Fans may not express it this way, but watching their favorite teams in action can result, for better or for worse, in a level of emotional engagement rarely present in their daily lives. We’ve long recognized sports contests to be outlets for feelings otherwise kept under wraps, but rarely have we described situations when the game actually produces those moments of almost unbearable intensity. Let’s fill in some of the blanks here with situations (typically when the game is on the line) which every sports fan will recognize and relish (at least in retrospect).
Your team is clinging to a one goal lead with a minute and a half to go. The other side has pulled the goalie and is swarming into “your” zone, desperate to score. The deafening roar of the fans, all on their feet, makes conversation impossible anywhere in the jam-packed arena. Players on the attack move the puck around rapidly and with precision, hoping to get their opponents out of position, thus opening a flight path to the goalie. The defense is on maximum alert, flashing to the puck, attempting to dislodge it, hurling their bodies and diving to the ice, to discourage or block shots. The attackers are artful and clever, able, despite repeated body checks, to maintain possession. Suddenly there’s the crash of a slap shot, the puck rocketing in from just inside the blue line. It’s knocked down in front and followed by a wild mass scramble, players sprawled across the ice. Your guys try desperately to get their sticks on the puck and send it down the ice, to relieve, for a few moments at least, the pressure. But they cannot and it’s back to a shooting gallery. How long can your team hold out, stand up to the onslaught? And what about you? Watching at home you probably at this point have gotten to your feet, moved closer to the TV, started breathing irregularly. The clock can’t seem to move quickly enough. Your guys are under siege. Can they hang on? Whatever the outcome you know you’ve been to a place non-sports fans never enter.
Your team’s down by five points. It’s fourth and goal from the three yard line with but a few seconds remaining as your guys break the huddle and head for the line. It’s do or die. Opposition players have pinched into the middle; a quarterback sneak probably won’t do it. A draw play? Pitchout? Quarterback option? Reverse? A fade pass to the corner of the end zone? Any of them might work, but which to call. After all that’s happened on the field, it’s come down to this one play. Your quarterback checks the defense and starts barking out signals. You’re holding your breath, gripping the sides of your chair, ready to scream in pure joy or collapse into despair.
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Or your pitcher has the bases loaded with two out in the bottom of the ninth, your team up by one, but the count at three and one. In such situations time slows almost to a halt. No one is in a rush. The stadium is alive – electric. The pitcher asks his catcher to come out to the mound to go over the signals. The batter steps out of the box. The runner on third decides to consult with his coach nearby. Neither are fans in any hurry, fearing what the next pitch might bring. The situation is excruciating.
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Finally, let’s consider a basketball game in which time has run out, with your team trailing by a point. The game is not over, however. That’s because your guy has been fouled in the act of shooting just before the buzzer. He has two shots coming to him. If he makes them both, you win. One basket brings a tie and over time. Overall, he’s a 75% foul shooter. How he can perform under such extraordinary pressure you’ve no idea. You can’t even bear to look, but you do. His first shot rattles around the rim and spins out. You slump back in your chair. At best he can tie it up. This time you can’t watch. Rather you listen for the crowd’s reaction. You’ll know.
Just reading these scenarios might prompt many a sports fan to tense up and experience accelerated heartbeats. They know well that when such moments actually occur, emotional turmoil is unavoidable – overwhelming feelings of desperation, dread, exhilaration and relief swirl about and will likely last well beyond game’s end.