The Friendship of Fandom

At the intersection of psychology, physiology and sociology

by Andrew Cullen, art & culture editor


We all know that playing sports makes us healthier; physical activity improves both our physical and psychological well-being in many different ways. However, research suggests that we do not have to play a sport to reap similar health benefits. Being a sports fan and participating in sports fandom by watching games at home, talking about sports at work, and attending sporting events on the weekend improves brain functioning, motivates us to exercise and builds relationships.

Photo by David Minsky/freelance

Photo by David Minsky/freelance

Sian Beilock, associate professor in psychology at the University of Chicago, found that both playing and watching sports can improve how well we are able to discuss that particular sport. When people watch sports, the region of the brain that plans and controls our actions is activated. However, when people discuss sports or listen to conversations about sports, the same region of the brain is activated.

“(There is) … a strong connection between the mind and the body,” Beilock explained. “When we are sitting on the couch watching a football game or a hockey game, our brain is actually playing the game itself in a way.”

When we watch sports, our heart rates increase, our brains activate and our hormones fluctuate. When our team wins, our bodies release testosterone, which gives us a feeling of dominance. This is one of the reasons that so many riots happen after sports teams win championships.

A recent study found that watching sports increases the traffic of nerve impulses to the muscles, which causes muscles to contract and relax. Watching sports also can improve our ability to strategize and visualize as if we were actually playing the sport. For most people, finding motivation to exercise is half the battle between activity and inactivity. Yet, many people who watch sports are more motivated to be active than people who do not.

The most noticeable benefit from sports fandom are the communities that sports create. Sports fans experience lower levels of loneliness and alienation, regardless of whether or not they are watching a game. Being a member of a community — being connected and affiliated with others — is important for our well-being. Community improves our social and psychological health. Some find encouragement from gaming communities. Others find encouragement from being around fellow Star Wars fans. And others find community by cheering for the same sports teams.

According to Daniel Wann, who has studied sports fans for over 25 years and is a professor of psychology at Murray State University, “The more you identify with a local team, the more psychologically healthy you tend to be.”

Research has found that simply knowing that we are a member of a larger community has positive effects now and in the long run. Rick Henriksen, M.D., said, “If you feel like you’re connected to other people or part of a team, that can be very beneficial to mental health.”

This connection takes minimum effort: even putting on a baseball cap can affect a person’s sense of community. Walking down a street in Chicago wearing a Cubs’ baseball cap might result in a thumbs up, high-five, fist bump or “Go Cubs, go” from a complete stranger.

“All these people are going to be your friends and your comrades, even though you don’t know their names, you’ve never seen them before, and you’re probably never going to see them again,” Wann said. “But you feel this important sense of connection to the world around you.”

This connection can even translate into a safe space for people to express emotions.  When watching sporting events, fans laugh, cry, yell and stand in shock. Since emotions deepen one’s connection to others, sports fans feel comfortable talking openly with one another about non-sport topics, even if they’ve never had a deep, personal conversation.

Sports fandom also connects people across generations. Think of the grandfather who took his grandson to his first-ever Chicago Bears game. Think of the 80-year-old lifelong Chicago Cubs fan who tells blossoming fans the story of the last time the Cubs were in the World Series.

Professor Alan Pringle, who specializes in mental health nursing, noted, “Most granddads were not that interested in the latest computer games, and most grandsons did not really want to hear what it used to be like to work in a coal mine. But the game offered often three generations of a family a shared experience, shared language and shared emotion that is not found in too many other areas of life.”

Sports give fathers an opportunity to spend quality time with their sons. Sports give children lifelong memories of “that time when…” Sports give couples an excuse to paint each other’s faces and spend an evening out together. Yes, sports are time consuming and can be expensive, but sports give more than they take. Sports build relationships. And relationships are priceless.

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