Growing up in Canada, my favorite (ahem, favourite) sport was always baseball. I like to joke that the reason I don’t live in Canada anymore was because I don’t really care about hockey, so they kicked me out. We had precisely two major league baseball teams at that time, and since I lived closer to Toronto (though not by much) than Montreal, I became a devoted Toronto Blue Jays fan. That affection has never wavered. When I moved to Atlanta, my then-boyfriend-now-husband convinced me to attend a Braves game, and I was initially resistant. I’d always despised the Braves, even while going to college in Tennessee. Well, we headed to Turner Field, where the team still played at the time, and by the end of the game, I was tomahawk-chopping and chanting with the best of them! So, what happened? More importantly, why do any of us cheer for a sports team? Turns out, there are some fascinating psychological answers.
The psychology of cheering for a sports team
Why do we get so emotionally attached to sports teams? When our chosen team wins, we celebrate. We say things like “WE won,” not “THEY won.” When they lose, we feel angry. Most of us don’t personally know the team members, and very few of the players actually come from the city they represent. Some of us aren’t from the cities that we cheer for. Fans feel like their behavior affects the game outcome – cheering, “rally caps,” other rituals. Where does this all come from?
Psychologists theorize that it goes back to our caveman days. Being part of a tribe wasn’t just for fun – it was necessary for survival. If you were rejected by your tribe, you could literally die. Even if we only go back to the Middle Ages, community was still very important. Villages would play games against one another at folk celebrations. Revelry was part of societal bonding. For thousands of years, humans have banded together to defeat common “enemies.” In today’s world, we generally don’t have to worry about defeating a giant predator, and most of us don’t engage in warfare against a neighboring village. So, scientists think that that same energy has gotten channeled into sports. Lots of people get the chance to participate as children, and some do as adults. But a lot of us live this out by pulling for the sports teams we’ve decided to align ourselves with.
If they don’t win, it’s a shame
To expand my story a bit, nowadays, people are appalled when I tell them that I now pull for BOTH the Braves and the Jays. “You can’t have TWO favorite MLB teams!” they insist. “Why not?” I parry back to them. No one ever has a good answer. When I went to Chicago a few years ago and saw a game at Wrigley Field, I purchased a Cubs t-shirt I thought was cute. I can no longer wear it in mixed company. Seriously – if I wear that shirt in Atlanta, people want to know if I’m a “huge Cubs fan.” If I tell them the truth, that I just saw a game and liked the shirt, they seem indignant. How can I wear a shirt for a sports team I’m not invested in?
Research tells us that our testosterone and dopamine levels rise when our team wins a game, the same way that the players’ testosterone rises as well. Fans even report boosts in self-esteem, optimism, and how attractive they feel after a successful sports event. Sports can serve as a distraction from the rest of our life. Sports can be an emotional experience, particularly for men who aren’t always allowed to be emotional in other areas of their lives. Fans aren’t directly part of the game, but their involvement makes them feel as though they are. It goes right back to that tribal bonding.
And, that’s the ball game!
None of this means that anyone is “stupid” or “primitive” for cheering for a sports team. I don’t intend to stop attending Braves games any time soon. Yet, it’s still good to understand why we engage in this behavior. Though I’ve always been disappointed when my team loses, I’ve never truly understood those who really, REALLY get upset at a team’s loss (we all have that friend – you know who it is). If you’re someone who gets emotionally hurt by your team losing, you don’t have to change. But it might be helpful to know why you feel the way that you do.