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Why We Watch Sports – (And It’s Not What You Think)

Believe it or not, we love watching sports for much different reasons than you might think. In fact, the real things that make us love sports are in every human being, whether we like sports or not. What can we learn about human nature by simply looking at our fascination with competition? The answers may surprise you. Not only are the answers interesting in themselves, but they might just help you in other ways.

There are some pretty clear and obvious explanations for why we like sports for sure. Sports teach us faith, perseverance and honor. It gives us a way to bond, it’s cathartic and we identify with teams and players. We live vicariously through the players we watch. We have our favorite players and there are teams that we grew up rooting for because our brother or dad loved them, and now we still love them today. Or we might follow a sport now that we played as kids.

But there are also some deeper, more powerful and compelling reasons.

We’re all just big kids

Believe it or not, all adults are just big kids. We’re all just big kids. We just hide our true feelings and thoughts with highly developed skills (or at least most of us do). We still want to belong or be accepted by our peers, we all still want to be loved, we still feel emotional pain, and we still find ourselves giving in to instant gratification when we know better. And yes, some of us still lie and cheat in our daily lives.

We certainly hide things better and often successfully “act” like we don’t care about belonging, or love, or pain, or anything else. Deep down we are a bit more mature and wiser, but basically still just kids. We may not say it out loud anymore, but we still sometimes think to ourselves, “That’s not fair!” We prefer to play than to work. Some may argue that depending on whether they pee standing up or sitting down, this is especially true for men. Maybe that’s why there are more male sports fans than female.

You see, watching sports gives us a perfect, safe and secure, black and white, little microcosm of life. Following a player, team or game allows us to experience ups and downs and a whole range of emotions, just like in real life, but we are not actually affected.

And unlike life, sports and games are generally fair! There are rules and a crystal frame, or paradigm that all participants and viewers know. Never throw a monkey wrench into a sports game, like the rules changing in the middle of the game, for example. If the rules are broken, the violator is punished. They don’t come off disappointingly sometimes like in real life.

In the end, there is a clear winner and a clear loser. We have to pretend that the game we’re watching is life, where everything is perfectly fair, everyone plays by the rules, and everything makes sense.

Children tend to think about things in much more black and white terms. Only through living and maturing do we realize that all life is a series of grays. But we all still yearn for a simpler and easier life. When things are only seen in black or white, things indeed seem simpler and easier, but life is not so clear.

This explains why politicians who break down their platform into simple sounds and uncomplicated terms often do better than politicians who talk about life as it really is, a complex, interconnected world of nuances.

Watching sports allows us a temporarily safe and socially acceptable way to be more like our true nature, and our true nature is frighteningly childlike. So the next time you’re dealing with a difficult person, remember that they’re just a big kid, like you and everyone else, and maybe that knowledge will help you deal with them a little easier.

What do watching horror movies and sports have in common?

Have you ever wondered why so many people, perhaps including you, enjoy watching horror movies so much? They provide a safe way for people to experience high levels of inhibition without running any real risk. Sports can be the same way. Again, watching sports allows us to enter a perfect world where the suspenseful outcome has nothing to do with our real lives (unless you have a nasty sports gambling problem of course).

People love drama, suspense and resolution, all of which are inherent in sports. In fact, the closer the game, the more suspension. If we identify with a player and he wins, we rejoice in the success. However, if the player’s team loses, we also feel the loss a little. But our lives are not affected. And sports announcers usually only add to the drama and suspense.

A sports game is a kind of story. There is a beginning and an end. There is a protagonist (your team) and an antagonist (the other team). There is scene and setting, the field at noon, and there is a plot, which is the action. Only after the games are over, and depending on whether your team won or not, is it decided to call it a fairy tale ending or a tragedy.

Reptilian Brain and War

Believe it or not, humans are much closer to nature and the animal world than most people want to believe. We are not just close to nature. we are part of it! Evolutionarily speaking, we are much closer in time to our non-intelligent animal ancestors than to a transcendent sentient species outside of nature. Our behavior is guided much more by our “primitive brain” than by our more recently developed neocortex, which is the seat of our intelligence. The primitive brain, or lower brain function, deals with fight-or-flight behavior, hunger, fear, and sex, among other things.

A common, but incorrect, perception is that the human brain is the result of billions of years of evolution. The primitive or reptilian part of our brain is so old, but our very large neocortex, the thing that separates us from other mammals, appeared only a few million years ago, a mere drop in the evolutionary bin. The neocortex didn’t have much time to develop, so our primitive brain plays an important role in our lives.

Our basic flight or fight mentality manifests itself in sports. We can relate, on some deeper and unconscious level, to the guy who runs the football toward the end zone and is chased by a group of angry men. We can understand what it’s like to control another hockey player and hit them into the boards. Or we can sympathize with the NASCAR driver who passes a competitor but throws him into a higher gear and chases him.

Our primitive desire for dominance is represented in sports. When our team wins, we experience a kind of dominance over the opposing team and their fans.

Our predatory nature is illuminated when we see a linebacker trailing a running back through a mass of football players, waiting for the perfect moment to hit his prey with a tackle. Watching someone chase the man with the ball in basketball, football, or baseball affects us in similar ways.

Our racial instincts are fulfilled through sports. We all want to belong to something. it is a basic human need since we are such social animals. We identify with a group as our ancestors would identify with their tribe. This is especially true of modern man in the Western world, where community has taken a backseat to independence.

Our primitive warlike nature is satisfied by sports. There seems to be an innate desire for war, even in so-called “modern” man. Indeed, look at the world today and how many current wars are being fought, and you will see how far we are from real peace. Sadly, that last statement applies to almost any time in history, no matter when you read it. Again, this goes back to the fact that we are ruled more by our ‘primitive’, survival-driven, fight-or-flight brain than our rational and intelligent ‘modern’ brain.

Every sports match is like a miniature war between races, with an end and a declared winner. But there is an important distinction. Unlike war, no one has to die in sport.

One of the reasons that going to a game is more exciting than watching it on TV is that there is a kind of energy that is created when so many people come together and support a cause. You might even liken it to mob mentality. We need look no further than our own stadiums where pandemonium has erupted in protest of a call or to celebrate a victory. Sports strongly appeal to people’s play and fight instincts.

And since our modern life no longer contains any real physical danger and all our basic needs are met immediately, we now have a void that must be filled somehow, our primitive brain expects. Sports fit. It gives us the illusion of reality where there are no consequences. It gives us the illusion of battle, war, victory and defeat, without consequences. And it gives us the illusion of being a kid again, even if it’s all temporary.

You may not like sports at all, but we’re all very kids inside. We all crave some level of drama in our lives. And we are all constantly influenced by our primitive brain. Watching sports is a great way for people to reconcile these inescapable events.

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