Why winning is everything

The entire world hangs in the balance when athletes clash on the sporting field  or, at least, that's what our bodies want us to think.

Illustration by Mary Parker

Illustration by Mary Parker

1.20pm, 17 September 2011. Manchester, England. I sit on the edge of my couch with dilated pupils, a racing heart and perspiring palms.

At 1.21pm, I slump back into the couch, suddenly feeling emasculated and disproportionately hungry. The events in Perth, Australia ‒ some 14,500km away ‒ have considerably altered my mindset and physiology.

My football team has just lost.

Both teams undoubtedly put a lot of effort into such a hard-fought match, but spare a thought for spectators like myself: watching a football match can be exhausting work. In fact, the emotional and hormonal experiences of players and spectators are surprisingly comparable, and may help explain why we feel so invested in sporting contests.

Spectator sport has never been more popular globally. Increasing media coverage and affordability of modern technology has given people across the socio-economic spectrum unprecedented access to live sport. More than 2.2 billion people watched the 2010 Football World Cup final on television.

However, sport at its heart is still a tribal pursuit. Following a sporting team is often linked to the region in which one resides, and the allegiances of family members. Sport is theorised as a vessel for inner pride, a regulated battle wherein citizens can find ‘evidence’ that their suburb (AFL: Carlton vs Collingwood), territory (NRL: New South Wales vs Queensland), nation (the Olympics) or religion (football in Glasgow, Scotland) is objectively strong, or at least superior to a rival.

 
Vicarious participation in sporting events is a massive business worldwide. Anthony Roderman/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Vicarious participation in sporting events is a massive business worldwide. Anthony Roderman/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

 

Sporting contests are routinely described as battles, duels or combats ‒ terms that evoke imagery of armed conflict. This line is often blurred and has been for decades, if not millennia. The 1956 Olympics in Melbourne saw the Hungarian water polo team fight literally and figuratively against the USSR line-up. This brutal match-up was seen worldwide as symbolic resistance to Russia’s attempted absorption of Hungary, and perhaps fans in each country internalised the nature and result of the newly televised contest.

A sporting result can affect the mood of a household, city, or even an entire country. Football defeats have been linked to increases in alcohol related criminality, car crashes (including fatalities), domestic violence and cardiac mortality across both sexes. In a seminal 1998 paper, Paul Bernhardt and colleagues wrote: "The mood of a community changes when its team wins or loses a game, and the mood of a nation changes when its army wins or loses a battle. Physiological factors in individuals, including changes in hormone levels, may affect these group phenomena."

These effects are exacerbated if the loss is narrow, inflicted by a rival, or a team deemed to have similar ability. Jeffrey Ely and colleagues argue that our interest in sport is largely driven by our intrinsic wish to be held in suspense prior to being surprised. This explains why a neutral supporter will often support an underdog or the trailing team, and why one-sided contests can be intolerably boring. It also explains why close games are always the most memorable and exciting, and why losing a close contest can be so devastating.

Most readers can probably cite at least one occasion when a sporting outcome affected their state of mind. If a team represents a facet of your persona that you hold dear, such as your passion for your university, then their result will affect your mood to a greater extent.

 
Sporting results can dramatically affect the mood of a community. Celso Flores/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Sporting results can dramatically affect the mood of a community. Celso Flores/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

 

Our emotional response to winning or losing ‒ whether it's shame, disgust, hope or pride  also affects our consumption of high-fat, caloric dense food. Sport has previously been compared to religion, offering “transcendence beyond the realities of everyday life.” Perhaps this religion needs to instil more regular fasting.

Although watching a sporting match is less energetically taxing than actually participating in one, many of the physiological changes are similar. As we prepare to play or watch sport, our bodies release bursts of cortisol and testosterone. These hormones support a performance boost in the athlete, and a preparatory buffer for potential stress in the fan. Cortisol is usually described as a stress hormone, but in reality plays a complex role mediating our secretion of adrenaline and the resultant fight, flight or freeze response. Strong sporting feats are most likely when there is appropriate relationship between stress and arousal ‒ that is, when pre-competition 'butterflies' are at a manageable degree which inspires rather than hinders.

When athletes perform, we see physiological changes in them, including perspiration, flushed complexion and heavy breathing. These physical markers can be exacerbated by unseen internal psychological factors, such as performance anxiety. Complex interplay between these variables makes research difficult, so we more commonly study athletes by measuring hormonal changes via pre- and post-competition saliva swabs.

 
Athletes rely on a cocktail of hormones to shape their performance. Agberto Guimaraes/Unsplash (CC0 1.0)

Athletes rely on a cocktail of hormones to shape their performance. Agberto Guimaraes/Unsplash (CC0 1.0)

 

Levels of testosterone are linked with sporting performance, with higher levels enabling growth of stronger muscles and sustained endurance. Testosterone is an androgen hormone, secreted from the testicles and ovaries. Although popular wisdom blames aggression in pubescent males on increased testosterone levels, research suggests that testosterone has a complex bi-directional relationship with human behaviour. That is, despite a long established correlation between aggression and elevated testosterone, proving causation is problematic.

Artificially increasing and honing the secretion of testosterone has been an infamous factor in world-class track and field, baseball and cycling performances. Anabolic androgen steroids support athletes to boost muscle mass and strength to a level deemed unsporting and illegal.

While testosterone levels can aid a strong performance, the relationship also works in the opposite direction. In one study involving semi-professional female soccer players, testosterone changes mirrored the direction of mood alterations. Winning teams reported high degrees of joy and confidence, and elevated testosterone levels. Losing teams experienced anxiety, depression, anger and fatigue, and a depletion in their testosterone stocks below the pre-match baseline. Given that testosterone increases strength, this drop in testosterone levels may go some way to explain the heavy limbs and physical numbness felt by players after a loss.

It might also be useful to think of sporting contests in an evolutionary context, akin to animals competing for a mate. A 2013 study found new complexities in the domino effect of testosterone and winning: in males, high testosterone levels following a win led to increased aggression. This may be an evolutionarily adaptive response. High hormone levels prior to competition allow athletes to ready themselves for a match ‒ so by keeping testosterone levels high, winning may beget winning.

Winners and losers undergo very different hormonal experiences. Dani Yako/Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

Winners and losers undergo very different hormonal experiences. Dani Yako/Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

It's not just players who go through this hormonal rollercoaster. Testosterone levels also diverge in sports fans who have just witnessed their team win or lose, particularly during a ‘grudge match.’ One study observed testosterone changes in Brazilian and Italian football fans watching their team compete in the 1994 World Cup final. Again, the match result predicted an increase in post-game testosterone in the 'winning' fans, and a decrease in the losers.

While athletes' physical changes can be observed as they exert aerobic energy, sporting fans also exhibit visible physical changes. During a tight contest, a fan's posture will tense as cortisol begins to flow freely. Long-time Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson succinctly described this phenomenon late in a close game as “squeaky-bum time.”

Linking the above is social psychologist Amy Cuddy, whose TED talk on body language and ‘the victory position’ has garnered over 34 million views. Cuddy contends that standing with a powerful posture can optimise our rate of testosterone and cortisol secretion.

 
 

Testosterone changes in individuals (both fans and athletes) are illuminating, and provide carrots for future researchers. Functional brain imaging (fMRI) is an ever-growing way to observe and understand people’s internal experience. A limitation of fMRI machines is their bulkiness, so at this stage our understanding of dynamic neuropsychology during a sporting contest is limited to spectators.

A 2009 study analysed the neural activity of sports fans as they witnessed their team winning or losing. Interestingly, the areas of the brain that ‘lit up’ most during a loss (right frontal lobe and right limbic lobe) are involved with emotional suppression. Emotional suppression also affects the hippocampus, altering our ability to form new memories. This helps explain why wins are so much more memorable than losses ‒ we have an inbuilt neural mechanism to forget negative experiences. This is a protective factor for those experiencing trauma, and possibly explains why perennially disappointed supporters continue to buy a membership each season.

Brain function in winning spectators was broader and more varied, with higher capacity for an emotional and physical response. Experiencing a winning moment activates the right and left occipital lobes, left temporal lobe, left limbic lobe, middle occipital gyrus, guneus and uncus. The occipital lobe’s primary function is vision, supporting strong visual memories. Activating the limbic lobe supports the secretion of dopamine and serotonin, which here act as joyous chemicals that consolidate the winning experience.

Left temporal activation suggests a compulsion to verbalise excitement, and goes some way to explain cheering, whistling and excited shouting. These lively areas of the brain collaborate to produce that winning feeling, when fans feel compelled to jump to their feet, cheer and vividly remember the occasion.

Jerry Seinfeld once complained that Americans are far too invested in sporting outcomes: "People come home from these games [saying] ‘We won! We won!’ No, they won, you watched.” Given the many similarities in the physical experiences of fans and athletes, perhaps that joke doesn’t quite acknowledge the full story.

Edited by Andrew Katsis and Ellie Michaelides