Exploring Coping Mechanisms for Loss, Change, or Dissolution in Sport Fandom

Jan 8, 2020

In the next installment of Sounds Good's sport psychology series, Tracy Ross and Dan Wann discuss how sports fans learn to cope with particularly upsetting losses, team dissolutions, and free-agent players who move from a fan's favorite team to a rival.

"It's funny because, at the end of the day, sports fans don't have to do what they do," Wann begins. "It's not like if they stop following sports, their paycheck is going to be different or their family members will disown them. It's a voluntary activity. It's been described as the activity that means absolutely nothing but yet means absolutely everything to these individuals."

When the team struggles, they've got to figure out a way to get past that, or they're not going to be able to follow the team again. [Sports are] a losing endeavor for half the people out there," Wann continues. "It's a zero-sum game. For sports fans, losing is inevitable. You're going to lose. So how you bounce back from that will dictate whether or not you can keep going as a fan."

There are various forms of coping that sports fans will utilize to soften the blow of a loss. "I'm not saying [sports fans] are going to get to the point where they're enjoying the loss, or they're glad for the loss, but they'll make it okay," Wann explains. "For example, they're very good at altering cognitively and perceptually their impression of what happened and what went down."

"A great example would be the New Orleans Saints' fans who once again find themselves on the wrong end of a very questionable interference call. One thing that fans do is they can change...the causes of the outcome. For Saints fans, it's very easy to blame the NFL or the officials. When the team loses, it's somebody else's fault. When my own team wins, well, it's because we're good or successful. They internalize the team's successes. They'll externalize the team's failures. If your favorite team loses in a championship game, it's very easy to say the other team played over their head," Wann says. 

"Another thing that sports fans are very good at is beliefs in curses," Wann adds. "'It's not my team's fault; it's this magical or mysterious element that's responsible for what's going on.' Baseball fans historically are really good at policing curses. You have the curse of the Cubs. The Red Sox were supposedly cursed forever for selling Babe Ruth. That curse goes way, way back. It's interesting that what sports fans are doing by believing in these curses is basically saying it's not the team's fault. It's something above the team. 'It's not that we blame the players, we're not going to blame the coaches, we couldn't help it. We're cursed.'"

"The last very common curse is pessimism. Sports fans will, as the game gets closer...decrease their expectations of success. We actually started looking at this twelve, fourteen years ago. I read some research that found that college students, as the test gets closer, will decrease their expectations of what they're going to get on this test. Because then, whatever you do, you'll feel better about," Wann explains. "We thought, 'well, maybe sports fans did the same thing.' We went to Cardinals baseball fans and asked them about three months before the start of the season, a month before, a week before, and then the day-of how many games they thought the team would win. Sure enough, it went down, down, down. Basically, that's proactive coping."

Conversely, there's also "retroactive pessimism, where sports fans (after the loss) essentially say, 'well, now that I think about it, we never really had a chance,'" Wann continues. "[A colleague of mine] and I looked at this a few years ago, and we asked Murray State basketball fans and Western Kentucky baseball fans a day before the game against the two rivals. Of course, everybody said that they thought their team would win. A day after the game, which Murray State had won, we asked the fan bases again, 'who did you think was going to win?' Murray State fans [said], 'I knew we were going to win.' The Western fans, they all said, 'now that I think about it, Murray State was 7 and 1 coming into this game. They were on a really good roll. I don't think we had that much of a chance.' They're going back in time cognitively to make the loss okay."

Not all coping mechanisms are used for game losses. Player injury, players transferring to another team, and the dissolution of a team can all negatively affect sports fans to the point where coping mechanisms are necessary. "When you identify with a team, you don't just identify with the names on the back," Wann explains. "They become a part of your extended family, so to speak. Fans have to figure out a way to make it okay to either root for part of the rival team or convince themselves that they don't like that player anymore. That's a pretty rough cognitive dissonance spot to be in."

"I think aside from dealing with a loss, the biggest thing fans have to cope with would be when the team up and leaves," Wann continues. "When the team leaves or for whatever reason is shut down...how are you going to handle that threat to your identity? It's not just, 'well, we lost...I'll figure out a way to feel better about tomorrow's game. Our season is over, we were terrible this year, but that's okay. We have the first pick in the draft, so we'll do better next year.' When the team is completely gone, that's when it's very, very difficult for fans to cope. They often do so by finding another almost surrogate team to latch onto. 'My team is gone, my choices are [one], stop being a sports fan or [two], finding somebody else to root for.' They'll find somebody else to root for."

"I think the one final point that warrants a mention is that this stuff works. The research is very clear that not only do fans cope to make themselves feel better, when they cope, it does make themselves feel better. They've looked at individuals after sporting events, fans that have watched their team fail at an event. [The researchers] assess how much [the sport fans] used various types of coping strategies and then looked to see if their self-esteem and their outlook on life rebounded. The more they used a coping strategy, sure enough, the better they felt about themselves afterwards. It's not just that we're grasping at straws here. These straws actually work. When you use these coping strategies, they do make yourself feel better. That allows you to say, okay, tomorrow's another day or next year's another season," Wann concludes.