Dr. Grayson Kimball, a Mental Performance Coach in Boston and an adjunct lecturer of sport psychology at Northeastern University, wrote this for BSJ. We appreciate his contribution.
When New Englanders woke up Tuesday morning to the news that Tom Brady would no longer be a New England Patriot, fans were disappointed, upset, relieved, optimistic, angry, and stunned. Fan reaction begs the question of: Why do fans lash out and spill their guts all over social media about athletes? In the past two days, I’ve seen posts on social media sites ranging from a respectful ‘Thank you’ to an unknowing, ‘I truly believed he would never leave us,’ to a desolate, ‘I am broken,’ to a bitter, ‘Screw him, good luck in Tampa Bay,’ commentary.
What drives or influences fans to react with such hostility, sadness, or innocence? How do fans get to this point?
Well, it usually starts when they are about 8 or 9 years old. At this time in a child’s life, they have the capacity to start developing long-term attachments. Sports tend to become one of those attachments. This means that Patriots fans in their late 20’s/early 30’s have only experienced the New England Patriots as a dominant, championship team, led by the greatest quarterback of all-time. They’ve grown up as fans of a winner and find it hard to imagine anything less. Young fans develop a strong identification to that one team or one particular player. As they get older, this strong identification leads to a deep emotional attachment to the team and/or player. They feel that they are actually part of the journey because, ‘They’ve been with them since day 1.’ And such a strong attachment may be counterproductive from a social and psychological standpoint. There is research to suggest fans’ self-esteem rises and falls with the outcomes of their favorite teams’ games. The more their team wins, the better they feel about themselves and vice versa. As a fan, having your self-esteem or self-confidence influenced by an external, uncontrollable factor such as your favorite team losing or your favorite player leaving can be an unhealthy habit.
Many fans will feel a strong sense of belonging to their favorite teams and what we see here in New England with the Patriots and with Tom Brady is no different; perhaps even amplified when compared to other fan bases.
Patriots fans have grown accustomed to the familiarity of having Tom Brady leading their team onto the field for the past 20 years. Now that this is no longer our reality, fans can experience some difficulty adjusting to a new reality. Fans use sports to help fill some gaps or voids in their lives and with the departure of their favorite athlete, fans may suffer from a lack of optimism about their team, and in some cases, a lack of optimism in their life.
This change also contributes to a unique style of identification and belonging they have to the team or player. A spinoff from the Social Identity Theory, which states that people are motivated to behave in ways that help boost their self-esteem, are concepts known as BIRGing and CORFing. When your favorite team wins, you tend to BIRG – Bask in Reflected Glory. When your favorite team loses, a die-hard fan will tend to CORF – Cut Off Reflected Failure.
After the team wins, fans will use inclusive language such as “we played great tonight.” By using the word “we”, they are speaking as if they were part of the team and played a role in that outcome. You also see these hardcore fans wearing their favorite teams’ shirt or hat following a big win. It’s their way of showing their support and letting everyone know just how much they feel a sense of belonging to the team, even though they had absolutely nothing to do with the win. When their team loses, it can be a different story. The loss leads to a change in dialect. It’s not “we lost,” but rather, “they lost.” The fan is distancing themselves from the failure of the team.
When it comes to the Brady situation, listen to sports radio and you’ll probably hear many Brady fans refer to the Patriots as “they” – ‘they didn’t want Brady’ rather than ‘we didn’t want Brady.’ Again, the fan is cutting off the perceived failure of their team to sign ‘their’ favorite player. And the fans who side with the team will say “we did the right thing” rather than “they did the right thing.” Again, they are basking in a move they agree with.
Another unhealthy obsession that helps us understand the sometimes-illogical relationships fans have with their favorite athlete is known as the para-social relationship. These fans will feel a very strong connection to the athlete but the problem with this is that it’s a one-sided relationship. The athlete is typically unaware that the fan actually exists. Yet, the fan will follow the athlete on Twitter, Instagram, and any other social network platform that can get them as close to the athlete as possible. This can become an issue for the fan when the player leaves the team. Fans may feel abandoned, used, or even dumped.
So, while there are some pitfalls to becoming an obsessed sports fan, sports serve many benefits such as being a wonderful escape and diversion from our everyday lives (and hopefully we can have that escape again rather soon). What’s important to remember is that the New England Patriots existed before Tom Brady and they will exist after Tom Brady. Consider accepting his decision for what it is rather than taking it personally. Will the Pats be as successful for the next 20 years as they have been for the past 20 years? Only time will tell but that’s the beauty of sports – it’s the ultimate reality show that draws us in and affects our lives - it matters deeply but yet in the scope of life; it doesn’t really matter at all.
Dr. Grayson Kimball is a Mental Performance Coach in Boston. He is an adjunct lecturer of sport psychology at Northeastern University and author of the book “Grateful Running: Mental Training for the Long Distance Runner.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, www.gtksports.com, www.gratefulrunning.com.