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Supporting a team affects our behaviour

A continuation of the previous blog post.

The extent of our team identification and the magnitude it contributes to our self-concept all influence our thoughts, feelings and behaviours. But it is largely unsurprising that our support and identification with a team will influence our affective responses. Fans will naturally experience feelings of elation and joy when their team is performing well and will also experience negative feelings including despair and frustration when their performance is less than satisfying. This is normal and generally expected, if the team you support lose you will be disappointed. But, the extent to which you experience these feelings are based on how you identify with your team. If you highly identify with the team you will experience these feelings more intensely than those who identify less so. It has also been found that highly identified fans or “super fans,” reported feelings of anxiety similar to that experienced by the players themselves. As an important match approaches so does these feelings of anxiety.

Sporting rivalries are longstanding and in being a fan of a particular team there is generally a long standing prejudice or dislike towards an opposing team. This is seen across sports, the Celtics and the Lakers, Boca Juniors and River Plate, Milan and Inter, the list goes on. These rivalries exist as a means to enhance our self-esteem as we will believe that we associate with the superior group/team. If we perceive our rivals as weak and lazy we are more inclined to perceive our own team as superior and stronger, therefore we enhance our own self-concept in the process. Similarly, if we perceive an opposition negatively, it makes it easier to justify treating them poorly. In a sense this is where sporting fans violence can stem from. The higher the identification one exhibits, the greater joy expressed toward a rival teams defeat. Rivalries are maintained through mutual feelings of hatred and dislike. Defeating a rival is seen with greater importance than defeating a non rival. This also extends to a sense of satisfaction and joy when a third party team defeats that rival.

Photo Credit: Reuters

Further as fans we are less aware of the behavioural responses we exhibit as a direct result of supporting a team. Liverpool fans were known to have let off a flare and ran around experiencing pure joy and relief when they won the league. Similar to the way in which fans can bask in the reflected glory of success of a team, fans can also experience shame towards a situation that they may not necessarily be involved in. Stemming from the fact that the shared social identity of following a team is a source of self-esteem and self-identification, fans are invested in maintaining this and feel under threat when someone/something brings this into refute. A threat to social identity exists when the performance or behaviour of such groups do not directly align with our morals and values. Examples of such threats can be poor sporting performance or unscrupulous behaviour on or off the field.

Many fans knowingly or unknowingly engage in a series of coping mechanisms when their identity is threatened, the extent to which we apply these coping mechanisms is based on our level of identification. The performance and behaviour of a team does not affect the fan who does not identity as highly with the group, the performance is only a minor element of their identity. Then on the flipside to that; if we highly identify with a team and our support of this team is centrally linked to our identity and wellbeing we will be more likely to apply these mechanisms in order to protect that identity.

Prior to the conclusion of a disappointing match fans will re-evaluate the team’s chances of success, which may have begun as “we will definitely win,” at the beginning of the game. Then deciding upon the narrative: “we never really stood a chance anyway.” Their prediction of the match will adjust to protect the potential threat to their identity. This can be exhibited at half time when fans have already had an opportunity to see the performance of both teams and change their pre match predictions accordingly. As fans of any team, at any level, we’ve all been guilty of this. We overestimate our team’s capabilities or underestimate the opposition and during the match we change our perspective from “we’re going to win,” to “well we never really had a chance.” Although it is a coping mechanism that is applied, we could argue that as fans we exhibit a bias towards our team and sometimes are under the illusion that they perform better than what they actually do. So after watching their performance we are brought back to the crushing reality that they are not better than the opposition. Further, fans engage in “downward comparison,” where they compare the ability of the team or athletes to those of a lesser ability. Ensuring there is always a positive comparison. Doing so enhances the self-esteem of the collective.

When a member of a team behaves unjustly, immorally or in contrast to the values set out by the team, it challenges the group identity and the self-concept of each member. As mentioned in the last blog post, we search out teams that align with our values in order to enhance our wellbeing, therefore many members will feel uncomfortable at being associated with such behaviour. Once again coping mechanisms are applied to protect the self-concept. A highly identified fan will tend to dwell on the more positive information that has been made available to them. For example, they may be pleased with management’s statement decrying the unscrupulous behaviour, that the behaviour wasn’t let slide and brushed under the carpet. They will be pleased that the honour and the values of the club were not totally destroyed. Although they may still be annoyed with the behaviour itself they will seek out and place greater importance on the avaliable positive information.

Further coping mechanisms for unscrupulous behaviour consist of deeming the individual in question as a “black sheep,” that they are different from the collective. Although they are a member of the group, they are branded as different and therefore do not represent the group as a whole. As we determine that they are different from us, their behaviour is less likely to affect our self-identity.

As fans we are largely unaware that we unconsciously apply such coping mechanisms, however they are vital behaviours to maintain our psychological wellbeing and self-concept. I believe it is worth being aware of such behaviours, particularly from the perspective of management of these various teams as they can facilitate such coping mechanisms. Identification of fans can be in the hands of the club and how they provide opportunities for fans to increase and identify further with the team. Although this will create a loyal fanbase it will also facilitate the consumption of live games and the purchase of merchandise and apparel which is the backbone of many localised Irish teams.

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