Articles / Cycling / Formula 1

What makes a good sports fan?

Sport is one of those things that gets people all fired up for one reason or another – just like politics, but with significantly more capable people involved. People will always disagree and being a sports fan implies taking sides so it’s much easier to apply labels of rivalry and blindingly protect your own side of the argument. It’s a bit like falling in love: you just fail to notice the flaws in the person next to you.

I’ve arrived to the conclusion that being told ’you’re not a real fan’ is some sort of ultimate insult but I fail to see what a real fan is. There is no definition and I don’t claim to be an expert so I’ll leave that to the epistemologists and turn my attention to a few things I learned along the years – from a psychological perspective – about passion for sports. Some of it is common sense, some empirical research and a few personal hypotheses. Mind you, I’m not a complete rookie; I do have a Master’s thesis in sports psychology.

While a real fan is hard to define, I do have an image of a good fan, with a healthy and rational outlook on things – incidentally the complete opposite of a hooligan or ultras, whatever your loud sporting minority is called. It might not be the perfect fan, that’s a subjective concept, but he holds a few qualities attuned to the principles of competition, fair play and wellbeing.

So back to the question: what makes a good supporter?

Harmonious passion for sport

There’s a theory of passion not just for sport but it was tested in athletic environments as well and it goes like this: people can have two types of passion for an activity – obsessive and harmonious. Now it’s pretty intuitive which one is better and it seems that athletes who exhibit harmonious passion have a healthier emotional life; they don’t let achievement-related feelings dominate their life and can separate sport from their personal life without affecting performance or motivation.

OK, so what’s this got to do with fans? Some clever people tested the theory on dedicated football fans and noticed that people obsessively passionate with their team had more conflicts in their couple and were less satisfied in their relationship. No kidding Sherlock, when would one get time for a dinner date when there are so many football matches and lost bets to attend to? Harmoniously passionate fans build better relationships with their peers and can enjoy an activity even if the end result isn’t quite what they wanted. Hear that, Vettel critics?

Mastery-oriented goals

Sounds fancy but it’s quite simple. People can generally be motivated by two things: obtaining the best performance possible or/and mastering a task as good as they possibly can. The implications on athletes’ performance are quite fascinating but there’s a case for the fans’ involvement too. There’s a subtle difference between the two: some want straight A-s while the latter work to become better, even if that means going from a C to a B-. The firsts might crumble under pressure that’s out of their reach while the latter set their own standards and only care about their personal progress.

This partly explains why you can support a player/team lower down the rankings or at the back of the grid. If you admire performance you’ll support the top dog but if you value dedication and development, you’ll save a soft spot for the ones who work hard to become their best selves.

Doesn’t let emotions beat logic

That’s a difficult thing to judge when we’re talking about passions but once the fight is done and dusted it’s how you react that’s important. Rational reasoning is what distinguishes us from animals and what we should practice every day. Whatever it makes us feel like, it’s better to realise that some things cannot be changed and we’re better off just accepting the facts. A bad race or match won’t change if we cry our eyes out and the regulations won’t either if we scream our disagreement from the top of our lungs. Less whingeing more logic.

Understands the loudest doesn’t mean the best

If you do all the talking you won’t see where you’re walking – the online media is a wonderful tool to express yourself but it’s also an opportunity to impose your opinions on others. It’s a fine line between sharing another perspective on the topic and an overly-spirited conflict.

It’s almost a reflex to point out when people are wrong (as I seem to be doing right now), but it’s the manner you do it in that’s the issue. People can enjoy a good debate when you show respect and have proper arguments coming from both sides; using caps lock, multiple exclamation points and various ungodly words doesn’t qualify as ‘arguments’ and it doesn’t make you right. Learning to accept perspectives different than ours does – it’s part of our growth as healthy individuals. Which takes us smoothly to the next quality…

Understands competence

It seems to me that the more complex the sport, the more reasons people find to argue. There are hardly any controversies in alpine skiing: you either go down the slope on the correct side of the flags or not – it’s quite straightforward. Formula 1, on the other hand, gives you reasons after reasons. Understandably, we all have our view of events but our limited time impedes us from learning everything an expert in the field knows. Yes, we can disagree with the rightfulness of a penalty shot or the correctness of an engine map, but in the end we can’t argue that we know the rules or the mechanism better than a referee or Adrian Newey (as much as we like to think we do).

The fact we don’t like the noise of a car doesn’t make the engine makers incompetent, it just means we don’t understand the implications on a larger scale. If you look closely, a vaccine is a virus or toxin but we choose to take it because we accept that in the large picture it will help us survive. And we accept that because there are competent people whose work we trust. No one can judge Marussia’s performance but their own engineers and that old saying stays: don’t criticize what you don’t fully understand. Flexibility in thinking is key; a different idea isn’t a bad idea – a concept lost on some social media critics.

Understands that sport is ultimately a business

Sport is dedication, passion and talent but beyond that there’s a big business aspect to it. Just like our jobs are businesses, no matter how much (or little) we love what we do. The fact that it’s on TV and so exposed to worldwide audiences is almost negligible compared to the effect it has on the people actually involved in managing it.

Imagine your day at the office was a reality show; would your viewers’ opinions matter more than your boss’s? I bet not, particularly when it’s about your salary. Sport is unavoidably a business that works for its own benefit and evolves with the times, we’re just slightly loud observers. Whether we like it or not, we should keep that in mind when making a judgement.

There’s much more to say, these are just a few ideas that frequently popped into my mind when observing some fans’ approach to various events in sport. You might agree or not, it’s called a personal opinion for a reason.

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