What makes NFL fans get so depressed, angry, and sometimes volatile when their teams don’t make the playoffs or Super Bowl, and how do they get past those feelings?: originally appeared on Quora: The best answer to any question. Ask a question, get a great answer. Learn from experts and access insider knowledge. You can follow Quora on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+.
Most social scientists who study the psychology of sports fans would say that it has to do with the NFL fan identifying with the team so strongly that the outcome of the game has emotional and even physiological consequences for the fan.
We are powerfully identified with our family, close friends, or close co-workers. They are the people we feel a sense of connection and belonging to, and responsibility for. When good things happen to those people we closely identify with, we feel happier and more hopeful. If someone messes with them or hurts them in some way, we will also often respond by being angry (if we think action is called for) or depressed (if there is a loss or the situation feels hopeless).
We can powerfully identify with our national political leaders and with our nation and feel similar strong feelings of anger and depression if the person we vote for loses or if our country is attacked and we suffer losses.
If you identify strongly with your team, and your team wins the Super Bowl, your self-esteem and sense of optimism will increase. On the flip side, if they lose, it will increase feelings of anger and depression.
Who Are We Identifying With?
One theory of sports fandom stresses that the high level of identification with the team has roots in our ancient history. When we belonged to various tribes, the individuals who were the warriors of the tribe were a part of us, were related to us. The survival of the tribe often depended upon their success in defending us.
Now instead of wearing warpaint and carrying spears, our “warriors” are wearing helmets and shoulder pads and carrying a football. But the feeling for us fans is still that they are out on the field “fighting” for us, and that we are cheering them on.
What’s at stake?
Our warriors aren’t out there doing battle for our lives anymore. But the term “die-hard football fan” may reveal some strange truth. Some fans whose team lose at the Super Bowl are at increased risk for cardiac events, according to research done in 2011. They are literally taking the loss to heart, and the emotional distress can contribute to heart attack and congestive heart failure.
Taking a Super Bowl Loss to Heart Can Be Deadly, Study Finds
Identification With A Team Is Actually Healthy
In spite of the feelings of anger and depression and even the increased chance of heart attack if your team loses the Super Bowl, the general consensus from the available research is that the more that a person identifies with a sports team, the more likely they are to also be psychologically healthy.
Having a sports team improves one’s sense of belonging, shared goodwill, being a part of a community, and feeling a sense of connection with others…all things that actually help to prevent depression.
No matter where you go, wearing your team’s jersey identifies you as part of a family where you will be welcome. It improves your chances of being able to be social, especially during the winter months that are toughest for those who suffer from depression. The fact that there is always another season, another chance to win, is tangible hope and something to look forward to…also good for preventing depression.
Being a loyal sports fan, then, is more likely to protect you from being depressed and alienated overall, though anger and depression with your team’s loss may be the price you have to pay.
Even if your team loses the Super Bowl, you can share your sadness with others who “feel your pain.” You’ll certainly not be alone in dealing with your team’s loss, which is some comfort. Speaking of which…
How To Cope If Your Team Loses
“You know what makes a good loser? Practice.”
That is true, at least, according to Ernest Hemingway.
Rather than just practice losing, there are several things you can do to ease the pain when the unthinkable happens.
As a psychologist I teach these 3 strategies to my clients who are handling crises and disappointment: Denial, Distraction, and Connection.
- “It’s just a game.” You can keep things in perspective by reminding yourself that you still have a life, friends, family, work, other things that matter. Remember not to say this to any other fan, just yourself.
- “I’m not going to think about this now.” You can pull a Scarlett O’Hara and decide you’ll think about this tomorrow. Tomorrow is another day! What’s on Netflix?
- “My team is still the best.” You can believe this no matter what the outcome of the game, and better yet…prove it! Act like a winner, not a loser. That’s what good losers do.
- Get some space from people. Especially if you’re feeling angry about the game. Put on some music. Get lost in something that has the power to calm you down and take you away from it all in a healthy way.
- Exercise. Working off some frustration and generating some endorphins will alter your mood in a positive direction.
- Play a video game. Anything that takes your mind off of what has happened for awhile has the chance to lower your emotionality and give you a chance to gain some perspective.
Misery doesn’t just love company, sometimes it needs it.
And as long as you keep it positive and aren’t plotting ways to blow up the opposing team’s locker room, connecting with your friends is all good.
Watch funny movies, go bowling, hang out and let your communal loss be your bond for the evening.
A true fan is there “for better or for worse.”
Hang in there and remember… there’s always next season…
Personal Note: I’m A New Fan
Although I identify strongly with friends, family, and other things I belong to and even played sports as a kid, I never became a fan of a football team until recently. Not that I didn’t have the chance. I went to the University of Nebraska, after all, but never got into football. (I know, don’t start. I’ve heard it all…)
My husband is a lifelong Miami Dolphins fan and I watched the ups and downs he went through, and the excitement and hope he always had going into the next season. I thought that if I picked a team to follow for myself, I might “get into” the experience.
So, I picked the Saints. I love New Orleans and as a fellow Hurricane sufferer living in Florida, my heart had gone out to the city watching coverage of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
It was 2009, and did I ever pick the right team at the right time to experience my first football season as a fan. Watching the Super Bowl with friends that year was one of the most memorable experiences of my life!
I finally “got it.”
Since then, I’ve gotten to experience wins and losses, ups and downs…the roller coaster ride that is being a sports fan.
You can read more about The Psychology of Sports Fans:
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