Deep Psychological Needs Served by Sports
Fandom can be defined as a relationship that meets three fundamental human needs in forming a healthy mental state: identity creation, group affiliation and self-care. It’s easy to see how sports are useful to individuals who have a biological drive to assert their existence in this world. The three human needs have a special relationship with sports.
As infants become more self-aware, they seek to define themselves as individuals. Throughout our lives, we seek validation of that individualism through friendship groups, popular culture, movies, music and a host of other interests that may fade over time.
Sports seem to be among the few aspects of our formative years that have longevity, possibly because they are typically rooted in a sense of place. Sports provide a living history that we can use to express where we come from and why that is important.
Religion, politics, ethnicity — these powerful anchors of identity manifest themselves through personalities, rituals and institutions. Sports are a vector for these deep-seated, generational ties: Think Notre Dame football, the U.S. hockey team of 1980 and historically Black colleges.
People crave a sense of belonging and community, and at the same time, strive to be distinct individuals. It is an irony of human interaction that joining a group can actually help us to assert individuality. We define ourselves as much by what we are not, as by what we are. Even so, legacy communities, such as religion, are themselves competing with communities of gender, sexuality, lifestyle and others, so sports cannot take any fan for granted.
Self-care is typically thought of as participating in activities that include meditating on a yoga mat, allowing day-to-day worries to unravel and dissipate. Yet, in sports, antagonism toward other fans or opposing players, agonizing tension, deep disappointment and exaggerated elation are all legitimate forms of self-care.
There is a cathartic element to fandom in sports that differs markedly from individualized self-care in hobbies and pastimes, or even participation in sports at a community level. The self-care we derive from major sporting events is a collective experience where fans are able to unwind and feel more complete as their emotional world is shared by thousands of other people.