Football can have a major impact on mental health. It is thought to affect emotions, relationships, identity and self-esteem. In a recent study, one in four fans said football was one of the most important things in their lives.
When time is at a premium for most people, leisure activity and entertainment fulfils the psychological need to escape from the stresses and strains of life and go into another world for a period of time. The time set aside for football is often sacrosanct and provides an opportunity to play.
It has been suggested that the attraction of sports events over other forms of entertainment is the combination of comfort in ritual with unpredictable outcome. People can look forward to the comfort of the familiar with the thrill of the unknown.
Basking in reflected glory
When your team does well, it prompts feelings of happiness, well-being and collective euphoria. Fans ‘bask in reflected glory’ (BIRG). It has been suggested that ‘BIRGing’ improves mood both in individuals and in communities. If a team loses a match, however, it does not necessarily have a negative impact on mental health.
It is thought that watching football may be cathartic. It has been suggested that the atmosphere of a live football match is socially inclusive. Fans step into their team identity by wearing clothes and using language they would not usually use in their everyday lives. They can behave in ways that encourage ‘a cathartic release of tension’ through shouting, screaming, gesturing and chanting. Pent up internalised feelings and intense emotion such as frustration annoyance or sadness can be vented in a socially acceptable way. Men can express and release internalised emotion that they don’t feel able to express in other ways.
For young men in particular, the opportunity to externalise tension and emotion is important to maintaining health. Young men are at the highest risk of suicide – it is the most common cause of death for young men under the age of 35. This age group is one of the most dominant in football crowds across the country.
Cutting off reflected failure
Sometimes fans feel a sense of pessimism prior to a match. But this can also have a positive overall impact in that it can unite fans. A refusal to believe that things might go well is thought to protect against disappointment. This has been referred to as ‘CORF’ or cutting off reflected failure. Having a shared moan after a defeat is also another way of bonding.
The World Cup in particular may have a positive effect on mental health. One study found there was a reduction in numbers of emergency psychiatric admissions during and after World Cup finals.
Watching and supporting football provides an opportunity for connection and belonging in an age where technology means there is less and less direct physical interaction.
According to ‘social identity theory’, fans separate groups and teams into social categories and identify with the group/team to which they see themselves belonging. Geography or family tradition usually informs which team someone supports.
Supporting a football club, watching a live game or gathering to watch a match on television are all ways of participating in group activity with people who share the same values and interests. This provides a sense of belonging, identification and inclusion within a larger group. It creates a tangible social identity. Identification with the players as people and the club also promote a sense of belonging.
Because this belonging is a key part of their identity, people will continue to support their team even if the team lets them down. This would suggest that the psychological value derived from this social identity is greater than that derived from a good or bad performance.
Social identity theory suggests that maintenance of a positive self-identity entails developing comparisons between the ‘in-group’ and ‘out-group’. A fan’s team is the in-group and the opposing team is the out-group. These rivalries strengthen a sense of identity and the sense of ‘sticking together’ through thick and thin. Supporting your team is a commitment to the team and to the other fans.
It has also been found that people perceive fellow fans to be superior to other fans. They are thought to be more committed, enthusiastic, objective and analytical. By association, this ‘superiority’ enhances the person’s own self-esteem, if you belong to this group, you must also be more committed, enthusiastic and have greater powers of objectivity and analysis. (Football provides an opportunity for every fan to be the ‘expert’ pundit.
However, the stronger the identification with the team, the stronger the emotional reaction to wins and losses and the more extreme the highs and lows.
For most fans, football is a part of their lives. However, for some it can become the main focus. In the US, these people are referred to as ‘high identifiers’ – people whose identity is intertwined with a team and who will have extreme emotions in the face of defeat. Because identification with the team is a central component of the self-identify of high-identified fans, the team’s performances have strong implications for their self-worth – they are ‘part’ of the team.
High identifiers on the losing side can experience significant psychological problems. Studies have found losing fans can become anxious and irritable, and experience sleep problems and headaches. Some fans can become withdrawn and anti-social after a loss.
Commentators have suggested that for some fans, supporting football provides an opportunity to re-enact the ritual of battle. However this can be taken too far and lead to serious acts of violence, differentiating the fan from the ‘football hooligan’. The available evidence on hooligan offenders suggest that they are generally young, in their late teens or 20s, although some ‘leaders’ are older. It has been suggested that initially much behaviour is simply ritualistic and non-violent verbal abuse and threats. However, ‘core hooligans’ are more interested in fighting or ‘running’ rival groups.
Club football can be an attractive venue for testing masculinity. It is thought by some that particular groups of young men may be socialised into a set of standards that value and publicly reward assertive and openly aggressive expressions of masculinity. They are expected to be ‘manly’ and able to ‘look after themselves’. They ‘defend’ their own, their gang’s, and their town’s reputation against the intruders.
Boredom and limited opportunity for fulfilment in other areas may also play a role. The ‘social drama’ of the fight and the opportunity it provides for competition, achieving ‘honour’ and inflicting shame on opponents may motivate violent behaviour. Former hooligans have said that fights can be anticipated and enjoyed because of the challenge and the way it makes them feel. Some fighters describe the football action as being ‘better than sex’.
This has been termed as a ‘flow’ or ‘peak’ experience – an intense, shared emotionality, an outpouring of joy or sadness, and a strengthening of a common social identity. However, unlike non-violent fans, the hooligan rejects the vicarious role of football supporter for the more active and ‘satisfying’ role of direct participant in confrontations.
There is a view that football is a replacement for pack hunting.
Heavy drinking too is often a key element in a ‘good day out’. Many violent offences by football fans are related to alcohol.
Watching sports such as football have an impact on testosterone levels. Studies have found that fans experience the same hormonal surges and physiological ebbs and flows during a game as they might if they were on the field.
Having strong relationships is known to be a key factor in the maintenance of positive mental health. Football plays an important role in the formation and maintenance of social and familial relationships. Over 90% of people who attend matches go with friends, family or colleagues.
Football provides a platform to communicate with others, gossip (known to protect mental well-being), exchange views, and bond through celebration and commiseration. It helps people maintain relationships by providing a reason to meet up regularly. Football is a social leveller which allows people from different social and cultural backgrounds to connect. There is always something to talk about or have a view on. It is particularly helpful for people who are shy or who find it difficult to connect with people on other levels.
Football strengthens bonds between family members, most notably between fathers and sons. Many parents see football as an important part of their relationship with their children. In one study it was found that almost every fan was taken to their first match by their father.
Time set aside to watch football is done so deliberately and becomes an expected routine. It generates conversation and provides an opportunity for parent and child to catch up. It creates and protects ‘quality time’. This quality time often continues long after children have grown up and so maintains parent/child relationships throughout life.
Keep it in perspective
Football only has a positive effect when it is kept in perspective. An over-reliance on or obsession with football can limit the development of other interests and have a negative impact on male/female relationships and may divert attention away from other family responsibilities.
Football might have an even more beneficial impact on mental health if more fans took to the field, as exercise is known to have a positive effect on our mental well-being.