When Dante went down at the beginning of the season, I had to temper my expectations drastically. I was more excited for this season than I had been for years, partially because the young core was finally going to be given the time together to develop, and under a coach who didn’t just talk about development, but did it. It was a refreshing change and I was so pumped.
We were going to get answers to some of our important questions: Could Dante improve upon a pretty dismal offensive performance in his rookie season to better match his surprisingly great defensive performance? How would this team, as presently constituted, stack up in a stacked Western Conference? With improvement at point guard, could the older “veterans” on the team be given more of a chance to shine and lead the team? Would our year-to-year improvement be enough of an incremental increase to convince Gordon Hayward to stick around for a few more seasons after he likely opts out of his contract at the end of next season? These are important, legitimate questions to which we were hoping to find answers.
And then Dante tore his ACL.
I had to change (read: lower) my expectations.
Frustration creeps in with unmet expectations. I didn’t want to spend all season frustrated, so I had to change my expectations to something more realistic. But what was that going to be? And did it matter?
So I gave up on the idea of playoffs. Told myself a higher draft pick would be better for the long-term prospects of the Jazz.
And then the last couple of weeks happened. The playoff race is getting close. The Jazz are out, then they’re in, then they’re out, then they’re in. The Mavs are suddenly sliding; and then they’re suddenly winning. The Grizzlies are dealt a handful of injuries like the Jazz were earlier in the year, and they’re in a freefall. Houston still is having trouble getting it together.
And I find myself sucked in once again.
The team is playing like a team. They’ve picked up their defensive intensity. There are alley-oops, and block parties, and beautiful passing. And darnit, that game against the Lakers just felt so good. It felt so good to give them that kind of a thumping.
But I told myself I wouldn’t get my hopes up this season! Why do I do this to myself? It’s hard to be so emotionally invested. To care so deeply. What if I get disappointed again?
So I was curious if there any studies on sports fandom that could assuage my anxiety over bringing this on myself all over again. Is any of this insanity justified? Healthy, even?
Daniel Wann wrote Sport Fans: The Psychology And Social Impact Of Spectators and in an interview with The Huffington Post, detailed two routes to feeling good in fandom:
“One would be following a successful team, and the second would simply be identifying with them. You can get these well-being benefits even if your team doesn’t do well; we’ve found this with historically unsuccessful teams as well.”
Sports fandom is a community, and when you are part of a community filled with like-minded folks, you feel like you belong. Even though I live two states away from Utah, I still feel connected to Jazz fandom. Whenever I see a Jazz hat on someone who’s visiting, I can’t not go up to them and talk to them.1 Because we’re Jazz fans, we’re connected. Especially when we’re in California and surrounded by Lakers fans.
“We’ve known for years in psychology that feeling connections and affiliations with others is important for well-being,” said Wann. “What fandom allows you to do is to gain those connections, which then in turn provides you with social and psychological health.”
Wann lists several benefits to sports fandom, along with my commentary on how we as Jazz fans might relate:
Fandom gives you built-in community
What Jazz fan isn’t well-versed in “The Shot” or the heartbreak of the Finals years? It’s easy to bring up just a few key moments with a new Jazz fan friend, and suddenly you feel like you have a lot more in common than you thought. It’s a built-in bond.
The community, in turn, boosts your sense of well-being
Those Finals years, while heartbreaking, were also a lot of fun. And that scrappy, Andrei Kirilenko-led year where the Jazz were supposed to challenge the all-time worst record in the NBA and instead nearly had a .500 record? I remember feeling pretty good that year.
Fandom gives us a common language
While this doesn’t just mean phrases like the Stifle Tower or The Mailman, being able to talk about Jerry Sloan’s flex offense, or Quin Snyder’s defensive scheme, or the lone and dreary Tyrone Corbin years, there’s a certain language with which other Jazz fans can relate.
Fandom is a safe space
When you’re a Jazz fan and you talk with another Jazz fan who experienced the Jordan push off, all you need to say is “Jordan pushed off” and those three words right there speak volumes. Or you might find others who also mentally block out Karl Malone’s Laker year.
Sports fandom allows others to experience success
Those Finals year gave us hope that maybe—just maybe—we were going to be champions. Somehow it wasn’t just they, the team, but us. And we keep hoping and praying that we’ll make it back to the Finals again in case, maybe—just maybe—we can be champions.
Eric Simons, author of “The Secret Lives of Sports Fans: The Science of Sports Obsession,” said to the Seattle Times:
“Fans get so much from identifying with a team, in ways even players don’t. The athletes can be mercenaries, but the fan is permanent. . . . We get a ton out of it in ways that are deeply emotional.”
This was a concept that I hadn’t considered before: the fan is often more permanent than the player. Some fans will follow a player, but fans of a team often stay with the team, regardless of the players. Even if it means some painful years for a time.
Scientists have also noted what are called “mirror neurons” in our brains, activated not just by participation in sports, but by watching others participate. These findings help explain the profound sense of vicarious connection to athletes.
“It’s phenomenal,’’ said Simons. “We have this ability to understand other people so remarkably that their victories literally become ours. Our testosterone literally responds to their victory. The more we follow a team, the deeper the bond becomes. They’re us, and competing on a literal level as us — a little extension of us.”
Their victories literally become ours. Ever felt that before? After Stockton’s shot? After Gordon Hayward’s game-winners against Cleveland last season or Dallas this season? I especially loved how in the moment Hayward was and how emotional he got after the Cleveland game-winner, but I felt like I was part of that moment, even though I was just viewing it through a TV screen hundreds of miles away.
And from The Wall Street Journal:
Among the oddest findings: Fans tend to derive more pleasure from a close loss than a blowout win. “The less certainty, the greater the suspense, and the greater the enjoyment,” says Silvia Knobloch-Westerwick, a professor of communication at Ohio State University who surveyed 113 Midwestern college students.
“Suspenseful games create emotional buildup with increased psychological and physiological activation afterward,” she says. “This transfers to subsequent judgments.” Viewers fired up following an edge-of-the-seat game appeared to channel that excitement to the ads they saw afterward, rating them more favorably than the same ads seen after a rout.”
I found this particularly interesting. We derive more pleasure from a close loss than a blowout win2 We like seeing the effort; we like seeing the back-and-forth; we like seeing gritty defense try to clamp down at the end of the game.
Given all the research, maybe it’s not all bad to be on this emotional rollercoaster at the end of the season.