Sports fans – the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Everyone has to develop a personal identity (“what are my values and what are my talents”) and a social identity (“who do I fit in with and who do I want to be like”). One way that people enhance their social identity is by being a sports fan. Being able to share in the achievements of a team builds self esteem, and having a group to belong to can protect us against feeling like we don’t fit in. We like to identify with successful sports teams or individuals because we can share in the reflected glory when they do well, and we can develop our knowledge of a sport that we’re interested in. Being part of a fan group also provides us with social support – a ready-made group of people who we can celebrate with and commiserate with – and we know that having lots of social support is really good for our psychological health, and even our physical health.

There is a body of research on the ups and downs of being a sports fan and it makes interesting reading. In one study, people who identified as fans felt good more often, and felt angry, depressed, lonely and tired less often than people who didn’t identify as fans. However, people who identify as fans also suffer more than people who don’t. For example, fans can experience intense anxiety before and during a game, and can experience significant anger, disappointment and depression if their team loses. When your team loses, you may even feel physically unwell for some days, with an increase in heart attacks noted after a major soccer match loss and a decrease in heart attacks after a win! When someone in your team behaves badly, your values may be violated and your self-esteem takes a knock. But these negative experiences give people opportunities to practice good coping strategies and build their resilience.

Being a sports fan also affects the way you explain your team’s wins or losses. People who identify strongly as fans of a particular team have stereotyped explanations for the team’s wins (the win is attributed to the team’s qualities like “What a great team”, “They’re so talented”) compared with their losses (the loss is attributed to something outside of the team like “What a bad ref!”, “They were jet-lagged”, “They were poisoned”). If there is a scandal involving the team, the explanation for a fan is likely to be “The media are out to get them!” while the explanation for the opposition team’s fans is more likely to be “They’re just a bunch of hooligans”.

However, like everything else that can be good for us, there can be a downside if we over-do it. People whose passion for their teams becomes too intense, can end up in trouble with their close relationships, their jobs, and even the law. For example, we know that sports fans drink significantly more alcohol than do non-sports fans, increasing the risk that they might have unprotected sex, end up with alcohol-related injuries, miss work or study, and get into trouble with the police. In addition, it seems that there may even be an increase in violent behavior associated with those people who identify very strongly as fans.

Thankfully, these extreme cases are a small minority of the many people who are keen supporters of their sports teams. So, for the vast majority of people, being a moderate sports fan has significant benefits for psychological and physical health!


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