Sports and rage: yelling at pixels

Visible frustration. Ethan Butterfield

Screaming yourself hoarse (like an adult).

Sports fans tend to get a rush of emotions when they see their team performing well. The die hard fans are invested enough to follow the careers of their favourite athletes, to know the stats from the most recent games, and can legitimately have to work through some difficult emotions if their favourite athletes do poorly. It’s more than just an emotional investment when it comes to sports – It’s a personal investment that gives fans a sense of identity, as well as unity with other fans. This investment can give a boost to the ego when your team is kicking ass, but it can also devastate your ego when your team is having their asses handed to them. What does this ego devastation look like? Fans yelling at a screen and having a meltdown that rivals a toddler’s tantrum. 

On some level, I get it. The sense of identity and unity the fans get when their team is doing well is threatened when the team starts to do poorly, because your buddy Jeff who cheers for the other team (what a dummy) won’t ever let you live it down if his team whoops yours. Sports fans also talk about their favourite teams with possessive language. “My team whooped yours,” “We did great last game,” and “We traded so-and-so” all show that the fans are so personally invested they talk about the teams like they’re part of them, and take their teams’ successes and failures as personal wins or losses. While I can understand why it happens, I also understand that watching your Uncle Bruno lose his shit during Thanksgiving dinner because so-and-so fumbled doesn’t exactly make for a pleasant get-together, so here are some great alternatives to screaming at the television like a teenager who just got grounded. 

First, please remember that it’s just a game that in no way actually changes your identity. That is, unless you let it. There’s a choice involved here – do you really want to be the relative that gets made fun of in the kitchen after dinner because you were yelling at pixels on a screen like they could actually hear you? While it might feel like a personal insult when your team loses on a technicality, it says nothing about you personally. Unless you’re one of those people who bets on the games, in which case, maybe stop? If you’re constantly whining about how much money you’re losing and blaming it on the team, remember you’re the one who chose to make that bet and you can just as easily choose not to. Try spending that betting money on game snacks for the family instead, and maybe they won’t make fun of your lack of emotional regulation as much?  

Second, let’s talk about what the anger you’re feeling actually is. Dr. Faith G Harper wrote an incredibly insightful book called “Unf*ck Your Anger (Using Science to Understand Frustration, Rage, and Forgiveness)” where she uses the research of R. Douglas Fields on nine different rage-triggers to explain what actually goes on physiologically and subconsciously when we’re angry. Dr. Harper says that “we can see in a literal way how the different rage circuits fire off in the brain, activating our stress hormones. Which means this isn’t a theoretical listing of anger triggers, but categories based on our evolutionary survival instincts.” The main problem with these instincts is that not all of them serve as beneficial coping strategies in our current world, mostly because our current world has evolved so quickly in the last couple centuries that our brains haven’t been able to keep up. The good news is that through practice, you can learn to catch yourself before the “rage” phase if you can identify what’s setting you off. I believe three of these rage-triggers can come into play while watching sports, and I’ll describe them so you can be mindful of them next time you feel personally insulted and want to let those pixels know just how badly they’re screwing up.  

The first is “Insult,” which is triggered when social orders are disrupted, or when disrespect is anticipated/experienced. A huge part of sports is the “bragging rights” the winning team’s fans are entitled to; when that winning team isn’t yours, it’s likely you’ll be subject to some insults from opposing fans, which causes anticipatory anxiety when your team begins to do poorly. Ergo, anger.

The second is “Tribe,” because humans naturally (and normally maladaptively) group into “us” and “them” categories. Anyone in the “us” category is protected like family, and anyone from the “them” category is seen as a threat. People use possessive terms when talking about their favourite teams because part of their identity lies in that team’s standing, so when that standing is threatened they themselves feel threatened. Ergo, anger. 

The third is “Stopped,” which is the instinct all animals have to fight against restraint, and is part of “why people can really lose it while being stuck in a long line.” according to Dr. Harper. This rage-trigger comes in during playoffs because if your favourite team loses and is done for the season you no longer have that potential ego boost to keep you invested. The “Stopped” rage trigger rarely occurs without “Insult” and “Tribe” alongside it, making playoff games the perfect storm. Ergo, anger.

My third and final tip is this: you might just have to acknowledge that the other team played better. I mean, what’s the harm there? Remember, sports only impact you personally if you let them. They only get you mad enough to yell at a screen because you let them. While you have no control over the players, coaches, or the referees, you always have the choice to take control of your reactions to their choices. So if you’re a fan of people looking at you funny because you can’t watch a game without emotionally exploding, that’s fine, just own the fact that you made the choice to react like that.

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