Thirty Three Degrees South: The Psychology of Fandom

Tim Clarke 22nd March 2019

Is following Fulham bad for your health? Does the sight of Tom Cairney on the wing send you into spirals of depression? Tim Clarke explores what following Fulham FC does to us. (Spoiler: There’s some good news below!)

At some point this season, every Fulham fan has sat down and thought “This is beginning to get to me…”,  and conclude that it is ruining us as humans. Therefore, it probably won’t shock you to learn that psychologists have found a link between supporting a losing team, and generally feeling pissed off.

However, there are also some unexpected benefits for downcast fans of downcast teams. Even though for a few hours on a Saturday we may feel like throwing ourselves off Putney Bridge, there are some long term affects which may just keep you from flinging yourself into the Thames. Suspend your disbelief, and come with me for a second.

Resilience

If you can sing ‘Scotty’s at the Wheel’, even ironically, you have what I’m talking about; the ability to persevere against adverse circumstances. Psychologists have found that resilience is what determines ‘the happiness and longevity of our relationships, our success at work, and the quality of our health’ [1]. We only get this from experiencing setbacks, but deciding to carry on anyway.

One of many setbacks faced by Fulham this season

It would have been very easy to give up, to go glory hunting elsewhere. You could have meandered 1.5 miles up the road to where Stamford Bridge sits with a Guantanamo Bay-like obnoxiousness right next to Fulham Broadway. But you haven’t.

If you’re an overseas fan, it’s even more tempting. You wake up at stupid hours to watch Fulham lose, and then you go to work and can’t even talk about it with anyone. ‘John from IT supports Norwich, maybe he will care?’. Newsflash: he doesn’t. It would be very easy to slide into a Spurs jersey, and no one would ever call you on it. But you haven’t.

By persevering with Fulham, you are growing in your capacity to be resilient – helping you deal with trauma in your personal life, maintain self-esteem, and remain calm in a crisis.

It almost makes you feel sorry for all those stunted City fans…

Reward Systems in the Brain

It does feel good to support a winning team. It allows you to feel good about yourself and who you are for no real reason. Think 26th of May last year. Your personal life could have been going up in flames, but when TC slotted that ball home, somewhere in the back of your mind you thought ‘I’m doing alright!’. Backing a winner feels great.

But, there is a flip side. As soon as we expect a win, our brain doesn’t get as excited when it comes to fruition. Researchers at Cambridge found the level of dopamine is linked to expectation [2]. If you expect to win, and you do, there isn’t much reward. And if you expect to win, and you don’t: chaos. We all know fans of big six teams who act like the sky is falling in after a draw away at Brighton.

How does this relate to us? Think back to December last year. We were languishing near the bottom of the Championship when our mighty unbeaten run began. I will never forget leaving The Den after having put three past the other form team of the division, singing ‘’22, 22 undefeated!” We had no expectation of winning, and each time felt like the first time. We don’t show up to games with a God-given sense of superiority. Even thinking of this season, when Mitro scored in the 90th minute against Huddersfield, I was off my head, fatigued and dopamined to the eyeballs.

How good would this win for a big six team feel? Probably not quite the same.

Mitro celebrating his last minute winner vs Huddersfield with teammates and fans

We feel and experience, we don’t expect. There is a reward in that. Don’t believe me? Manchester City fans who are old enough to remember a time before oil bought the club, wrestle with this tension. If you asked one of these fans whether their recent success makes them more happy than watching them lose to York City in the second division back in 1998, you would expect the answer to be easy. But Karolyn Judge, a season ticket holder for 14 years, told the BBC in 2014 [2] that:

“It’s complicated. But, to be honest, I don’t think it does.”

Where does this leave us?

Admittedly, this is like calling the glass half full, whilst squinting and facing the other way. There are ways supporting a club like Fulham can affect us negatively, and I‘m sure you are well acquainted with them. But there are some upsides, and I sure as hell needed a win. You probably did too.

Here it is in a nutshell: Because we support Fulham, we feel the rapture of an unexpected win, as dopamine floods our systems. And we are being trained in the most cruellest of ways to become resilient. And resilience breeds success.

‘You know what makes a good loser? Practice.’

Ernest Hemingway.

Further Reading (If you’re still unconvinced):

[1] Reivich, K., & Shatté, A. (2002). The resilience factor: 7 essential skills for overcoming life’s inevitable obstacles. New York, NY, US: Broadway Books.

[2] https://www.bbc.com/sport/football/26704856