WEDNESDAY, June 16, 2010 (HealthDay News) -- If you can't wait to watch the U.S. soccer team take on Slovenia in its next World Cup match on Friday, know that being an avid sports fan may be more than just a lot of fun.
Scientists have shown that fans who feel personally invested in a team or, better yet, who attend games and cheer along with like-minded fans, reap the mental health benefits that come from a feeling of social connectedness.
"The main thing that people achieve via sports fanship is a sense of belongingness, or connectedness, with others," said Edward Hirt, a professor of psychological and brain sciences at Indiana University. "Sharing a common allegiance with others bonds people together in a special way. We can relate to others who share fanship with our team and feel a camaraderie with them that transcends ourselves."
That's a feeling Monty Rodrigues knows well. The New Hampshire-based financial analyst has season tickets for the New England Revolution soccer club. As president of the Midnight Riders, the team's fan club, he organizes pre-game tailgates and group activities that have raised $25,000 for charitable causes.
Along with friends he's made through the World Cup, he was in South Africa to watch the United States tie England on Saturday.
"In soccer, the fans are singing, drumming, jumping around. You feel like you're a part of the team," Rodrigues said. "I've met so many good friends through being a soccer fan. Some I see at Revolution games. Some I see at the World Cup. We'll pick a bar to meet up in, have a beer and celebrate friendships made because of the sport itself."
And as any sports fan can tell you, being a fan feels even better when the team wins or, in the case of the U.S. soccer team, surprises the world by tying with the heavily favored England. Other research suggests fans of winning teams can actually feel better about themselves after a big game due to the phenomenon of "reflected glory."
In the 1990s, Hirt showed ardent fans of Indiana University's basketball team pictures of attractive members of the opposite sex and asked them to rate their ability to get a date. After their team won, both men and women who were devoted fans were more optimistic about their likelihood of scoring a date. They also had a higher opinion of their ability to do well at tasks such as throwing darts, shooting free throws, solving word games and even rolling dice.
"The 'basking in reflected glory' notion states that people can elevate their self-esteem in the eyes of themselves and others by their association with successful others, " Hirt said. "Because the team's success reflects positively on its fans, sports fans feel better about themselves when their team does well."
There may even by a physiological reason for that boost in confidence. One study found testosterone levels in men rise after a victory and fall after a defeat, said Paul Bernhardt, an assistant professor of psychology at Frostburg State University in Maryland who was involved with the research as a student.
Bernhardt and another researcher took saliva samples from Italian and Brazilian men in sports bars before and after the two teams played one another in the 1994 World Cup. After the Brazilians won, the testosterone levels of their fans rose more than 20 percent, while the Italian fans' levels dropped more than 20 percent.
They had similar findings when they did the test among college students before and after a University of Georgia vs. Georgia Tech basketball game.
"It was a remarkable finding," Bernhardt said. "We know fans have a strong sense of personal investment in teams they're following. That's the nature of fanship -- the sense of personal connection and self- identification with the team."
"We see it even in chess matches," he added. "It's about a change in status. 'I am now higher in the social hierarchy than I was before.'"
Though reflected glory explains why the stands are full for winning teams, it doesn't explain diehard fanship, or people who stick by their team even after lengthy losing streaks.
That, Hirt says, is better explained by the kinship offered by being a true, time-tested fan.
"We watch games with others, celebrating our team's successes, but also commiserating over our team's defeats," Hirt said. "I think that fans take a perverse pride in their loyalty, and see it as a badge of honor to suffer through the tough times of their team's mediocrity or failure; doing so makes one feel like a 'true fan' and one that deserves to revel in the team's successes, unlike those fair-weather fans."
As the World Cup continues, sports fans have been lining up at 4 a.m. to get into Nevada Smiths, a New York City sports bar that brags that it is a place, "Where Football is Religion." Jack Keane, director of the pub's football (as in the British name for soccer) program, expects to have more than 100,000 people come through its doors to watch their favorite team during the World Cup.
"It's like a train station of nationalities, different creeds, different colors, different languages, all united by their love of football," Keane said.
For many sports fans, whether it is soccer, football or baseball, being a fan is also part of a family's identity, a tradition passed down from generation to generation, Keane said.
"If you've ever been in a stadium with 100,000 people watching a team that you or your family has grown up supporting, it's like a religious experience," Keane said. "People tell me they get more joy from watching a match in here with other fans than they do out of any other social activity."
Here's everything you wanted to know about the the U.S. soccer team's journey through the World Cup, from the U.S. Diplomatic Mission to South Africa.