From the Halfway Line : Why we need our sport

Updated: Nov 26, 2020

The Agony & the Ecstasy, why do we put ourselves through our sport obsession?

¡Olé! Why do we watch sport?

Most people either participate in or watch at least one sport. The benefits to participating in sport are clear, improved health, the social benefits of a team experience, self-confidence and the development of other positive characteristics. Although watching sport can provide social opportunities, the additional benefits are not as obvious.

Watching a team that regularly loses produces large amounts of cortisol, the toxic stress chemical which in high doses can cause depression, increased chance of cancer and other health problems. Supporting your team is an emotional rollercoaster, when they get ahead in a game huge hits of dopamine (the pleasure chemical associated with addiction) and endorphins are released, something akin to the hunting experience, as if participating in a group activity for the survival of your ‘pack.’ A loss however, not only releases cortisol, but enhances the peaks and troughs of dopamine, exacerbating the anxiety. So, why do we do it? Why do we actively seek out a stress inducing activity?

The Science

Watching is playing. According to research from the University of Parma “about one-fifth of the neurons that fire in the premotor cortex when we perform an action (say, kicking a ball) also fire at the sight of somebody else performing that action.” These neurons, called mirror neurons, help us to “instantaneously understand an action, its goal, and even the emotions associated with it, without having to do any inferential thinking about it.” Essentially, when you see your team score a goal, it is as if you have done it yourself, possibly with a pint in your hand. Likewise, the same is true if your team lose, it is a deeply personal, chemical loss with the release of cortisol sending you into a existential funk.

Sport is often a rite of passage. Although in the modern world most of us don’t need to hunt for our food beyond the supermarket, the human brain has evolved across millions of years to sharpen our senses according to a specific set of survival instincts. This is true in all animals, a chicken that has been kept in a coop its entire life, will go into a state of panic if an unusual shadow passes across the ground, as the genetic code for avian predator starts the programme ‘run.’ Professor of Psychology at Toronto University, Jordan Peterson in his podcast uses the example of lab rats, that have never seen a cat, when shown a picture of a cat, will run to their safe space and scream at a high frequency audible to other rats, warning them of the unknown danger. Why is this relevant?

The same system, present in the human brain is what allowed us to evade predators and hunt prey. It is also active during sport, the activity is essentially processed as a hunt. This goes towards explaining why we enjoy sport more in large groups, why the team ethic is so important and why we take it so seriously, our brains don’t simply enjoy what we are experiencing, they believe it is a matter of survival.

The Hero’s Journey

¡Olé! Traditionally used in Spanish bullfighting, this word has it’s origins in ‘Allah’ the Islamic word for God. It is yelled in admiration at a bullfighter when he performs a particularly impressive or beautiful manoeuvre, meaning that he has done something beyond human limitations, his action embodying God or the Godly. Even for those that don’t enjoy sport, when we see an individual perform an action that requires incredible gymnastic, physical or strategic skill we cannot help but be inspired. A series of micro calculations, personal risk and motivation towards greatness result in these moments, they are a part of what we could describe as the Hero’s journey. Watching a team or individual struggle against their opponent, tells a story of pursuing a goal, a theme that runs through all of our lives. In conversation with Fernando an international Karate referee and trainer, he tells me “there is what we call attitude versus aptitude.” When he attends and referees events across the globe he is looking for two things “the fighter must be technically good, this is one part, but they must also be able to persist constant attack against exhaustion. We call this Samurai spirit or Kyokushin spirit.” Most athletes have a balance of these two, but it is vital when choosing our champion that they have both. Sometimes we can see on over abundance in one versus the other, for example the footballer Ronaldo is technically a great player, but doesn’t inspire too much in terms of attitude when he takes a team victory personally, but blames a loss on his team mates.

Inherited legacy

We are often brought into the fold by our peers, or inherit an allegiance through family members. This rite of passage works two-fold, it provides the opportunity to mimic and learn adult concepts such as loyalty, perseverance, controlled aggression, coping mechanisms associated with failure, the hunt. Secondly, it provides a window of introspection through which we can analyse ourselves and the world around us. The hero in the story and the self are inseparable, as we all play out our mythological archetypes. In Britain, we have a love of the David and Goliath story, or the underdog, always pitching for the most unlikely champion, the struggle against adversity is more honourable than the inglorious victory and often a loser can be heralded a champion in this way. Jimmy White springs to mind, the World Championship Snooker ‘runner up’ 9 times, he was labelled ‘the people’s champion’ because of his rugged persistence and his consistent ability to screw it up on the last ball was something that resonated with us all. Another example being Accrington Stanley, the team that took 20 years to lift themselves up out of a marketing punchline, they finally made it. Then there’s Tim Henman and Henmania, the cries of ‘Come on Tim!’ as he struggled to remain in Wimbledon will echo through the ages, probably.

If our parents or relatives supported a team, we inherit them regardless of how good or bad they are. It is a passing on of the baton, an invitation into a special club, to be a loyal member you must experience the highs and the lows. It allows you to bond instantly and make new friends with strangers, the question ‘What team do you support?’ is a common ice breaker. The strange thing being that even if you meet someone supporting a team that inspires fierce competition against your own, you can open a dialogue based on phasing. We have the opportunity to mock and joke with each other, all rituals associated with pack behaviour, testing the ground, exploring a persons character. Ultimately, it is a type of legacy that can shape an individual and if your Father’s team are massive losers, you’re going to have to learn the valuable lesson in life that things don’t always go your way. COYS!

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