There is a psychology and biology to being a sports fan. It affects your body and your brain.
Fans get so much from identifying with a team, with benefits even players don’t get. The phrase “cathartic healing” is a fancy way of saying that rooting for your favorite team makes you feel better about your life.
Because it does. Virtually every study shows precisely that: The sense of goodwill, bonding and shared purpose that comes with being a fan has a ripple effect that can benefit all aspects of living.
People who identify with a specific sports team tend to be less lonely. When you wear your team’s colors or logo out in public, you give others a clue to your personality and who you are. I had someone buy my coffee in a Starbucks once because I had my Evgeni Malkin Conn Smythe T-shirt on. The guy was a Rangers fan but declared, “Any girl who owns... much less wears... that T-shirt in public should not buy her own coffee.”
If you are a Penguins fan, right now it’s pretty hard to feel lonely. It’s hard to feel alienated. If you’re wearing Pens apparel in the Pittsburgh area, people will smile and be nice to you, people you’ve never seen before and will likely never see again. There’s a sense of connectedness that comes with it.
There is biology involved in being a fan. The brain's mesolimbic system functions as a reinforcement circuit between the opiodergic system (which controls liking) and the dopaminergic system (which governs wanting)— in short, when we like a donut, we want it again next time it's available. This is true not only of our drive for food but for sex and being a fan as well.
Watching someone perform an action triggers “mirror neurons”, making the viewer feel, to an extent, like he is the doer. The greater the observer's personal draw to the action, the more intensely he feels that he's the one scoring the goal. The end result is "a vicarious sense of success". For a moment, a fan feels athletically gifted, unstoppable, and adored. They even become more optimistic about their own life when 'their' team wins and gloomy about their personal future when 'their' team loses.
Sports fandom also taps into a primordial human need to belong to a community. Twitter has become a great example of that. Penguin fans meet up on Twitter before during and after a game to share hopes, fears, elation, despair, stats and generally chirp about the other team. It’s the new tailgating. Fans connect and bond over common love of the team from the comfort of their living room; pants optional. Sports fans who faithfully follow a local team experience increased social connections, which are key to fostering well-being. A community is formed.
Those results tend to hold true regardless of the success of your team. The Flyers, for instance, haven’t won the Stanley Cup since 1975, but the sense of community around rooting for the Flyers is strong every season. They talk smack and spew hate with the ferocity of a dynasty.
Fans tend to identify themselves with the teams/athletes they root for and consider themselves a part of the team/athlete’s journey. Our sports heroes are our warriors.
In a very real sense, the sports team becomes a part of you. You feel like whatever success it achieves is a personal success, and whatever failure it has is a personal failure. You can’t cut the team off without cutting off a part of yourself. Even if the team is losing, you have so much of yourself wrapped up in it that you can’t just walk away. To do so is to give up on a part of yourself.
Perhaps one of the most interesting phenomena surrounding being a sports fan is the effect fandom has on testosterone. There is pretty good evidence that when males are directly competing, their testosterone goes up when they win and it goes down when they lose. There is also pretty good evidence that it just goes up in response to a challenge of any kind. It can go up at the beginning of a competition, and it could go up even more if he wins.
Most researchers who study testosterone will tell you that fans are having the same hormonal response that the players are. Basically, whether you played the game or just watched the game, if your team won, your testosterone is probably going to go up. And whether player or fan, the results should be pretty similar. So if you’re looking for your male partner to be more... inspired, you may want to catch him after the Pens win.
To people who say, “What’s the big deal? It’s just a game.”, I would counter that research supports that fandom is good for body, mind and spirit. And with that said, right now, being a Penguins fan may well indeed improve your life.