Does Your Self-Worth Rely on the Success of Sports Teams?

Taking losses "personally" has long been a badge of honor. It shouldn't be.

An Argentinian soccer fan standing on a roof in celebration.
This year's World Cup has put the alternating agony and euphoria of sports on centerstage.
Rodrigo Valle/Getty Images

For some adults, hearing sports fans refer to their favorite teams as “we” can be a real bugaboo. It comes across as an annoying/unearned association with the athletes and coaches who are actually part of the action.

For social scientists, though, this predilection is a fascinating example of BIRGing (short for “basking in reflected glory”), a term that was first coined 46 years ago in an analysis that has long been considered one of “the most influential studies of sport consumer behavior.”

When fans’ sports teams win, they’re more likely to beat their chests with pride the next day. They’ll wear the logos, review the highlights of the game over and over again, and say things like “We hung in there and figured out a way to pull it out.”

On the flip side, though — when that team fails to win (or even worse, gets embarrassed by its opponent) fans tend to engage in what’s known as CORFing (“cutting off reflected failure”). They activate self-preservation mode, which means no “we’s” and certainly no team caps or colors. Seemingly overnight, the team captain is a foe and the manager needs to go.

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A recent slate of studies — with at least one of them paying specific homage to the BIRGing study from four decades ago — has investigated the alarming link between fan behavior and self-esteem.

While sports are a legitimate “mechanism for social affiliation” (to invoke a recent Washington Post article on the topic), and an underrated tool in combatting the male loneliness crisis, they also have an uncomfortable knack for making or breaking a fam’s month or year.

For too many fans, affiliation to a club or country takes precedence and priority over work, sleep or family events. The highs are fantastic, but the lows are damning, and not just on one’s mood. They can have tangible, lasting consequences on the body.

Watching your favorite team lose can increase your risk of a cardiovascular event, according to research into the relationship between fandom and heart health. Reports on passionate supporters in Los AngelesGermanyJapan and Spain have demonstrated that watching stressful games releases higher levels of hormones like cortisol and testosterone into the bloodstream, which puts the body under a tremendous amount of stress.

This year’s World Cup has offered a fresh reminder of just how much fans toss their well-being into a lot of events they blatantly cannot control. Camera scans towards the end of games show fans in various states of torment or rapture, evidently apoplectic over they’ll possibly be able to live with themselves if their nation can’t figure out a way to win.

These emotions are further pronounced, perhaps, on account of national pride. Your flag winning (or falling short) is a commentary on your very identity.

Ultimately, it’s ridiculous that so many fans think this way. And hey, maybe that in itself is the beauty and agony of sport. That’s certainly the premise of Nike commercials. But it’s also unhealthy and unnecessary. Caring this much is still a choice. For diehards, perhaps, the ship sailed a long time ago. They’re going to feel however they feel, and it’s worth it if euphoria is at the other end of the tunnel.

Still, interrogating relationship cadences that we hold as normal, or unassailable, is elemental to improving one’s emotional well-being. It’s a little too close to kick-off for the French and Argentinians among us to try this exercise on for size, but take a second over the holidays and consider — is your self-worth tied into your sports teams? Do you take losses personally? That’s long been held as a badge of honor. But maybe it’s time to flip the script.

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