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The Inciting Word of Sports

Five reasons why we find sports so angering (and what to do about it).

Whether it is frustration with family or irritation over crowds at the mall, people find a lot of reasons to get angry over the holidays. Even the holidays themselves, and how others choose to celebrate them, seems to be a source of anger for many (listen here).

One additional reason people get angry at the holidays, though, is that sports often play an important role in how people celebrate the holidays. Football, for example, plays a central role at both Thanksgiving and on New Year’s Eve. Plus, on years like this one, when Christmas falls on a weekend, professional football becomes part of the Christmas festivities as well.

Why does this matter? Well, because it’s a pretty well documented fact that people get angry over sports. People often find themselves getting too riled up when things don’t go their way, and while there isn’t much evidence to support the claim that domestic violence rates increase on football game days (listen here), football has been known to lead to fights between fans of rival teams and accidental property damage (e.g., a broken TV) when things don’t go your way.

Such football and other sports rooted rage often leaves others wondering why. After all, it’s only a game, right? Well, as it turns out, there are several basic psychological phenomena that make anger a likely reaction for some when they watch sports.

Basking in Reflected Glory: One concept, originally described by Robert Cialdini and relevant to sports viewership, is the tendency of people to bask in the reflected glory (BIRG) of successful others. You often hear this in the language they use to discuss their favorite team. Fans respond to victory by saying “we” won, “we” played great, and who do “we” play next. Even though they themselves have done nothing concrete to have earned the victory, they still see themselves as part of the team and, therefore, partially responsible for the victory. Sports enthusiasts are not the only people who BIRG. We see it amongst political supporters, in the workplace, amongst teenagers trying to identify with popular kids, and other groups.

Tension: Once you acknowledge that fans care about the outcome because they identify with the team (i.e., they BIRG), it’s easy to understand the tension that accompanies viewing a sporting event. This becomes even more true as the stakes get higher. The more important the game, the greater the tension and, people experience greater anger in response to negative events if they are already feeling tense or on edge.

Elevated Status and Meaning: It is not uncommon to hear fans describe sporting events as hugely important or even monumental occasions, elevating the status and meaning of the events well beyond their actual implications. Attaching so much importance to an event will certainly lead to frustration and anger when there is an undesired outcome. In other words, if someone thinks that watching their team win will be the best thing that ever happened to them, watching them lose will probably feel like the worst thing that has ever happened to them.

Perceptions of Unfairness: Anytime a sporting event is decided by just a few points, it’s easy to find controversy or some reason why the outcome was not fair or deserved. Ambiguous calls by officials, poor play by a player, or poor coaching all fall into the category of reasons why a team “should” have won and otherwise “would” have won. It all feeds into the feeling that the desired outcome was taken from the fan and gives the fan a specific target to be angry with (e.g., coach, referees).

Secondary Gain: Finally, for some, the outcome of the game has actual consequences. Typically, these consequences are manufactured by the person ahead of time through gambling, fantasy football, or even just through banter with a friend who supports the opposition (i.e., “smack talk”). For such people, the outcome has very real financial or social implications and it is easy to have an emotional reaction to the idea of lost money or damaged pride.

The good news is that no one is doomed to feel angry every time his or her team loses. There are some fairly simple steps that can be taken to help decrease unwanted feelings of anger.

  1. Keep it in Perspective: It is important, not just during the game but in the time leading up to it, to remember the real implications of things not going the way you want them to. It may be easier said than done but try to keep in mind what it will really mean if your team loses or wins.
  2. Awareness and Relaxation: Being aware of feelings of tension and anger in the moment and introducing relaxation approaches can be a valuable way to decrease unwanted anger. Useful relaxation approaches can include deep breathing, counting, progressive muscle relaxing and others.
  3. Limit the Banter: Friendly banter can become unfriendly in a hurry so it’s a good idea to remember not to dish out any more than you can take. Adding damaged pride to a loss only makes it worse and there’s a good chance that the targets of your excessive smack talk will come back at you when you are down.
  4. Avoidance: Ultimately, it might make sense for people to consider whether or not they want to invite something into their life that makes them so angry. Watching sports is a choice, even for people who are really passionate about them, and you can choose not to watch if it isn’t healthy for you or the people around you.
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