t looking close enough.

If a person doesn’t like a musical genre, they’ll say, It all sounds the same.” I’m guilty; I’ve said that same thing myself. What the statement betrays is a the perspective of an outsider who has no appreciation of the music. To an outsider, of course, it’s all going to sound similar. Only a person with an understanding of a genre is going to notice and appreciate the differences. People do the same with other people they meet. They tend to make sweeping general statements, because it’s a shorthand to sum up groups of people they don’t know. Such oversimplification keeps life simple and categorized, but it’s also the genesis of racism, chauvinism, and virtually every other kind of prejudice you care to mention.

The same thing happens with sports fanatics, perhaps with less serious consequences.

That brings me to one of the good things about sporting events: the outcome hardly matters. They say academic debates are so bitter and nasty, because the stakes are so low. The same can be said of football games and baseball series. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to understand it, because a society’s games can tell us a lot about ourselves. So let’s analyze the psychology of sports.

Why Sports Matter: The Psychology of Being a Fan

My love of football and tennis and all the other games comes from my grandmother, who loved watching sporting events on television. I’d spend the night with her each Friday night as a child and we watched everything together.

We watched the “Miracle on Ice” together, which remains my favorite sports moment. We watched Bjorn Borg versus John McEnroe. My Mamaw really disliked John McEnroe. So did I, though I love the guy to this day. Part of the reason I enjoy listening to him broadcast matches these days is he reminds me of my late grandmother. That’s probably how it starts with most people: someone special in their lives instilled that love of the game in them.

Sports Is a Business

Not everyone has someone like that in their lives. My dad falls into that second category. He can’t understand why people care so much who wins what game. He can’t stand the amount of money players and coaches make.

For my dad, the business side of the NFL, NBA, and Major League Baseball comes down to money and personalities. He thinks most of the people are arrogant and overpaid. But Dad says he never played sports much growing up, though he “had a great arm and always thought he would have been a good baseball player”. The closest thing he got to a normal sporting moment was 3 Golden Gloves boxing matches. He got into it almost on a whim, because his friends fought in Golden Gloves.

But Dad’s attiude is a reaction that many people have, and it’s a valid one. So let me address that argument. To me, the business side of American sports is immaterial. The players make a lot of money, but many of them trade their health for their family’s security and well-being. They’re paid entertainers. We seldom complain about how much money Hollywood actors make.

Sports Is a Collection of Stories

Let’s talk about where movies and sports intersect. Once again, athletes are depicted in one of two ways on the silver screen. In the first case, the screenwriter comes at it from the perspective of the storybook angle: the insider’s perspective. A group of misfits and wannabes exist, disorganized and often contentious with one another. A lone figure appears, usually someone with a tragic or disappointing past. He or she inspires the team and they go on to greatness. This story can be told equally effectively as a drama or a comedy.

A variation is the lone athlete who faces adversity and overcomes the doubters and their own circumstances to achieve something. In either case, the writer of the script and the director want to tell an inspiring story of achievement. Sports becomes a struggle to achieve something, and the athletic details are a symbol of that achievement.

Sometimes, the screenwriter comes from a much different place: the outsider’s view. We see athletes in a much different light. Because he or she comments from the outside, they tend to use stereotypes. We see another Hollywood archetype: the jock.

The jock is almost always a negative force in the movie: an antagonist, if not the villain. The protagonist is usually nerdy and is always socially awkward. The jock represents the Establishment in whatever setting it is. He’s usually masculine, big, strong, and menacing. He gets all the girls–or at least the prettiest ones–and otherwise stalks the school campus like some movie monster trampling people underfoot. To restore justice to the universe, the jocks in these stories always get their comeuppance.

One gets the idea the writer of these movie scripts is living out wish fulfillment. More than likely, they were the geeky kid back in school, and they probably got tormented by one or more athletes. If not, they witnessed such a thing take place. For them, writing a story where the nerd defeats the jock is a way to exorcise the past. Against all odds, the geek wins. In these films, the athlete isn’t an achiever, but a menace to be feared and an obstacle to be surmounted. He might as well be a part of the landscape, or a monster inhabiting that landscape.

Sports Allows Tribes to Form

Which brings me to one of the reasons so many people get turned off by organized sports. Teams and their fans tap into something primordial in the human psyche. It taps into our basic sense of tribalism. They think, “I am a New York Yankees fan and I hate the Boston Red Sox.”

Or if they live a few hundred miles to the east, they think, “I am a Boston Red Sox fan and I hate the New York Yankees.”

Franchices have their own history and culture. You get the idea Red Sox fans hate the basic concept of the New York Yankees: always winning, always spending more than their opponents, always getting more attention from the New York media. Being a Red Sox fan, dealing with the “Curse of the Babe” and 86 years of futility, it inspires a love of the underdog. The Red Sox fans might as well say, “Yankees are the jocks and we, the Beantown faithful, are the upstarts”. A narrative exists, based on the team’s history. A culture exists, and these fans buy into that culture. To an outsider, it seems like nonsense.

It’s nonsense, unless you understand that tribalism has its advantages.

Walk out of a ballgame or go to a sportsbar in your local area during gametime. Notice how team identity brings people together. Complete strangers have a connection to one another, simply by wearing a team logo. Go out in the wider society…you’ll see people make a brief human connection over a hat or a shirt one of them wears. That’s not such a bad thing, in and of itself. Sure, it might be bad for a fan of the opposing team, but those fans are choosing to set themselves apart from the tribe in wearing the opposing team’s colors around. I’m not justifying violence against the out-of-town team–violence in those cases is barbaric and senseless–but I am explaining it. People can take anything too far.

The fact is, tribalism exists in so many places. Nationalism is rampant everywhere in the world, from capitalist democracies to communist totalitarian states. Tribalism still exists in its most basic form throughout the Middle East, where someone like Saddam Hussein becomes dictator due to support from his tribe–a kind of extended family. Families themselves often break down into separate tribes and clans, from the strongest and most nurturing family situations to the most dysfunctional families. Even religion is rife with tribalism, as one denomination denounces another over a few words of scripture or an arcane tradition.

People like to belong to something. Sometimes, that ‘need to belong’ is attached to a team logo and a fanbase. In well over 99% of those cases, it’s harmless. Of the many forms of tribal behavior we see in the world, rooting for sports teams is one of the most harmless.

Sports Builds Teamwork

From an insider’s perspective, achievement is done through teamwork. That isn’t the case in tennis, golf, or boxing, of course. But in most organized team sports, building teamwork and camaraderie is a key aspect of winning. Win, lose, or draw, you have to learn to depend on other people in a stressful situation. A crisis point happens and you depend on a teammate to pull through in that moment.

Teamwork builds trust. Trust builds relationships. Being a member of a team is a shared identity. Long after the games are over, many people retain the relationships they built in those ballgames and practices.

For children growing up, the importance of learning how to work with other people to achieve something is key. Most people are going to join an organization of some sort in their career. When they learn early on to build trust and camaraderie with others to achieve some goal, it helps them develop the skills to do the same with more material goals later in life. It’s not essential that kids learn through playing on a team, but it’s one of the best ways to teach them and allow them to still be kids.

Someone once said, “The Battle of Waterloo was won on the fields of Eton.” The Duke of Wellington (or whoever first said the quote) meant the British officers who led in the Battle of Waterloo learned leadership, character, and competitiveness while playing on the fields of England’s finest prep school. Sporting events build character, if you’re lucky enough to have the right coaches and parents to nurture you along. Even if you don’t (and Etonians hardly received much nurturing, as we would understand it), the team mentality can have a profound effect on a young boy or girl.

Sports Adds Traditions to a Person’s Life

Tradition is an overlooked aspect to being a fan. I go back to watching sports with my Mamaw. I grew up playing baseball and soccer as a kid. When I got old enough, I played football. To relax and think, I’d stand out in the driveway, shooting baskets, hour after hour. I’d throw the baseball on the pitchback, working on pitches. I’d hit the tennis ball against the garage wall. All those things go back to my Mamaw sitting in her chair, listening to Mark Holtz and Eric Nadell call Texas Rangers’ ballgames on her transistor radio.

If you didn’t have a tradition of that in your family, you wouldn’t “get it”. In those years I was playing sports, no one would have looked at me and said, “He loves sports, because that’s how he bonded with his old granny.” They would have seen a jock obsessed with winning.

In fact, anytime I play games and sports to this day, my girlfriends talk about how intense and competitive I am. No, I’m not. If I do something, I like to do it well. I don’t like being bad at something. That’s different than being obsessed with winning. Winning is nice, but it’s the competition itself, the chance to compete and achieve something, which matters most to me. From an outsider’s perspective, that’s not going to seem like much of a difference. It’s a huge difference.

Here’s one of the traditions I share with many others.

Every Thanksgiving, I sit with the family and watch Detroit Lions games and Dallas Cowboys games. Each year, I watch the Thursday Night Football season opener with buddies. When I can, I watch the 1st night of the NFL Draft with friends. I get together with old friends for my fantasy football draft each August. In many cases, that’s the only time each year I get to see some of these old buddies. It’s a tradition, a marking point, a connector with my past.

It’s reassuring, and fun, like hearing the laugh of an old friend.

Sports Can Sustain Relationships

In the movie City Slickers, several old friends from New York City go to a dude ranch. These middle-aged men are each trying to deal with a midlife crisis by getting back to basics. They join an unlikely assortment of other characters. One of them develops a love interest. This woman, who is an outsider to the world of sports, is listening to the guys talk about the New York Mets one day.

It’s obvious this is not the first conversation on the Mets on this cattle ride.

The woman remarks that men seem to talk about sports endlessly. Her love interest tells her, when he was 18 years old, the Mets were the only thing he and his dad could talk about. Many men probably can relate to that dynamic. Throughout times in my life, I’ve had trouble relating to family members on so many important subjects: politics, religion, career choices, life decisions. We always could talk about sports.

I’m not saying this is the way life should be perpetually, but it helps get through the rough times. It’s a bridge to better relations, a form of small talk which gets a conversation going. Once people talk, they might just find they have a lot of things in common beyond sports.

Sports Can Be Cathartic

The competitive aspect is key: I’ll admit that. But there is something psychologically valid in watching a sporting event. People who don’t have a rooting interest will never understand this, but I’ll try to explain.

People watching a game on television without caring who wins or loses is a lot like watching a movie without caring about what happens to the characters. If you don’t like or care what happens to the protagonist of a film, then a movie is awful. The same can be said about games and matches. That’s one of the reasons people gamble on sporting events or play fantasy sports. It gives them a reason to cheer for one side over the other, creating an artificial form of interest. It’s a pale shadow of real sports fandom, but it works for some.

I would argue there something’s more profound at work for most men who watch NFL football, NBA basketball, NHL hockey, and MLB baseball. Watching sports can be a kind of therapy for many men. It lets them vent their emotions in a socially acceptable way.

American males are taught growing up not to show their emotions. Because they’re taught it’s unmanly to show “they really care”, they tend to repress their joy, sadness, love, and anger. Being a fan becomes one of the few acceptable outlets to channel those emotions. It’s a shame, but a man can exhibit deep emotions over the outcome of a game or their fantasy team’s score, when it’s thought unmanly to show their emotions about more important stuff.

So when you wives, fiances, and girlfriends see your men losing it about the outcome of a ballgame, remember that this is his catharsis. This might be the one time all week that it’s acceptable for him to vent his emotions. Psychologically, I think that’s valid. If you see this happening, don’t try to shame him or force him to repress these emotions. Understand what’s going on and try to empathize as much as you can. He needs to vent his emotions a little.

Sports Brings Out Our Inner Child

Remember, sports take so many of us back to your childhood. For a time, we become children again.

Should we be ashamed, being grown men acting like little boys over some game?

Maybe, or maybe not. Catharis is healthy. Finding an outlet for our pent-up emotions is better than the alternative. Maybe a better outlet for our repressed feelings could be found. But if you go along for the ride, it’s likely to lead to a shared sense of community between the two of you. If you can buy into the little boy psychology, you might find it builds a sense of teamwork and belonging in your wider relationship. Give it a try and see if it works.

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