The Arizona Republic
Here’s how sports fans can handle COVID-19
The global spread of coronavirus has made planning impossible in the sports world: What league will be cancelled next? When will the games come back? And when they do finally play, will spectators be allowed in the stands?
It might seem like sports fans are uniquely positioned to deal with all this uncertainty, since that’s what the
games are built on. Turns out, it’s the opposite.
We, as fans, can be really, really bad at handling the unknown.
“It’s interesting … one of the things about uncertainty is that we have a lack of control in those situations,” psychologist Art Markman said. “We don’t like having a lack of control . ... This is actually one of the reasons why sports fans and athletes are so superstitious.”
‘We want to feel like we can do something’
Markman teaches at the University of Texas and studies reasoning, decision-making and motivation. He writes for Psychology Today and Fast Company, and he co-hosts an NPR radio show and podcast “Two Guys on Your Head,” which airs in Phoenix on KJZZ.
“We want to feel like we can do something to exert control,” he said. “So, you get sports fans who end up wearing the same jerseys in front of the TV every week -- because that’s the lucky jersey that’s going to help the team to win.”
The impulse affects ballplayers, too. “If you think about being a Major League Baseball player,” Markman said, “you’re having a Hall of Fame career if slightly over 3 times out of 10 that you get up to bat, you get on base. There’s a tremendous amount of randomness there, which leads to great behaviors like not stepping on the foul line or wearing your cap inside-out or not changing your underwear or whatever it is. In situations in which there’s a lot of uncertainty, we try to create behaviors to try to give ourselves more of a feeling of control.”
It means those of us who remember the grounder going through Bill Buckner’s legs or Buster Douglas knocking out Mike Tyson or Steve Bartman grabbing for that foul ball are especially likely to be struggling with the way COVID-19 has changed our world.
“Sports fans are in an interesting situation,” Markman said. “They exist in an environment where there’s a tremendous amount of uncertainty. But a lot of the behaviors that sports fans create are really poorly adapted to the situation that we’re in right now.”
We create rituals. We make predictions. And we try to find patterns where they don’t exist.
Think about it: What does the AFC’s record vs. the NFC in the Super Bowl have to do with the outcome of the next championship game? Absolutely nothing. But it’s a statistic we trot out every year in an attempt to predict a winner.
‘We’re in the life equivalent of a broken play’
What it comes down to is that we, as sports fans, are drawn to something we’re afraid of. It’s a pretty common impulse. It’s the same thing that drives people to ride roller coasters or watch horror movies: We’re trying to gain power over something terrifying.
If that’s the case, then there’s got to be a benefit.
Is there a way we can make use of all of these hours of intentional exposure to uncertainty through sports now that uncertainty is defining our world? Yes, Markman said.
We can seek out joy and opportunity in life the same way we do in sports – even as we’re following the advice of experts on protecting ourselves from a global pandemic that shut down everything from the NBA to the Olympics.
“This is a paradox,” Markman said. “A lot of us are thinking, ‘I just want to get this over with.’ But when your team is in the Super Bowl, you’re not sitting there thinking, ‘I just want to get this game over with.’ You want to actually enjoy the progress of it. You want to win in the end, but the experience matters, as well.”
In this case, enjoying the experience could mean watching boxing documentaries, reading baseball books and sharing old games with family.
We also could apply what we learned from Texas quarterback Vince Young’s game-winning scramble against USC in the 2006 Rose Bowl.
“In the same way that a quarterback might improvise a play and pull something out of nothing and change the course of a game, each of us has the chance to change the course of our lives in ways that are really difficult to do when everything is running as it’s supposed to,” Markman said. “The reason that broken plays in sports are so exciting to watch is that they become even more unpredictable … anything can happen.
“We’re in the life equivalent of a broken a play right now, which gives us the chance to be the equivalent of our favorite quarterback, improvising on the fly. If there’s something you want to change about your life … call an audible. Do something different.”