‘Fans’ explores how cheering for sports impacts people’s psyche, behavior and attitude

“Fans: How Watching Sports Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Understanding.” by Larry Olmsted

Whatever team you root for – New Mexico United, the Albuquerque Isotopes or the Lobos among them – being a sports fan is bound to offer thrilling moments.

Larry Olmsted

You see the excitement in the cheering, the screams, the fist-bumps, the high-fives, the towel waving, the colors.

Larry Olmsted peers into that bubbling enjoyment in his book “Fans: How Watching Sports Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Understanding.”

“In all of my journalism, I look for stories hiding in plain sight,” Olmsted said in a phone interview. “Nobody has ever examined what it means to be a sports fan.”

He probes deeply into what being a sports fan does to people’s psyche, behavior and attitude – individually and collectively. I have found many positives.

Considering a collective perspective, Olmsted quotes Kevin Quinn’s book “Sports and Their Fans” as stating that since humans are basically tribal creatures, fandom is a way to have a tribe, and that means a sense of community.

Today, Olmsted contends, sports fans are enjoying greater psychological advantages than ever, because interest in sports is waxing as interest in “social-gathering networks” (eg bowling leagues) are waning.

Until recently, he writes, little research has been done about the effects of being a fan, especially compared to religion, which he claims is “the most comparable system of widespread group identification and belonging.”

That growth in research, plus the historical record, demonstrates that being a sports fan is “good for us, good for humanity, and good for the world,” the author writes.

He dissects in plain English research published in books, professional journals and other sources. His conclusions from him are convincing, if at times repetitive.

Olmsted is impressed with the pioneering research of Daniel L. Wann, a psychology professor at Murray State University in Kentucky. Olmsted thinks no one has studied the psychological ramifications of sports fandom more than Wann; he’s been at it for more than three decades and has done studies of adults and children who identify with pro or amateur teams worldwide.

By “psychological ramifications,” the author said, Wann is referring to multiple mental health benefits. Wann – and more recent researchers – count 24 such benefits of fandom. Among them are higher self-esteem, fewer bouts of depression, less alienation and lower levels of loneliness.

Other mental health benefits are noted – more friends; higher levels of trust in others, less tension, less confusion, less anger, and more vigor and less fatigue. Taken together, these benefits can lead to greater individual fan happiness.

Another impact: Olmsted cites research showing the power of sports fandom to heal in the aftermath of personal loss, trauma or calamities such as 9/11.

The book goes beyond addressing fandom and team sports.

Olmsted sees a direct link between watching sports and becoming an active participant. Example: the explosive popularity of the TV show “American Ninja Warrior” and the growth of “ninja training gyms.”

Wann is quoted as saying researchers’ findings about fans of individual sports such as golf and tennis would be similar to findings on team sports.

Olmsted explores a connection between the role of spectator sports and tolerance in society. He sees tolerance tied to the advancement of civil rights and human rights. Tolerance can result in shifts in fan attitude, and those shifts are sometimes influenced by the views or actions of one’s favorite teams or player.

Olmsted writes that Jackie Robinson is probably the baseball player with the most profound effect on society. Seventy-five years ago Robinson became the first Black in the modern era to play in baseball’s major league. Olmsted takes Robinson’s influence a step further, declaring that “…millions of sports fans around the globe have been transformed into more tolerant human beings,” Olmsted writes. “Robinson was the highest profile athlete to change fans’ racist perceptions, but he wasn’t the only one.”

Among other influential mid-20th century American Black athletes named are track star Jesse Owens and heavyweight championship boxer Joe Louis.

“I tried to make (the book) fun because there’s a lot of science, a lot of anecdotes, interviews,” Olmsted said.

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