Fans who are ‘fused’ with their team are more likely to experience intense – potentially dangerous – levels of stress while watching live football.
Football fans around the world know the strong emotions brought on by watching their teams on match day, but particularly zealous fans are more at risk of experiencing dangerous levels of the ‘fight or flight’ hormone cortisol, commonly associated with stress. Researchers at the University of Oxford have now verified a scientific link between fans’ intense group bonding with their team and levels of cortisol (stress hormone) while they watch football.
‘Fans who are strongly fused with their team – that is, have a strong sense of being ‘one’ with their team – experience the greatest physiological stress response when watching a match,’ says Dr Martha Newson, researcher at the Centre for the Study of Social Cohesion, University of Oxford. ‘Fans who are more casual supporters also experience stress, but not so extremely.’ This study was published in the journal Stress and Health.
The study was conducted with Brazilian spectators during the 2014 World Cup, hosted in Brazil. The fans’ saliva was collected before, during and after matches, including Brazil’s historic semi-final loss (1 – 7) to Germany. ‘Cortisol rocketed during live games for the fans who were highly fused to the team,’ says Newson. ‘It was particularly high during games where their team lost.
‘Interestingly, there were no differences in cortisol concentrations between men and women. Despite preconceptions that men tend to be more bonded to their football teams, women were in fact found to be slightly more bonded to their national team than the men.’
‘This study has shown how people who are highly bonded to their football teams (and likely any other group identity) have a unique psycho-physiological profiles,’ says Newson. This can be seen in the well-known antics of football fans, from ritualised chanting and singing through to violence. ‘We can clearly see where these reactions are coming from, due to their surge in cortisol during a match compared to fans who merely support their team, but are not fused with them.’
There are many health conditions tied to extreme stress that hardcore football fans should be aware of. While cortisol is essential to responding to life’s daily stresses, too much cortisol over time can result in a supressed immune system (more coughs and colds and even allergies), weight gain, and heightened blood pressure with a significant risk of heart disease. Indeed, previous research has established an increase in heart attacks among fans on important match days, at both the regional and national level. ‘From our research, we may be better equipped to identify which fans are most at risk of heart attacks,’ says Newson. ‘Clubs may be able to offer heart screenings or other health measures to highly committed fans who are at the greatest risk of experiencing increased stress during the game.’
The findings could also be relevant to improving crowd management strategies. ‘Strategies that aim to reduce stress hormones following particularly intense matches could help reduce incidents of hooliganism and violence,’ says Newson.