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From Identity To Self-Worth, Are You A Sports Fan Or Fanatic?

Atlanta Hawks v Milwaukee Bucks - Game Five
Patrick McDermott
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Getty Images
Milwaukee Bucks fans react during an Atlanta Hawks free throw during the first quarter in Game Five of the Eastern Conference Finals at Fiserv Forum on July 01, 2021 in Milwaukee, Wis.

Tonight, the Milwaukee Bucks play Game Six of the NBA Finals against the Phoenix Suns at the Fiserv Forum. This comes after a Bucks win on Saturday, putting them at just one win away from the team’s first title since 1971. To say Bucks fans in Milwaukee and elsewhere are excited is perhaps an understatement.

For many people, the sports team they support can be a major factor of their identity. But when does enthusiasm cross the line to fanaticism? For this month’s Fit For You, Lake Effect examines how sports fandom can impact us and our mental health.

Stephen Franzoi says the line between cheering on the home team and being an ardent fanatic is often a subjective and ever-changing one. He is professor emeritus of psychology at Marquette University and has a doctorate in social psychology.

Franzoi says there are some signs to watch for that may indicate you're taking your fandom too far. "Well I think there are some red flags where you get in fisticuffs after watching your team, or start throwing things around or perhaps if your team loses, your mood is deteriorating rapidly over the next few days," he explains. "That's probably an indication you're a little too involved in your sports team than maybe you should be."

Our personal identification with a sports team is the same psychological process as a person's sense of patriotism, ethnic identity or family identity, Franzoi says. In fact for some it's as important or more important than their ethnic identity. "[They're] all aspects of what we call a social identity and they're important aspects of our overall self concept," he says.

Despite having no part in the outcome of games as a spectating fan, Franzoi says being aligned with a sports team gives fans a sense of self-worth when their team succeeds and they experience a personal sense of defeat when their team loses.

Another phenomenon that can occur when watching sports, especially at a large venue like a stadium, is deindividuation. Franzoi says this usually happens in a group setting or when it's hard to identify people.

"When you have this deindividuated state, people are more likely than normal when they can be personally identified very easily to act on impulse," Franzoi notes. He continues, people lose their sense of self-control and act on impulse. Plus, the alcohol that is often over-onsumed at sports games does not help in these settings.

This loss of personal responsibility can range in behavior from heckling other players and fans of the opposing team to rioting after a game, he says.

Franzoi says it's the same kind of behavior you see in warfare — tapping into our evolutionary heritage of being small groups competing against one another for resources. "There's this very strong sense of personal, social identity among each group and a devaluing and a depersonalization of the other group that they're less than human, if not more like animals. And thus we feel as though we are entitled to behave in an antisocial and dehumanizing way toward that other group," he explains.

As we get ready to watch Game Six, both athletes and fans alike are most likely going through a series of superstitious practices. While fans have no outcome on what's going to happen in a game, especially if they're watching it on TV, Franzoi says the sense of personal control is what's driving these practices.

"[Our] anxiety lessens if [we] think [we] have some personal control over an uncontrollable situation," he says. "If you believe that you can do something to proactively then change the outcome, and it doesn't matter that your actions will not change it at all, if you believe it, it will lower your anxiety and make you feel better."

If the Bucks lose tonight and lose in the Finals, Franzoi suggests that fanatics focus on something else in their life that gives them personal satisfaction. "Stop listening to the news, reading the paper and engage in some other activity to make yourself feel better," he says.

But if the Bucks win, Franzoi says the mental health and outlet of fans both passive and ardent will be vastly improved. Overall, they'll be good people to be around, and will even be more likely donate to causes and help others, he says.

"I would encourage those fans to then read as much of the media as possible to bask in what we call reflective glory. ... It will put a bounce in their step for quite a while. They'll feel a sense of personal accomplishment. Again, they had nothing to do with it, but that doesn't mean anything. So just enjoy it," Franzoi says.

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