Have you ever passionately reacted during a serial on television? Or during a political debate? At best they elicit a quiet comfort or a nod of approval; at worst a silent disgust at the machinations.
Have you ever passionately reacted during a sporting event? Oh yes! At a last-minute goal or a forehand that clips the final millimetre of the line or a dropped catch or a missed volley. It is a response which binds people of all demographics, age-groups, and even political backgrounds. This is why the psychology of a sports fan is fascinating.
According to Eric Simons, the author of The Secret Lives of Sports Fans: The Science of Sports Obsession , a sports team is an expression of a fan’s sense of self. “It is not an obnoxious affectation when a devotee uses the word ‘we’; it’s a literal confusion in the brain about what is ‘me’ and what is ‘the team.’ In all kinds of unconscious ways, a fan mirrors the feelings, actions and even hormones of the players. Self-esteem rides on the outcome of the game and the image of the franchise.”
This is probably why the world comes to a standstill and is glued to the television when Roger Federer takes on Rafael Nadal, Real Madrid faces Barcelona, Europe confronts the United States (Ryder Cup) and Springboks square up against All Blacks. Fans discuss the outcome threadbare regardless of the fact that, like for those in this country, it holds no direct significance. Could those countless number of hours spent on the couch have been better utilised in more ‘meaningful pursuits’? But spectators rarely wallow in this rather existential question. For them, watching sport on television is indeed a meaningful pursuit.
This isn’t just limited to the so-called ‘millennial generation.’ Far greater minds have indulged in it from time to time. The celebrated American author, Paul Auster, and the Nobel Prize-winning novelist from South Africa, J. M. Coetzee, who would otherwise be expected to discuss world peace, even wrote to each other on what they thought of watching sport. After spending an entire day of watching cricket, Coetzee wrote, “I was absorbed, I was emotionally involved, I tore myself away only reluctantly. In order to watch the game I put aside the two or three books I am in the middle of reading. Cricket has been played for centuries. As with all games, there are only so many moves you can make, only so many effects you can cause. Whereas one thing you can say about a good book is that it has never been written before. So why waste my time slumped in front of a television screen watching young men at play? Is sport simply like sin: one disapproves of it but one yields because the flesh is weak?”
A high in sport
To which, Auster replied thus: “I agree with you that it is a useless activity, an utter waste of time. And yet how many hours of my life have I wasted in precisely this way? I tend to think of sports as a kind of performance art. You complain about the deja vu quality of so many games and matches. But doesn’t the same thing happen when you go to a recital of your favourite Beethoven piano sonata? You already know the piece by heart, but you want to hear how this particular pianist will interpret it. There are pedestrian pianists and athletes, and then someone comes along who takes your breath away. I wonder if any two contests have ever been exactly alike, play for play. Perhaps. All snowflakes look the same, but common wisdom says that each one is unique. Of the many hundreds of baseball games I have watched — perhaps even thousands — nearly everyone has had some small detail or event I have never seen in any other game. There is pleasure in the new, but also pleasure in the known.”
Noted tennis player Vijay Amritraj, now a celebrated commentator, concurs. “Nothing gives goose bumps like a sporting event. The thing that excites you most is a high in sports. Watching Lewis Hamilton pass the finish line or some guy making the jump shot as the buzzer goes down, these individual acts mean a lot to me because the guy is out there on his own. Frankly, this performance from athletes is what drives me as commentator.”
Social, psychological benefits
Watching sport on television is also a social act. Support for a team or an athlete can serve as a point of identity and belonging. Barging into a friend’s place to catch a game is a perfectly normal exercise. This is a way to bring disparate groups together and share in a commonality. It will be a mistake to just assume that these are groups which are trivially sorted. An athlete or a team can often be a symbol of even political and religious issues. For example, watching Barcelona in action and the support offered to Catalan autonomy can have a direct co-relation. Such associations with like-minded people may well lead to social, psychological benefits. The temporary support you get by congregating thus — at a bar or pub to watch a game — allows one to cope with simple match-related things such as bad calls during a game, a vociferous opposing fan group and the poor performance of the team, as well as larger themes in life such as lower levels of loneliness and stress. It’s no surprise then that one of the first things youngsters in India do when they shift cities is to look for local chapters of their favourite clubs to associate themselves with and catch the weekend match together.
Perhaps the only difference from the previous generation is that fans of this age can even afford to watch sports alone — an anti-social act compared to the above — and still be part of a communion through social media. Twitter especially is a great companion for many with its unending bits of knowledge. When carefully curated, you can control the environment like none other.
To an outsider, all of this may never make sense. The amount of energy invested will seem over the top. The situation isn’t life and death. Why then does it evoke such emotional reactions? The answer may well lie in the Coetzee-Auster correspondence again.
A waste of time?
“The maniacal intensity of sports fans — not all, but vast numbers nevertheless — has to come from somewhere very deep in the soul,” wrote Auster. “There is more at stake here than momentary diversion or mere entertainment.”
To which Coetzee replied, “Like you, I think that watching sport on television is mostly a waste of time. But there are moments that are not a waste of time, as would for example crop up now and again in the glory days of Roger Federer. Federer playing a cross-court backhand volley, for instance. Is it truly, or only, the aesthetic, I ask myself, that brings such moments alive for me?
“One starts by envying Federer, one moves from there to admiring him, and one ends up neither envying nor admiring him but exalted at the revelation of what a human being — a being like oneself — can do. Which, I find, is very much like my response to master works of art on which I have spent a lot of time (reflection, analysis), to the point where I have a good idea of what went into their making: I can see how it was done, but I could never have done it myself, it is beyond me; what an honor to belong to the species that he (or she) exemplifies!”
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