The Emotional Side of Sports
I looked around at the pitch: the enormous field was empty except for a few kids and parents in the stands. Our team was dead last, with no chance of getting anywhere close to a playoff position, but we all still showed up. The massacre started and couldn’t be stopped. We were down 10-0 by the half. The second half went down the same road. After every goal, I would kick the ball back to the start and look up at the stands. Our parents could barely watch. I remember thinking what am I doing here? This is embarrassing. I need this to be over. Why do we even play for this team if we suck so much? This process was exhausting. It went up to 21-0. We then went to shake hands. Everything was normal until one of the players from the other team called one of my players a “faggot and a pussy.” That wasn’t a good idea. Half my team started a fist fight against not only the players of the other team, but also their coach. While this was happening, the other half of my team were shooting the ball on net.
I didn’t want to participate in either of these things. I had been on that team for less than a year and didn’t know the players very well. I’ve played sports before but I had never seen something like this. I sat on the bench and just watched: on one side, my teammates were punching kids in the face, while on the other side, exhausted players were running around and practicing as if nothing happened. I wondered why I would come here every Saturday morning instead of sleeping in and watching cartoons. Also, why they were doing this after such a terrible loss: fighting on one side and practicing on the other. It was at that moment that I realized what a sport really is.
The players on my team were not fighting to get revenge from the other team for making them look like fools or to stay fit. They were doing this because they needed the feeling they get when they play. Playing on the soccer field on every Saturday morning was everything to them because it would make them feel happy. Because it was such a big loss, my players did not feel that. The two events after that took place to replace the feelings that they didn’t have during the game. The feelings they had can be traced to the chemical reactions going on in the human brain. There are many things they felt every game that they played that made this game so important to them.
One of the reasons why sports are important in people’s lives is that it is a way to forget about pain or anything negative. “Sports can be an outlet to relieve stress, and contribute to physical and mental well-being.” (As stated by Dr. Chiarappa, a psychologist at Santa Cabrini hospital) Playing a sport can relieve someone of the stress or tensions they went through during the week. It was a way for the players on my team to play a sport and to clear their minds of everything except for the sole thought of playing their hardest to win the game. I had not been affected by this because I hadn’t seen things like them yet. After that experience, however, I started to change: I played for 6 seasons with that team and we still hadn’t won many games, but my motivation to go play just kept getting greater. This made me try even harder to get better and get more playing time, even though I would still walk onto that pitch knowing there’s a high chance that we were going to lose. From a study done in the U.S., it was proven that “children [not involved in sports] often experience a diminished quality of life, decreased self-confidence, and social discrimination.”(4) People, especially young teens, feel this way because of the positive emotions felt in the brain while playing sports. The chemical “dopamine is responsible for reward-driven behavior and pleasure seeking.”(5) When a goal is scored or a game is won, this chemical is released in the brain and in simple terms, makes you feel really good about yourself. This chemical contributed to the happiness my teammates felt that made them want more.
Sports for the players on my team had an even deeper signification: they saw each other as family. That team had been together for a while and everyone knew each other very well: almost like brothers. Playing together twice a week, every week, for many years with the same kids created a strong bond between them. It seemed that playing together was a family away from home where everyone cared about each other. This created an even larger happiness because they were not alone; they were playing alongside each other. An example of this is with children who live in poverty. This was described by Paul De Knob and Marc Theeboom: Some underprivileged kids don’t have families that they can be close to because of poverty. Sports, like the players on my team, can be a family away from home for them. We see this sense of unity with the captains of international sports teams around the world. An example is Javier Zanetti from soccer team Inter Milan: after 19 years with that team, he gave an emotional farewell to thousands of fans who will always see him as a hero.(8) When someone feels a sense of attachment to something, certain chemicals are released in the brain. Two of these chemicals are “oxytocin and vasopressin [which] are highly conserved neuropeptides that play a key role in social attachment and affiliation.”(3) These hormones are “associated with feelings of calm, comfort and security” (Dr. Chiarappa) and that is why being in this type of environment, for the players on my team, was so satisfying.
A third reason why sports are important to young teens is that it is a way to be in control. Before 18 years old, most people are within complete control of their parents and of their teachers at school. They are told when to eat, what homework to do, what classes to take and sometimes what clothes to wear. Playing a sport relies solely on the players on the field and what’s going on in their heads. They are finally given the choice to do whatever they please. They can listen to the advice given to them or not, they can shoot or pass, they can be prepared or not, they can ultimately decide the outcome of the game. This is one of the first times in someone’s life that they can be in complete control. This sense of confidence and control is felt when the brain releases the chemical serotonin. This is released in the brain after an electrical impulse “controlling different aspects of physiology, including… social behavior”(6) This is another thing that the players on my team felt when playing. A lot of the players on my team did not enjoy going to school or listening to what their parents wanted them to do. Most of them were the “bad kids” in the class and were always told they were wrong. Soccer was a way for them to finally be in control of their lives. THEY decided what was right or wrong and what to do in a situation. That’s why they loved it!
The outcomes of the games affected them a lot: they hated losing. “Losing or failing to achieve one’s goals can result in feelings of frustration, unhappiness or even feelings of shame and guilt,” but I feel that this just gave them more motivation. (Dr. Chiarappa) It gave them a reason to be in control: to finally win some games; and we did. Those games that we won felt amazing because of how much work we put into them.
Towards the end, I changed: I wasn’t the guy on the bench watching anymore. When there was a fight on the field or a loose ball, I was there, fighting for it. I was the guy that would tell my coach not to worry (he always was) and the guy to encourage the newcomers. I became them.
After a large number of years with that team, I switched to another team because of my living conditions. My new team faced off against that team and we were winning by a lot. After one goal, I remember picking up the goalie from my old team, who looked completely discouraged, and I gave him a pat on the back.