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Connection, camaraderie and belonging: why the Matildas could be making you a sports fan for the very first time

Soccer ball, players and net

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Sarah Tillott, Diarmuid Hurley
Published
16 August 2023

With over seven million Australians hooked onto the world cup viewing, many who have never really been interested in sports have recently found themselves screaming at the TV, cheering in pubs and hugging complete strangers.

Have you found yourself in this new legion of sports fans, and wondering how you got here?

It is likely down to many factors. There is of course the incredible talent on display, the kindness players are showing on and off the field, and women and girls relating to players who look like them.

But it is also to do with the visibility and exposure of the game; the influence of our families and friends; the ways we are hardwired for connection; and the addictive nature of neurotransmitters.

Like many Australians, we will be sure to not miss tonight’s game when Australia plays England in the semifinal – but first, here’s a look at all of these new emotions you may be experiencing.

 

The social contagion

With Australia as a host nation – and the incredible success of the Matildas – there has never been more visibility and focus on women’s football in Australia.

Positive emotions and behaviours are contagious. Psychologists refer to “emotional contagion” or “social contagion”, which describes how emotions, attitudes and behaviours spread through groups and crowds.

In general, people just want to feel good! We enhance that feeling by forming positive social connections with other humans, sharing in a common experience, having a common goal and putting aside our differences.

Being on the same side means we have something to share and celebrate in and, more importantly, someone to do it with.

You’re likely feeling like you are part of something greater, and that has us all reaching for more by getting together to watch the next game.

 

Another reason you might find yourself getting behind the world cup is everyone loves a good story – and this competition has them in spades.

This world cup has had its share of ups and downs: superstar Sam Kerr’s injury; the crushing low of defeat to Nigeria; the high of the must-win-game against Canada; the electric edge-of-your-seat drama of the penalty shootout against France.

We all share in these highs and lows.

Sports can help create positive social cohesion by bringing people together. There is something very comforting about winning or losing as a group - whatever the result, we aren’t doing it alone!

Sports breaks down barriers, forms pro-social bonds and helps people unite through a common goal. We get lost and escape into a world of togetherness, which feels great!

The ability to laugh, cry or hold hands with people (both strangers and friends) in nervous moments is felt deep in our body. It is undeniable, palpable and reinforces our connectivity. These heightened emotions fast track our sense of belonging to a group.

Meanwhile, there is something very primitive going on deep in the brain that may explain this phenomenon.

 

Our brains are wired to work in groups or tribes. Historically, working together towards a common goal improved our ability to survive.

In a contemporary setting, when we belong to groups we unite through the notion of achieving a common vision. The “self” blends with the social. We evaluate our environment and look for links of commonality to achieve social harmony.

This comes back to the notion of feeling good. When you are sharing a sporting event – watching together or talking about it after – you are sharing a safe space you can relate, engage and belong to.

Shared experiences

The reality of what sports can do to unite and change the way we connect is palpable through this world cup.

We are all sharing a common experience which enables us to talk to complete strangers at the bus stop, on the train and when we are ordering our coffees at the local café.

This shared experience enables us the confidence to strike up new conversations: sharing our pride, our fears and our emotions.

 

We fast track our connections with people through sharing our vulnerabilities. Connections that could generally take years to form are happening in seconds. The moments to form those connections are more frequent as the success of our team continues.

Matilda’s defender Claire Hunt spoke of the collective belief the team has in their abilities. This collective belief has spread out from the team and their diehard supporters to become a source of national pride.

We belong

Sports creates a connection to something greater than yourself, an ability to ride the highs and lows of a team as you journey with them for the entire match!

Notice the feeling of your heart beating through your chest (and that feedback coming through your smart watch as the high pulse rate alert is screaming at you!); feeling like you want to vomit and cry from the anticipation; the tensing of your muscles during every attempt at goal.

Through Australia’s collective love, support and excitement behind the Matildas, we are in the process of forming our identity and becoming part of a family.

We relate to people, we connect to people, we belong.

 

These feelings have powerful effects on our wellbeing. Belonging enhances self-esteem, improves psychological and behavioural functioning, and improves the quality and meaning of our lives.

As our energy starts to rise, we begin to release positive endorphins such as serotonin, dopamine and adrenaline. Dopamine enhances our feelings of pleasure, satisfaction and motivation. Adrenaline makes you feel alive. These neurotransmitters increase our sense of wellbeing.

They are addictive and we are left feeling that we want more.

Even as a newly minted fan, you are now part of the Matilda’s family and they’re counting on the Aussie social contagion to push through those cramping muscles, tired bodies and sweaty palms.

You are about to be a part of history and those neurotransmitters won’t want to miss it for the world!The Conversation

Sarah Tillott, Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Health, Southern Cross University and Diarmuid Hurley, Lecturer, Faculty of Health, Southern Cross University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Media contact

Sharlene King, Media Office at Southern Cross University +61 429 661 349 or [email protected]