Dwyane Wade, Joe Johnson, and Mike Bibby. What do these NBA stars all have in common, besides the fact that they are all guards?
You guessed it - according to their Nike advertisements, it's their love for the game of basketball - they love it irrationally and unconditionally - meaning independently of other benefits.
As an enthusiastic spectator of many sports and player of one or two (I captained the US squash team in its inaugaural foray into the Pan American games), I enjoy seeing the dedication of athletes and am always amazed by the sweat and tears left on the court and in the stands afterwards. So, why do fans get so wrapped up in the team's performance?
We talked about the science of this on the YOU The Owner's Manual Radio Show
during the 11-24-2012 program...but here's the summary: What fuels an athlete to give 110% effort is more than making bank, or being famous. The fame and cash flow aren't too shabby for many of the professionals, but we all know that money can't always buy happiness.
Whether athletes are playing under the spotlight or at the neighborhood courts, sports competitions trigger the release of something much deeper to humans - oxytocin, the love or cuddle hormone that's released by couples in love and by mom's in tremendous amounts during early bonding with their newborns.
According to this study in the Journal of Sports Science
, love for the game and love of the team results from the athletes' and spectators' brain releasing chemicals (yup a large amount of that cuddle hormone oxytocin) after a victory pump, and the positive emotions caused by and from that pump. Tears...maybe the inverse (Ah, the Brown's stadium was the house of pain—hopefully we are over that).
Oxytocin is released in response (as we mentioned above - we know we are repeating) to an orgasm, new romance, childbirth, and, now we know, apparently during the fist bumps and triumphs of sports competitions. Oxytocin promotes bonding while stimulating positive emotions and feelings of connectedness.
Oxytocin is released especially for athletes after successes; the combined release further enhances team performance (and spectators further enhance it—no wonder you see some jump into the arms of joyous fans—the players haven't had beers, just oxytocin) .
In the 2010 study, researchers watched replays of a multitude of penalty shootouts from the World Cup and European Championship games. When players celebrated a goal, by throwing their hands up in the air, the teammate next in line was more likely to also shoot successfully. This release of oxytocin which appears to be contagious, causing a transfer of happy emotions from player to player, and even to fans.
This provides a scientific explanation for the "Bro hug" that hockey player's exchange after scoring a goal. Skating to the middle of the ice allows the players to briefly celebrate and bond as teammates (and fans to bond with their team in cuddly joy).
Those husky linebackers and gigantic basketball players may be more emotional than we thought. Sports and emotions go hand-in-hand and we know the release of oxytocin and emotions can seriously benefit for athletes.
While the burst of oxytocin doesn't cause players to walk off the court holding hands, they share intangible feelings of connectedness. This effect presents many benefits for teams such as enhanced interpersonal trust, social motivation, emotional recognition, cooperation, and better performance.
Findings from a recent study that looked at oxytocin and loyalty in marriage can be applied to athletes with the thought that the release of oxytocin may also enhance an athlete's loyalty to the letters on the front of the jersey.
Oxytocin promotes a man's loyalty to his woman. Men in monogamous relationships, who took a whiff of oxytocin, chose to stand further away from an attractive woman that they had just met. If these results hold true in sports, the level of oxytocin released by individual athletes may play a role in how loyal an athlete is to their team.
One thing is certain for us Cleveland Cavs fans, Lebron James must have very low levels of oxytocin.
To increase bursts of oxytocin, athletes are encouraged to celebrate after a big goal or touchdown. Next time, put those hands in the air after a G-O-A-L and encourage athletes to briefly celebrate achievements. It boosts connectedness and hopefully a 'W' for us Cleveland home team devotees.