I normally consider myself a fairly rational and logical person – that’s part of my job description as a scientist – but when it comes to sports, it seems that my rational and logical side gets kicked to the curb. Mobs looting and burning in the wake of their favorite team losing, or mobs rushing the field and trampling others when their team wins seem to indicate that I’m not the only one that loses my rationality when ‘my’ team is involved. And certainly, with all of the machinations/anxiety/interest in the status of the A&M football coaching position and the vitriol/angst spilled in the social media over this one position, it appears that we are all losing our collective minds. So, why is it when it comes to our sports teams, we suspend our normal patterns of behavior?
I’ve been involved in sports through most of my life, as an athlete and for the longest time as a scientist that studies and works to improve human performance. I’ve been privileged to be able to be both a fan and an observer trying to make sense of it all. But in the wake of A&M’s football season and the subsequent actions, I’ve been pondering why we are so worked up about it all.
I think that all of us, because of the issues we face on a daily basis, want to be a part of something bigger, more noble, and higher achieving than what most of us are normally involved with. (Wow! – I mowed the lawn again – I’m going to go do a victory dance for that!) Often the easiest “bigger thing” to become involved with is a sports team. After all, when we declare our allegiance to a team, we suddenly become part of a bigger group and share a common interest with thousands – maybe millions – of others. We want to believe that our team has the best athletes and in certain moments, can perform feats that have never been seen before. (Anybody remember Roger Staubach engineering the great comeback against the Vikings in 1975 or the US Hockey Team defeating the Soviets in 1980?). Why wouldn’t we want to be associated with sports teams that accomplish so much and have the potential to accomplish so much more? (What? We were less than 10 points away from a top-10 ranking?) So we buy the jerseys, the hats, and all the memorabilia we can afford and we believe that we are part of the team. The team becomes part of our personality and to a large extent defines who we are.
So, when our team loses, it feels like a personal failure and very disappointing. We’re upset that the team – this organization that we thought could do such great things - let us down. We’re angry at being let down – many of us think, “geez, I could have done better…why did he throw that pass, fumble the ball, drop the pass”, etc. But what do we do about our anger? How do we show our displeasure? Too many times we call into talk radio shows and lambast the coach, we go online and anonymously spout opinions that we would never reveal if people knew who we were, and in extreme situations, we riot, loot, and burn cars. We throw temper tantrums because we upset, disappointed, and frustrated that this team that we’ve invested so much time and personal energy in has let us down.
Where does this realization leave us? Sport plays many good roles in our lives, but we have to face the fact that if we let it, sport can reveal a very ugly side of human nature, especially in the most ardent team supporters. While it seems trite, we have to continue to realize that these are games and unless you are betting on the games or are actually employed by the teams, there isn’t much personal downside to a loss (really? Your friends are going to tease you? That’s it?). Most of us don’t have much personal skin in the game. Is it hard to remember this? Yep. But you can bet that the people actually on the team – the coaches, the players, the trainers, the administrators – those that have the most ‘skin’ in the game, hurt more than you can ever imagine when they lose or don’t meet expectations. I’ve never known a coach or a player to ever go out and plan to lose. But losing happens – it is a necessary component of competitive sports and as a result, is likely to happen, even when the expectations are otherwise. When we can deal with both sides of the equation – the winning and the losing – we really do become champions.
And isn’t that a better victory in life? (And now, excuse me while I go punch a head of lettuce.)
NOTE: Radiolab did a great podcast a couple months ago on this topic. I’d encourage everyone to click here and give it a listen.