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Why We Watch Sports – (And It’s Not What You Think)
Whether you believe it or not, we like to watch sports for very different reasons than you might think. In fact, the real things that make us like sports are in each person, whether we like sports or not. What things can we learn about human nature simply by observing our fascination with competition? The answers might surprise you. The answers are not only interesting in themselves, but they can help you in other ways as well.
To be sure, there are some pretty simple and obvious explanations for why we like sports. Sport teaches us about loyalty, constancy and honor. It gives us a way to bond, it’s cathartic, and we identify with teams and players. We live vicariously through the players we observe. We have our favorite players, and there are teams we’ve grown up rooting for because our brother or dad used to love them, and now we still root for them today. Or we can follow a sport that we used to play as children.
But there are also some deeper, more powerful, and more fascinating reasons.
We’re all just big kids
Whether you want to believe it or not, all adults are just big kids. We are all big kids. We just hide our true feelings and thoughts with highly developed abilities (or at least most of us do). We still want to belong to or be accepted by our peers, we all still want to be loved, we still feel emotional pain, and we still find ourselves giving in to immediate gratification when we know best. And yes, some of us still lie and cheat in our normal everyday lives.
We certainly hide things better and often successfully ‘act’ like we don’t care about belonging, love, pain or whatever. Deep down we are a little more mature and wiser, but basically we are still children. We may not say it out loud anymore, but sometimes we still think, “That’s not fair!” We prefer to play than work. Some may argue, depending on whether they urinate standing up or sitting down, that this is especially true for men. Perhaps that is why there are more men who are fond of sports than women.
You see, watching sports gives us a perfect, safe and secure little microcosm of life in black and white. Following a player, team or match allows us to experience ups and downs and a whole range of emotions, just like in real life, but without it affecting us.
And unlike life, sports and games are generally fair! There are rules and a crystalline framework or paradigm that all participants and spectators know. Wrenches are never thrown in a sports game, like the rules that change mid-game, for example. If the rules are broken, the offender is penalized. Sometimes they don’t run away frustratingly like in real life.
In the end, there is an unequivocal winner and loser. We come to pretend that the game we are watching is life, where everything is perfectly fair, everyone plays by the rules, and everything makes sense.
Children tend to think of things in much more black and white terms. Only by living and maturing do we realize that all of life is a series of greys. But we all long for a simpler and easier life. When things are only seen in black or white, things seem simpler and easier, but life is not so clear.
This helps explain why politicians who break down their platform into simple sound bites and terms without complexity often do better than politicians who talk about life as it really is, a complex and interrelated world of nuance.
Watching sports allows us a temporarily safe and socially acceptable way to be more like our true nature, and our true nature is terribly childish. So the next time you’re dealing with a difficult person, remember that they’re just a big kid, just like you and everyone else, and maybe that knowledge will help you deal with them a little easier.
What do watching a horror movie and sports have in common?
Have you ever wondered why so many people, including maybe you, enjoy watching horror movies so much? They provide a safe way for people to experience high levels of suspension without actually being in any real danger. Sports can be the same way. Again, watching sports allows us to enter a perfect world where the suspenseful outcome has no relation to our real lives (unless you have a nasty problem with sports betting, of course).
People love drama, suspension, and resolution, which are inherent elements of sports. In fact, the closer the game is, the more suspension there is. If we identify with a player and he wins, we vicariously rejoice at the success. However, if the player’s team loses, we also feel the loss a bit. But our lives are not affected. And sports announcers usually just add to the drama and suspension.
A sports game is a kind of story. There is a beginning and an end. There is a protagonist (your team) and an antagonist (the other team). There is a scene and a setting, the stadium at noon, and there is a plot, which is the action. Only after the games are over, and depending on whether or not your team won, is it decided to call it a fairy tale ending or a tragedy.
Reptilian brain and war
Whether you want to believe it or not, humans are much closer to nature and the animal world than most people like to think. We are not only close to nature; we are part of it! Evolutionarily speaking, we are much closer in time to our non-intelligent animal ancestors than we are to a sentient species transcended apart from nature. Our behavior is guided much more by our “primitive brain” than by our more recently developed neocortex, which is the seat of our intelligence. The primitive brain, or lower brain function, deals with fight-or-flight behavior, hunger, fear, and sex, among other things.
A common, albeit misconception, is that the human brain is the result of billions of years of evolution. Our primitive or reptilian part of the brain is that old, but the extra-large neocortex of our brain, the thing that separates us from other mammals, arose only a couple of million years ago, a mere drop in the evolutionary bucket. The neocortex hasn’t had much time to develop, so our primitive brain plays an important role in our lives.
Our basic fight or flight mentality manifests itself in sports. We can relate, on a deeper, unconscious level, to the guy who runs the ball into the end zone and is chased by a pack of angry men. We can understand what it’s like to control another hockey player and slam him into the boards. Or we can sympathize with the NASCAR driver who is passed by a competitor, but speeds up and chases after him.
Our primitive desire for dominance is represented in sports. When our team wins, we experience a kind of dominance over the opposing team and their fans.
Our predatory nature lights up when we see a linebacker following a running back through a mass of football players, waiting for the perfect moment to attack his prey with a tackle. Watching someone chase the man with the ball in basketball, football, or baseball affects us in a similar way.
Our tribal instincts are satisfied with sports. We all want to belong to something; it is a basic human need since we are such social animals. We identify with a team as our ancestors would identify with their tribe. This is especially true for the modern man in the Western world, where community has taken a backseat to independence.
Our primitive warrior nature is satisfied with sports. There seems to be an innate desire for war, even in the so-called “modern” man. In fact, look at the world today and how many wars there are currently, and you will see how far we are from real peace. Pathetically, that last statement holds true for almost any moment in history, regardless of when you’re reading this. Again, this goes back to the fact that we are governed more by our ‘primitive’, survival driven, fight or flight brain than our reasonable and intelligent ‘modern’ brain.
Every sports game is like a little war between tribes, with an ending and a declared victor. But there is an important distinction; unlike war, no one has to die in sports.
One of the reasons why going to a game is more exciting than watching it on TV is that it creates a kind of energy when so many people come together and support a cause. You could even compare it to a mob mentality. We need look no further than our own stadiums where chaos has erupted in protest of a call or in celebration of a victory. Sports strongly appeal to the playing and fighting instincts of humans.
And since our modern lives no longer contain any real physical danger and all our basic needs are taken care of immediately, we now have a void that needs to be filled somehow, our primitive brain expects it. Sports fit the bill. It gives us the illusion of reality where there are no consequences. It gives us the illusion of battle, war, victory and defeat, without the consequences. And it gives us the illusion of being children again, even if it’s all temporary.
You may not be into sports at all, but we are all pretty childish on the inside. We all crave some level of drama in our lives. And we are all constantly affected by our primitive brain. Watching sports is a great way for people to reconcile these inescapable facts.
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