From the doctor’s couch: Chats with a sports psychologist: Inside an emotional fan’s mind

Carly Besser
Staff writer

When watching a sporting event on television, people of course, pay attention to the game, but there is one entity that creates the mood and noise: the fans. They create the uproar when their team makes a flawless touchdown pass and the ones who get arrested in the name of all things fandom.

Coming from a family of passionate University of Louisville fans, I always wondered what about sports made their blood boil. Why on earth would they yell at the TV when the game was clearly being played miles away? Nobody could hear them. It would have made no difference.

Many people seem to forget the fans are what make the franchise what it is. They account for the hype and many of the funds which go toward what we consider tradition.

With the possibility in mind that their reactions may be deeper than the heat of the moment, I talked to Dan Wann, Murray State’s sports psychologist.

CB: Why do you think fans cheer or yell at the television during a sporting event?

Wann: “There’s a lot of reasons. One thing is they may just be upset, angry or excited, and as humans, we express these emotions vocally. It’s not that they think the players can hear them necessarily but that they know all of this is pent up inside and they don’t know how else to release it. Some individuals can actually be superstitious, where they think their emotions can actually affect the outcome of the game.”

CB: Do you think fans really do influence the performance of the players?

Wann: “At games, specifically, of course. They might not affect the game as much as the fan would like to think, but there’s a lot of research that shows referees function based on fans and where the game is played. There’s a lot of bias that comes from the reaction of the fans. Athletes can actually perform based on the emotional input of their fans.”

CB: Why do you think fandom can sometimes evoke violence?

Wann: “For the sport fan, if she or he identifies highly with the team the performances evoke them as if these outcomes were their own. The reality is that they feel like they’re stuck. They care so much about what happens but they can’t really do anything about the outcome. So, they get so wrapped up that they have to take it out on somebody. There’s two key reasons: they’re hot-headed and they’re liquored up.”

CB: Do fans on opposites teams have a deeper hate than just what team they identify with?

Wann: “I think there are fans who absolutely hate people who are fans. It’s that intense. It’s rare to be that intense, but there are people who won’t hang out with each other because of it.”

CB: Do you think being a hardcore fan can be psychologically unhealthy?

Wann: “Actually, it’s very healthy. If you identify with a local team, let’s say the Racers, and you identify well with them, you have a built-in social support group. So, if you’re walking on campus and it’s basketball season, it would be hard to feel lonely. There’s always somebody there. We find identifying with a local team is very socially stimulating.”

CB: Is it different if someone is a fan of a team further away?

Wann: “Yes, it’s very different. It’s not unhealthy, but it takes away the benefits. It’s just nothing, unless you find other fans of the same team and go watch the games together. During that period of time, you can feel better and feel less lonely, but once that goes away, you’re back to where you were. That doesn’t mean you can’t take it too far. Some people lose relationships over sports fandoms. It’s more likely to get good benefits out of being a sports fan than to get anything bad out of being a sports fan.”

 

From bar-hoppers to basket-cases, the fan is a strong defining element of any sports team. Without them, we may not even have sports. In the world of athletics, the fans will always have a spot in the grand scheme of things. Here’s to the guy who pre-records the NCAA playoffs and pretends he’s writing a paper to get rid of his girlfriend and the guy who just enjoys having a brew with his friends. You are what makes sports the social pastime they are.

Contact Besser.