Sport, socialization and common affinity

baseball fan

This La Salle professor explains our close ties to our favorite sports teams — and how it affects our well-being.

A winning sports team can lift a city’s collective spirit.

This fall, Philadelphians can relate. In fact, they have a lot of first-hand experience since the Phillies have reached the World Series and the Eagles are the last undefeated team in the NFL.

Win or lose, why are sports teams so strongly linked to a fan’s behavior?

To explain, we spoke to Meredith Kneavel, Ph.D., a professor of urban public health and nutrition at La Salle University’s School of Nursing and Health Sciences, where she also serves as associate dean. Kneavel explores the intersection of exercise, stress, socialization and friendship. She is also a biopsychologist.

Meredith Kneavel, Ph.D.
Meredith Kneavel, Ph.D. von La Salle, Professor of Urban Public Health, examines the intersection of exercise, stress, socialization and friendship.

It seems that shared passions – like a favorite sports team, for example – bind people so closely. Why is that?

Kneevel: The bond that individuals share through a common sports team is rooted in social group membership and often traces back to childhood. These experiences can often be linked to nostalgic positive experiences with loved ones and to emotional experiences, both good and bad.

Why do sport-related social interactions affect our overall well-being?

Kneevel: Sport is significantly linked to our social and psychological well-being. They offer instant group membership. Individuals with high identification with a sports team have lower levels of alienation, lower loneliness, higher self-esteem, and more positive emotions. This group membership promotes belonging.

Is there a way to describe the phenomenon of experiencing such extreme emotional expressions as after exciting victories (or, conversely, our inability to shed pain after defeat)?

Kneevel: The emotional experiences people have during and after thrilling wins, or even the pain of defeat, are related to how the individual sees themselves in relation to the team. According to social identity theory, fans identify with the group—meaning other fans and the team itself. When the team is doing well and doing well, it’s doing well and happy. They model their attitudes, emotions, and behaviors based on membership in the group. Because of this, there are normative behaviors about how to behave in Philadelphia after an exciting win or a tough loss. There are also expected behaviors, which is why fireworks can be seen and heard across the city immediately after winning a championship.

When our team is winning, we often text friends, talk to co-workers, and even give high-fives to complete strangers. Why does socialization play such an important role in developing these passions?

Kneevel: We see the team as an extension of ourselves and see ourselves as representatives of the group. We form an instant bond with everyone who joins the team. When you see someone supporting the team – for example someone wearing the team jersey or a team cap – you immediately recognize them as part of your “tribe” and you have a story to tell. Texting, talking, high-fiving when significant games, wins, or losses occur are ways to stay social. The best part is that it’s not as divisive as other areas like politics, economics, relationships, or even professional difficulties can be.

On the other hand, do these social interactions help when we’re managing the stress and anxiety of a tense moment in a big game?

Kneevel: Social support is definitely a factor in stress management. When we are isolated, our ability to manage and relieve stress is significantly reduced. By sharing the experience of tense moments our favorite team goes through with friends and others who are going through the same thing, we don’t carry the burden alone.

– Christopher A.Vito

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