Tournament time is just around the corner and the Racers are preparing for the NCAA phenomenon. Murray State fans everywhere are more than excited to see the Racers (originally picked third in the Ohio Valley Conference) doing better than everyone expected. With heavy media coverage and recognition of their success, the Racers are moving to the tournament under heavy speculation.
With the stress and excitement of their first tournament appearance since 2010, I talked to Daniel Wann, sport pyschologist, about the psychological side of March Madness before Sunday’s Selection Show.
CB: With the Racers going to the NCAA, how does the community of Murray change? Do people feel more together or cohesive? Why?
Wann: The success of a sport team can most certainly draw members of the community together. Sport has the capacity to integrate people at many levels, from local levels (local community) to globally (e.g., World Cup Soccer or the Olympics). Humans have an innate need to feel a sense of belongingness with others and sport provides an opportunity to do that. When a team is successful and begins to receive increased media coverage and more people in the community focus on the team, being a fan of that team becomes more salient to each individual and, collectively, becomes something that can bring people together.
CB: Before going to the tournament, what do you think are some things the team should know or prepare for?
Wann: In addition to the usual things they need to focus on like game strategy and so forth, they need to be ready for the media and the time this will require. All eyes will be on Murray State University in the Big Dance and so it is especially important that the players and coaches don’t get overly distracted by the media attention.
CB: How much does fan support affect how they will play in the tournament?
Wann: That depends on where they end up playing. There is no doubt that players are influenced by fan support. If the player gains a sense of confidence from the fans, this can translate into better performance. So, for the Racers, if they get a spot in a close venue, say Nashville or Louisville, a large number of Racer fans will make the trip and provide important support. If we get shipped out west, fewer Racer fans will make the trip, hence, less fan support.
CB: When a team loses, why do fans get overly emotional? I’m talking about crying or violence.
Wann: Because for highly identified fans, which are fans who feel a strong psychological connection to a team, the teams victories and losses are felt as their own. It is a central component of their social identity and, as such, has powerful implications for feelings of self-worth, happiness, mood, etc.
CB: When people make a bracket and assume their team will do really well, do you really think that will be successful? Or are they idealizing the tournament?
Wann: Everyone over estimates the chance of their team. It’s just what fans do.
CB: Do college students think going to a winning school makes it a better school? Why do you think sports can be just as important of a factor as the academic value when people choose to go to a certain college?
Wann: I am not sure they think it is a “better school” in an academic success because it has good sport teams, but it would likely seem to be a fun school to attend if the student is a sport fan. It is generally rare that someone attends a school solely to follow the school’s sport teams (it happens, but it’s rare). But, all things being equal, people would rather be at a school where the teams win than where they lose. Plus, better teams equal more media coverage and that increases general knowledge of a school.
CB: When Coach Prohm gets nervous during games, he has a habit of putting on Chapstick. Is there a psychological reason behind this?
Wann: When people are anxious, they search for actions that give them a sense of control and calm. For Coach Steve Prohm, this is likely a large factor behind this behavior.
From the nosebleed section filled with Racer fans, to the side where Prohm mentors his team and to the court itself, tournament time is mentally challenging for everyone involved. Here’s to the fanatics who yell at the television and the players actually representing Murray State. It’s March Madness, and the madness is in the title for a reason.