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The 'L' Word

August 24, 2006 By:
Frank Rosci, JE Feature
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Frank Rosci Jewish Exponent Feature So, your favorite sports team just dropped another one, latest in a seemingly endless string of losses. And, a few months back, another team on your "A" list did the same. And before that a similar scenario played out with another of your chosen teams in a different sport.

For Philly fans, life through the sports' seasons can be stressful -- well beyond normal levels of on-the-sidelines anxiety -- month after frustrating month, when free-falling Phillies, faltering Flyers, sinking Sixers and eroding Eagles emerge more often than not from the shining chrysalis of glowing pre-season promise.

Such times aren't happy days, obviously, for any fan whose special teams lose more than they win, a situation compounded by losing the big game (a circumstance that's well-known by Philly fans), that once-in-a-lifetime chance to deliver and be delivered from the lousy legacy of long-time losing.

Aside from the heavy burden of dashed expectations, of living and dying with a team's fortunes, from a Philly fan's admittedly slanted and ultra-demanding point of view -- with bragging and other rights at stake -- what effects, bad and possibly good, does all of the losing have on a loyal follower's physical and mental health?

Feels Good, Right?
"Winning has that 'life is good' feeling to it. Losing doesn't. How a fan is defined is the key issue," stated Michael L. Sachs, Ph.D., professor, department of kinesiology, Temple University.

"In the Delaware Valley, there are casual fans who feel good about teams and the city they represent, and are disappointed when a team loses, but it's momentary because they view games as entertainment and realize pro athletes are part of that," he explained.

On the other side of the team-sports fence, Sachs continued, there is the passionate fan, "who spends his or her leisure time thinking about the team, reading about it, going to games and so on, who gets very high when the team wins and very low when it loses."

This can be tied to how dedicated a team is to its community, he noted. Certain teams, such as the Eagles, Green Bay Packers and Boston Red Sox, have more of a connection with their cities and fans, so, naturally, their fans are more passionate about winning and losing.

Family Business
Families of passionate fans can become involved in the process, too, through tailgating, for example, and other team-related activities, including pep rallies. When this happens, the effects of winning and losing become more pronounced and more important to these fans since so much of their lives revolves around either one or more teams, he said.

"I'd say 99.9 percent of fans are okay with losing. But there is that small percentage who carry a loss with them for a long time, like those who still bleed Eagles' green because of their Super Bowl loss.

"These fans might engage in something as extreme as spousal abuse. For them, it's an anger management problem reflected in allegiance to a team. But it could be anything that could set them off, not just a loss by a certain team," he said.

Players, too, can be affected by losing, of course, which may have been a contributing factor in the alleged public physical assault by Phillies' pitcher Brett Myers against his wife in Boston recently.

"For a select few, at the extreme end of the continuum, losing could be the path to depression," he added. "The best way to handle losing is to keep things in perspective. Take a few minutes, take an hour to feel down after a loss, then let it go. Enjoy the spectacle but get back to life's more important things," Sachs suggested.

The only benefit of losing over an extended period of time, he theorized, is that "we are moved away from obsession to that balance between 'fandom' and the rest of our lives, something we should be able to achieve without losing, but losing does 'help.' Also, the casual fan will be less likely to think 'this is the year,' and more hesitant to give his or her heart and soul to a losing team."

Winning and losing are like mood swings, remarked Hal Hockfield, M.D., an internist on staff at Abington Memorial Hospital and a member of Abington Medical Plaza Associates.

"Mood is definitely affected by how a team does. It's healthy and exciting to watch a team when it's winning; it hurts when it loses, but how a person reacts has a lot to do with personality, with a small majority of fans going off the deep end.

"Sports is just an outlet for people's tension, most of whom live busy, intense lives. Philly fans just want a winner."

Cory F. Newman, Ph.D., director, Center for Cognitive Therapy, associate professor of psychology, University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, is a sports fan and starting center fielder, who bats second for Kol Ami's softball team in the Delaware Valley Synagogue Softball League.

"There is no doubt that many people take sports very, very seriously -- to the point of losing perspective," he said. "We see this, for example, when winning becomes a 'justification' to taunt, belittle and harass the losing team and its fans, when a parent of a junior player assaults a referee, umpire or the parent of another junior player, when people riot in the streets on the night of a championship game, and when there is a spike in the rate of suicides in a country after a World Cup [soccer] loss.

"This is the ugly side of sports fanaticism, and it certainly represents 'poor health,' " he said.

His advice to fragile fans? "When a team loses, it hurts, but it's also part of life. You invest your heart and soul in something, and you work at the relationship, and you hope it succeeds.

"But if things don't go easily, you have to take it in stride and stay supportive; otherwise the relationship will fracture, which is not good for anyone."  

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