Friday, December 9, 2011

He shoots, he scores!


There I am, sitting on my couch—on the edge of my couch—staring at the television with wide eyes, hands gripping the coffee table, heart pounding, mouth open. “Yes! Yes, yes, yes!” No I am not watching porn. I’m watching hockey.

When the puck goes in the net, I leap to my feet and punch a fist in the air with another yell. When the puck goes in the other net I’m more likely to scream out some four-letter words and fall back onto the couch in a slump. Why is it so much fun to cheer for a sports team? Why does it matter so much to us?

 As I've recently been pulled into the excitement of having a national hockey league team back in my city, I was reflecting on why this has been so important to me, and to my entire community. I love the game of hockey. I've watched it since I was a kid, on Saturday nights Hockey Night in Canada. As a teenager, my first boyfriend took me to hockey games and patiently answered my dumb questions about why that was a penalty and what offside means. After we broke up, I had season tickets with a girlfriend and we went to every game. When I moved to the "big city" I was excited to go to NHL games when I could afford tickets and cheer for them on TV when I couldn't afford to go. Then we lost our team, and I lost interest in hockey. I still watched the playoffs, usually near the finals, arbitrarily picking a team to cheer for to make it more exciting, but it wasn't the same. 

Now I have my own team to cheer for (whether they'll make the playoffs remains to be seen!) and I'm completely enthralled with it and have watched almost every single game this season. (This is not good for my writing productivity!). Why is that?

I wondered if cheering for a sports team fulfils some deep-seated needs inside us and I pulled out my psychology text book to look at Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. If you don't remember this or aren't familiar with it, Maslow believed that human beings have a hierarchy of needs and that once our needs are met at one level, we then seek to have our needs at the next level met.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

1.      Physiological needs - food water, shelter

2.      Safety needs - security, stability, structured and ordered environment

3.      Belongingness needs - social interaction, affection, love, companionship, friendship

4.      Esteem needs - feelings of adequacy, competence, independence, strength and confidence, and the appreciation and recognition of these needs by others.

Clearly, people who are struggling to survive - to find enough to eat, to find clean drinking water or a place to live - are not likely worried about feeling appreciated by others. Their first needs are survival. Cheering for a sports team is probably not high on their priority list.

Going back to "cave man" days, these were survival instincts and when people lived in groups this led to feelings of "us vs. them". We support the "us" and are threatened by "them."

Much later, sports developed as entertainment in mainly agrarian lives when there was less of the "us vs. them" survival feelings. People worked hard, but their lives lacked excitement and sports offered the opportunity for people to share experiences with the "us" and develop stronger bonds within the group. Sports add excitement to lives that are boring and routine, nowadays as many of us spend our days in an office in front of a computer or doing all the humdrum tasks of running a household. Also, when a lot of our world feels out of control, they offer something consistent.

Today, for most of us our physiological needs are met, our safety needs are met and sometimes our belongingness needs are met. But sports and cheering for teams off a multitude of opportunity for more belongingness. Watching football on TV with the guys, going to hockey games, and talking about the game the next day at work all offer social interaction and companionship. Supporting a team and cheering for it can improve emotional feelings of well being (especially when your team wins).

As for esteem needs, studies have shown that people feel smarter, luckier and more attractive when their team is winning, so cheering for a team can also impact a person's self esteem. We can bask in the reflected glory of our winning team and be a part of something great. We can share that excitement with others. And not just feeling the excitement, it's being allowed to show it. I've seen grown men shed a tear about the return of the Jets, or a lost playoff game. This might be even more of a factor for men, who traditionally are not encouraged to show their emotions, than for women. I'd say that having an outlet to express emotion is probably a healthy thing for men.

Of course the opposite is true as well. When your team is losing, you can feel depressed, even enraged. Again this can be a shared experience. Being alone and depressed is much worse than sharing that depression with others (right Naughty Nine ladies?). But the excitement that can be a positive thing can quickly turn negative if the team loses (especially if alcohol is involved, which it often is at sporting events). Witness the Vancouver riot when the Canucks lost the Stanley Cup last year. It's happened many other places, too. The passion that gives people all those wonderful feelings can incite them to do things they normally wouldn't otherwise. That can also include the dangerous possibility of gambling to excess.

We've seen those fickle fans who immediately turn on their team (and possibly riot!) when things aren't going well, but I've also seen die hard loyal fans who support the team through bad times and good. Why do we stick with a team when a team is losing? Again, it boosts our own self esteem to make the group look good, so even when we're losing, we'll often search for positive things to compare our team favourably against the others.

Other research has indicated that cheering for a sports team makes you feel like part of something bigger than yourself. I'm not sure I'd link my love of cheering for my Jets to my fear of mortality and the idea that the team is something that will last beyond my own life. I guess I can see that it could but it could make us feel that emotionally investing in a team is worth it because it's something that will endure.

Cheering for a sports team brings us together and makes us a part of our community. It connects us to other people and lets us share our feelings with them, both good and bad. It adds excitement to lives that are routine and boring. And it's fun!


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