We’re all guilty of watching our favorite sports team and shouting out, “We won!” — when in fact, all “we” did was watch.
So why do we identify with our favorite teams so much that we ride an emotional roller coaster with them, especially during playoff time?
The reason is pretty fascinating: We have neurons in our brains that “play along” with the players, says clinical psychologist Scott Bea, PsyD.
“It’s pretty wild and it actually happens a little bit more in men, but we can actually go on the same hormonal ride that the players are going on with one important exception: We have absolutely no control in the outcome,” Dr. Bea says.
Being a super fan tends to start when we are young, when parents or older siblings introduce us to the idea that the team representing our city is our team, which represents us.
“These players and these teams start to represent our heroes, which is our ego ideal — what we aspire to become. That gets trained into us,” Dr. Bea says.
Sports gives us a surge of adrenaline and stress hormones, especially during playoff time. But because we really can’t influence the outcome of the game, the stress load can be quite taxing, Dr. Bea says.
On the positive side, however, following a sports team can give us a tremendous sense of belonging, even if it comes with a little bit of intensity, Dr. Bea says.
In fact, much of the enjoyment we get from watching our team can be traced to the feel-good chemical, dopamine. It’s the same reason people get a thrill from riding roller coasters.
Also, when we’re cheering on our team with family or friends, we might also experience the release of oxytocin, which is a chemical that helps creates feelings of bonding and compassion, Dr. Bea says.
“Those are the things that people really love and gravitate toward and when your team’s in the playoffs, here’s an opportunity to have that,” Dr. Bea says. “You can also get the opposite, though, which is all the stress chemicals, feeling down, a little panicked, so it’s a little bit of gambling with our brains.”
The rewards reaped from the feel-good chemicals holds true even for the fair-weather fans — those who only start paying attention when a team starts winning.
“If you’re a casual fan or not much of a fan, but now your team and your region is represented in the playoffs, now there’s a chance to create really good brain chemistry. If we become a fan and get drenched with those rewarding brain chemicals, we also can get into the collective sense of belonging and victory. And that’s not a bad thing,” Dr. Bea says.
We gravitate to the home team because we want to be part of something, but it’s important to keep it all in perspective, Dr. Bea says.
Remember: It won’t be too devastating if your team loses, and it won’t be life-changing if they win.