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How Sports Fandom Influences Mental Health

A girl thinking about all the sports she is interested in. The sports are represented by a basketball, a cricket-bat, a basketball hoop and a football. They are presented in concurrent spirals. The image is in a yellow border with illustrations of basketball, tennis racket, cricket ball, football and a shuttlecock.
A recent Oxford study indicated that followings a sports team could lead to increased stress on your heart. Illustration by (c) Reset Fest Inc, Canada

Mental Health

How Sports Fandom Influences Mental Health

It’s an unending, week-by-week emotional rollercoaster.

“I credit my general cocky behaviour to [being a supporter of] United since I was 13,” Prthvir Solanki, a Mumbai-based content creator told Re:Set. “For example, a month ago, when we beat both [Manchester] City and Tottenham [Hotspurs] in a week, oh man, I haven’t felt better. At work too, that was maybe my most productive week in years. When weeks like that happen, I’m just happier, more confident.”

Sports fandom is odd. Sometime last month, I remember feeling crestfallen as Arsenal, the football team I root for, lost a game last month. Like the aforementioned Manchester United, we too are having a historically bad year. After every game, I browse through Twitter checking reactions and memes, then search which players we might buy to improve the team. This goes on for about an hour, and by this time, fans start uploading video reactions on YouTube. These videos are performative and visceral, with fans screaming in agony about mistakes made by professional athletes. Then, having spent hours just feeling bad about myself, I go to bed.

“I wouldn’t replace this feeling [of a big win] with anything,” Solanki said. “Especially now, when we’re bad, it’s like a drug. You get that shot of adrenaline with every win, then go terribly down after a loss, but you keep going back on the rollercoaster.”

If high levels of cortisol are produced consistently for an extended period of time, it can also lead to cardiac arrest.

To understand what happens to the stress levels of those watching and supporting their teams, last week, Oxford University released details from a study conducted by examining the saliva of Brazillian football fans during their infamous loss to Germany at the 2014 World Cup.

“It is important because, for the first time, it showed that cortisol increases over the course of a game [when compared to levels on a non-match day],” the corresponding author of the study, Dr. Martha Newson, from Oxford’s Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology, told Re:Set over email.

Cortisol is our body’s main stress hormone. High levels of cortisol can lead to a myriad of problems ranging from weight gain, high blood pressure and mood swings, which can manifest as stress, depressed mood or irritability. If high levels of cortisol are produced consistently for an extended period of time, it can also lead to cardiac arrest.

The major focus of the study though, was different. “Our primary interest was to look at identity fusion — a particularly intense form of group bonding. We wanted to see how game outcome affected stress levels in relation to how fused [people’s identities] were to their [team’s],” Dr. Newson said. “We get a good picture of how being intensely bonded to your group is associated with greater surges in the stress hormone cortisol. 

Fans holding their phones in the air at a cricket game. The image is in a yellow border with illustrations of basketball, tennis racket, cricket ball, football and a shuttlecock.

Sports tribalism results in euphoric highs and the lowest of lows. Photo courtesy: Nischay Pradhan

Identity fusion is key to understanding sporting “tribalism.” It is “a form of alignment with groups in which members experience a visceral sense of oneness with the group. When fusion occurs, both the personal and social selves remain salient and influential, but the boundaries between them become highly permeable.” This ‘oneness’ can result in many things, most importantly, people willing to fight and die for their fused groups. Some Manchester United fans, for example, attacked the home of the club’s executive vice-chairman this week, owing to the growing discontent over poor performances.

When he wins, it feels like you’re a part of it,” Smriti Arora, a New Delhi-based social media consultant and ardent Rafael Nadal fan, told Re:Set. “When he’s having a bad year, I felt I was having a bad year. I remember crying when Roger (Federer) ended Nadal’s streak of wins on clay. But then Nadal beat him in the next tournament, so that felt even better. It even affected my studies [while I was] growing up as I used to skip tuition to watch Nadal’s matches.”

Another sports fan, 29-year-old software engineer Abhay Subramanian, confessed that the only way to get out of sequence of emotional events for him is to distract himself.

“During a lull after a weekend loss, I try to stay away from football stats and coverage. It’s the same when Sachin [Tendulkar, a revered Indian cricketer] would go out. I would stop checking scores,” he told Re:Set. “What feels terrible is that you don’t have any control over the result of a game. That powerlessness is the worst. So I watch TV, read about politics and talk to other human beings. However, the whole cycle restarts on the weekend.”


Also read: Ink’D: People Share How Tattoos Help Their Mental Health


Why though, do people do it to themselves?

Sushrut Jain, a Los Angeles-based filmmaker tried to understand this by making a film on, among other things, India’s most famous sports fan; Sudhir Gautam. 

“When I first met him, he wasn’t flattered at all that we wanted to make a movie about him. He said ‘thank you’ and then left to do what he considered was his job: wave his flag in front of the Indian team bus, and what he believed would help them win,” Jain told Re:Set. “He was almost obsessive about [what he believed was] his contribution to the team. When we’d lose, that’s all he would talk about, but then the next match would come around and he would perk up again.”

Born to a rural family in Muzzaffpur, Bigar, Gautam hasn’t missed a single home game of the Indian National Cricket team since 2003. He cycles to wherever the team is playing, carrying a bag full of paint and his famed tri-colour flag. He once cycled to the neighbouring country of Bangladesh to attend a game, and was recently conferred with an international fan award.

According to Reena Kaul, sports psychologist and scientific officer at the Sports Authority of India, this isn’t the best for Gautam’s mental health. “When poeple get too attached to athletes, they for a moment forget who actually has performed [on the field]. Psychologically, it’s called, ‘vicarious reinforcement’,” she told Re:Set. “Emotional outbursts aren’t bad, because they create temporary happiness, but control is needed. Otherwise, the brain starts believing it is living in a [state of] euphoria. If these emotions linger on for a long time, it affects homeostasis, and the whole system can go haywire.”

Psychologically, vicarious reinforcement is our tendency to repeat or duplicate behaviors for which others are being rewarded. 

“I visited his home…there was no future for him there…with 25 people living in one house, struggling to make ends meet, and Sudhir just wanted more [out of life]. A local journalist in his village told him that if he was such a big fan, why [hadn’t he met] Sachin?” Jain recollected. 

“When he did meet Sachin, who was nice to him, Sudhir felt like he had met god. Like he was connected to [Sachin’s] greatness…and everyone wants a piece of greatness.”

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