Sports may be one of the only things in this world that unite people without fail. People of every age, gender, and background often play, or at least watch, one or more sports. Sports are like the weather – you can talk about them with pretty much anyone and it’s not hard to find common ground.
But while sports can certainly serve as a conversation starter, for people and society, sports are so much more than that. You could walk down the street in Manhattan wearing a Michigan sweatshirt and hear “go blue!” from a passersby, and it would likely make you and them smile. Boom, instant friends among a sea of strangers. Or you could be watching a game at a bar, nearly any bar in the country, and find yourself buying rounds for all the people supporting your same team, because you want to, and not just because you’re a little tipsy. But why is this? It turns out sports are much more than a topic, an exercise, or a game. They’re a source of entertainment and human companionship that brings people together in a way nearly nothing else can.
According to a leading sports-fan psychologist, Daniel Wann, there are eight reasons why people pay any attention to sports. These reasons include:
- People like sports because they get self-esteem benefits from it.
- People like sports because they have money on it.
- People like sports because their boyfriend or girlfriend or family member likes sports.
- People like sports because it’s exciting.
- People like sports because it’s aesthetically pleasing.
- People like sports because, like the theater, it is a venue for emotional expression.
- People like sports because they need an escape from real-world troubles.
- People like sports because it provides a sense of belonging, a connection to a wider world.
In other words, there’s no single reason people are drawn to sports—human connection to sports is unique because people are unique.
While Wann describes people’s connection to sports in logical, emotional terms, another man by the name of Jonah Lehrer explains sports in the context of the sports fan’s brain. He says we have “mirror neurons” which help us interpret the action we see in the game. They let us see ourselves as the players, empathizing with them and sharing in their triumphs and losses. But he says this doesn’t explain why we care so much more about one team than the other. Wann’s theory gets at this question when he says sports provide a sense of belonging — people identify with the team(s) and sport(s) they are loyal to because the team means something to them, for any number of reasons outlined earlier. And this loyalty extends to the individual players who make up the team. People want their team to win because they want themselves to win, because to them, they are a part of that team. Fans see their glory days or their bright futures in the players and the game.
Not only do we connect with watching sports on a psychological level, but on a biological level too. Studies show that our “hormones engage when watching sports, as they do in the presence of any competition: testosterone, adrenaline, cortisol, and oxytocin are all active in fans.” And our biology changes from playing sports as well — people who play sports have healthier physical bodies and minds over all because of the release of endorphins, a neurotransmitter which relieves pain and generally makes you feel good, invoking a feeling of euphoria. According to LiveStrong, endorphins promote the feeling known as the runner’s high, a strong euphoria that many people feel after a period of intense exercise. Some studies show that regular exercise can actually alter the amount of serotonin in one’s brain, which can fend off depression and other mental illnesses.
There are a ton of reasons people love and play sports. Next time you’re engaged in a sport in some capacity, ask yourself how you’re feeling and why. You may learn something about yourself!