During the Covid-19 pandemic, cancelled cricket matches and other sporting events created a void in the hearts of ardent sports fans. Now that the world is returning to normalcy, we can see how sports fans are catching up with doing what they love to do – spectating sports. Currently, we are experiencing a bubbling enthusiasm among Sri Lankan cricket lovers as the finals of the Asia Cup 2022 are just around the corner.
Who is a sports fan?
We can understand an athlete or a sportsman taking interest in a tournament or sport they take part in. But, why and how ordinary people become sports fans is a mystery that interests everyone, especially when people who have never tried any sport themselves become diehard sports fans. Non-sports fans get confused when fans show enthusiasm even when they know that there’s a very good chance that their team will not win. What is it about watching sports that makes us scream, obsess over statistics, pay to acquire the best seats, and paint our faces?
Whether we attend the game, watch or listen to it, or follow the scores online, we share the same enthusiasm for being engaged in the game. We develop emotional connections to a sports club, team, or group. Sometimes, we will continue to be a fan of this particular sport or the sporting team even after a game.
According to sports psychologists, our commitment to a team occurs in three ways: It can be cognitive – as we try to find out more about the sport and the team; behavioural – showing support to the team regardless of wins or losses, continuing to buy tickets and merchandise, and making other purchases to show our loyalty; and attitude – the firm belief in the team or club we support.
Sometimes, the difference between a diehard fan and a spectator depends on the said aspects. A spectator only observes the game and might even forget about it when it’s done, whereas a diehard fan will continue to cherish a game won or weep over a game lost.
Sports spectators can become so passionate about a team that it becomes part of their identity which could affect their wellbeing. Research shows similarities between a fan’s identification with a sports team and how people identify with their nationality, ethnicity, and even gender. A fan can feel a psychological connection to a team and the team’s performances and make the game self-relevant. Due to this reason, mental health professionals have identified a connection between the level of interest a person shows in a sport and their mental health.
Although people report many reasons for following a favourite team, social connectedness is among the most frequently noted, according to experts. Identifying strongly with a team, especially a local one where other fans are also from the same environment promotes a feeling of belongingness and benefits the psychosocial wellbeing of a person.
This is something very important in human life and something which can bring immense joy to an individual. The feeling that you are part of something bigger can make a person feel safe, happy, and inspired. It encourages people to learn positive coping skills as they go through winning or losing as a group and the connectedness among the group members strengthens the feelings of safety.
Escaping real life
Studies have found that people who are sports fans have higher self-esteem compared to individuals with no interest in sports. Sports fans were also found to feel more fulfilled in life. Another thing which fans can derive from watching their favourite sport is a sense of escapism from their everyday lives, which may be full of stress, anxiety, and worry.
This can have both a positive and negative impact, as for some, escapism may not be the best way to deal with the deep-rooted problems they are facing in real life. However, if used as a harmless escape from not-so-significant, everyday issues, a committed interest in sports could be a positive driver for an individual.
Stress and anxiety
Watching sports is a great way to relax, one may argue, as sports interests make great hobbies. Watching a game may cause feelings of pleasure and anxiety. Such feelings create adrenaline and dopamine in the body. These two chemicals are associated with arousal, which makes a person feel positive.
However, experts say that this may depend on the personality of the individual. If a person is passionate about their team but also impatient and prone to anger, following a game can become more stressful rather than feeling relaxed.
The type of person who will stick by a team through thick and thin and support them unconditionally is unlikely to suffer from sports-related stress too much. We have witnessed or heard of many events where diehard fans get enraged by a simple mistake performed by a player or when a game is lost.
Particularly when watching big, important games like a final match, fans can be prone to anxiety just like the players. They can feel extreme nerves during the riskiest moments of a match. Mental health experts say that the overall impact of watching sports could harm a person’s body and mind if these chemical reactions occur regularly.
According to Webmd.com, research has found that diehard sports fans are better at thinking about conflict, mentally preparing for bad things that may happen in their lives, maintaining relationships, and letting go of stress in healthy ways. However, the Harvard Medical School reports that there can be health risks associated with watching sports whether you watch the game live at the stadium or on television. According to them, many people with chest pain, trouble breathing, or other symptoms of a potentially serious problem delay seeking care until after the game.
(The writer is a mental health professional and has, over the past 10 years, contributed to several Sri Lankan media publications in both English and Sinhala languages, focusing on topics related to psychology and counselling)