Rooting for Your Team: What Happens to your Brain?

Why do we identify with our favorite teams so much that we ride an emotional roller coaster with them, especially during the post season? Scott Bea, PsyD, explains.

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CLEVELAND – We’re all guilty of watching our favorite sports team and shouting out ‘we won!’ when in fact all ‘we’ did was watch.

So why do we identify with our favorite teams so much that we ride an emotional roller coaster with them, especially during playoff time?

According to Scott Bea, PsyD, a psychologist at Cleveland Clinic, we actually have neurons in our brains that ‘play along’ with the players.

“It’s pretty wild and it actually happens a little bit more in males, but we can actually go on the same hormonal ride that the players are going on with one exception – we have absolutely no control in the outcome,” said Dr. Bea.

Dr. Bea said it’s likely that ‘fandom’ tends to start when we are young, whether parents or older siblings introduce us to the idea that it’s ‘our’ team that represents ‘us’ and our city.

“These players and these teams start to represent our heroes – our ego ideal; what we aspire to become and that gets trained into us,” said Dr. Bea.

Especially during playoff time, we have a surge of adrenaline and stress hormones, but because we really can’t influence the outcome, he said it can be quite taxing.

In general, Dr. Bea said following a sports team can give us a great sense of belonging, even if it also comes with a little bit of intensity.

In fact, much of the ‘high’ we get from watching our team can be traced to the feel-good chemical – dopamine. He said it’s the same reason people get a thrill from riding roller coasters.

Also, according to Dr. Bea, when we’re in the spirit of togetherness we might also be experiencing the release of oxytocin, which is a bonding, compassionate chemical.

“Those are the things that people really love and gravitate toward and here’s an opportunity, when your team’s in the playoffs to have that,” said Dr. Bea. “You can also get the opposite, though, which is all the stress chemicals, feeling down, a little panicked, so it’s a little bit of gambling with our brains.”

He said the rewards reaped from the feel-good chemicals holds true even for the ‘band wagon’ fans.

“If you’re a casual fan or not much of a fan, but now your team and your region is represented , now there’s a chance to create really good brain chemistry and get drenched with those rewarding brain chemicals if we become a fan and get into the collective sense of belonging and victory,” said Dr. Bea.

Dr. Bea said that we gravitate to the home team because we want to be part of something, but it’s important to keep it all in good fun.

He said to remember that it won’t be too devastating if your team loses, and it won’t be life-changing if they win.

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