View from the terraces, The

view from the terraces, The

Pringle, Alan

Football therapy

Research into the causes of mental illness abounds. Thoughts on how to promote good mental helth – even defining it – are harder to come by. Alan Pringle’s research into the benefits of belonging to a football club and following its fortunes offers insights into this question

Football supporters, by and large, continue to receive a very negative presentation from the media and much of the research done into football and football fans has focused on negative aspects of supporters’ behaviour. Examples include Williams’s (1992) studies of racism in football and Dunning Murphy and Williams’ studies around hooliganism (1988). This focus on the negative elements occurs despite the fact that for every fan in trouble, hundreds of thousands appear to derive pleasure and benefit from attending matches. As an example of this, Fig 1 outlines the number of people arrested in England and Wales in football related-incidents and the number who attended matches in the 2000-2001 season.


Supporting a football club and watching the game live is essentially an experience in group participation. Whether the crowd is 20 people watching a Sunday league game at a local public park, or 68,000 watching Manchester United at Old Trafford, the emotions and passions appear to have similarities running through them. These are often around identification and inclusion within a group and the sometimes cathartic behaviours this encourages. Argyle (1996) claimed that attending a sports event is closely linked to identification and inclusion within a group and that identification with both the players as people and the club as an entity appear important.

Zillman and Paulus (1993) echo this idea. They suggest that the defining characteristic that separates fans from mere spectators is the formation of alliances whereby fans `perceive themselves as members of a tacitly existing group to which the objects of their fandom belong’ (p 604).

Previous research has attempted to link football to health. This has included a study which found a significant increase in mortality from coronary heart disease and stroke in a population of Dutch men aged 45 years or over on the day the Dutch team was eliminated by the French during the 1996 European football championship. It compared mortality during the five days before and after the match (Witte et al, 2000).

Masterton and Mander’s study (1990) at the Department of Psychological Medicine, Royal Infirmary, Edinburgh showed reductions in emergency psychiatric presentations to hospital occurred during and after the finals of the World Cup.

The study

This study explores the link between attending football and the possible impact on mental health for supporters of Mansfield Town (`the Stags’) a small club in the third division of the Football League. Defining what a state of mental health actually is, can, of course, prove problematic. Clare (1980) notes that the concept of defining mental health and mental illness `appears to permit a bewildering number of interpretations’. He observes that even as far back as the 1950s the question of definitions around mental health and illness led Lewis to state that ‘anyone who has reflected upon the many definitions of health, and mental health in particular, will conclude that there is no consensus’.

Herron and Mortimer (1999) attempted to define mental health from the point of view of lay perspectives rather than professional definitions. What emerged as the key components is seen in figure 2.

The study aims to discover whether supporting a club can help develop some of these components in a positive way.

The fans

Mansfield is a community of 103,000 people and many of the elements, which contribute towards social exclusion, are very clearly in evidence locally Like many towns in the Nottinghamshire coalfield area, it has changed dramatically since the collapse of the mining industry. Recent figures (Mansfield District Council, 2000) show the town to be the most deprived local authority in Nottinghamshire with a higher crime rate than the rest of the county, with a higher than national average figure for unemployment, low wages and a higher than average mortality rate.

The process

For the present study, a three phase system was used consisting of diaries, interviews and questionnaire. The diaries were used to gather data and analysed to find and develop themes. These themes form the basis of follow up, semi-structured, interviews with the fans to refine and clarify the concepts raised through the diary study.

The fans were recruited through the club’s website and in response to articles in the media. Diaries covering nearly 40 matches throughout the season have been collected and analysed and some distinct themes have begun to come through which reflect the variety of experiences and emotions which watching a club like Mansfield can produce. These have included: A sense of belonging, a sense of pessimism; a sense of hope; a sense of frustration and increased levels of positive mood.

A sense of belonging

Coming through strongly in the diaries is a sense of how important friendship is to fans. Most of the diaries describe how for many fans talking about the match beforehand is an important part of the whole experience. The fans articulated this sense of community in their diary entries. Which diary the entry appeared in is denoted by the brackets after the entry.

‘…it’s like when you’re at a great party, everybody wants to talk at once'(D3)

‘…laughed at the banter going around'(D5)

‘ I enjoy the comradeship of going to the match'(D9)

‘…spoke to several people I used to sit next to last season before ground redevelopment, now we sit in different parts’ (D15)

The fans outlined that before during and after a match `the chat’ was a crucial element. Nearly all of the diaries commented on the importance of attending the game with other people to generate the feeling of being a part of something big. Who people went to the match with varied a lot throughout the diaries.

…met the usual suspects in the pub'(D21)

…went to the ground with four OAPs'(D6)

‘…chatted with my daughter'(D16)

….talked to other fans I met at the bar'(D26)

Most fans described watching the game as essentially a social event which continued in many cases after the game itself. The game and the club remained, for many, the important focus of the experience even hours after the match had finished.

‘…talked to friends about other Stags games but this was definitely one of the best'(DlO)

…went to the pub and discussed the game'(D24)

`Even though we lost, it was good to catch up with my mates afterwards'(D14)

This sense of belonging to a group was brought into sharp focus in one diary in which the fan ended up sitting alone.

`The crowd were quite noisy but I felt that I could not shout, as being on my own I felt more self-conscious’ (D15)

A sense of pessimism

Research by Madrigal (1995) suggests that some of the attraction of leisure activities like sports events (where the outcome is not predictable) as opposed to cinema or theatre (where the outcome is a foregone conclusion) must generate a sense of anxiety for those watching. This anxiety was visible in the sense of pessimism that characterised some parts of the diaries. Although pessimism may be viewed, in some contexts, as a negative emotion in this context it did clearly help bind the fans together.

A belief that Mansfield Town are a club who can snatch defeat from the jaws of victory clearly comes through in the diaries. Even when things were going very well there was still a sense that the team could blow it at the last minute. This was encapsulated in such entries as

`you always think the bubble is going to burst soon'(D3)

‘…felt disappointed because my earlier optimism had diminished'(D18) ‘…a bad omen as I believe that

Stags always underachieve against poor opposition’ (D9)

‘I really should have more faith but you know what Stags are like ‘(D5)

`Had a bad feeling that York would score – they did'(D15)

This pessimism clearly had an almost unifying effect on the fans. The shared belief that it would all go horribly wrong appeared to unite the fans in the face of almost inevitable disaster. In the end it did come down to the final game of the season to determine whether Mansfield were promoted to the second Division or not. As the season progressed and things went well for the club a sense of hope that this could be the Stags’ year began to come through strongly.

The anxiety generated through hope, however, also leads to ritual behaviour. Football rituals of fans will be explored further in the next part of the study which took place over the summer months.

A sense of hope

In a strange way the pessimism acted as a protection for the fans. It was almost as if by refusing to believe they could really do well, they were protected against any disappointment that failure might bring. Research by Branscombe and Wann (1991) describes this under the term of CORF (cutting off reflected failure) which they found in fans of American sports.

For Stags fans overall, however, this was overcome by a much greater sense of hope which began to run through the diaries. Branscombe and Wann (1991) go on to describe the opposite of CORF as BIRG (basking in reflected glory) and suggest that this generates a real sense of optimism and positiveness. ‘BIR.Ging, they suggest actually improves mood in both individuals and communities. This BIRG effect began to appear in diaries through such entries as:

`If they can play this badly and still get results, then promotion is a real possibility'(D5)

`I’m beginning to believe that we may actually stand a good chance of promotion this year’ (D24)

`Positive feelings about our chances of getting promoted’ (D16)

`This year Stags really could get promoted, but even greater success would be to get promoted and stay there'(D11)

In some ways, this optimism and hope served, however, to increase the sense of frustration fans felt when things did not always go according to plan. The ability to share feelings of both pessimism and hope suggested the presence of the social acceptance and support which Herron and Mortimer (2000) identified as important for the maintenance of mental health

A sense of frustration

The frustration felt by fans that comes through in the diaries is frequently generated by the gap between what the fan feels the team are actually capable of and what is actually produced. Entries which specifically described this frustration included:

…frustrated that Stags were unable to beat a team with little imagination who played so negatively’ (D22)

…frustration and despair that we were going to get nothing from this game’ (D9)

`Pissed off when Shrewsbury scored an easy goal which should have been saved'(D12)

Not all of the frustration was kept for the team however. Some, as might be expected, was saved for the referee.

‘…shouted at the terrible refereeing’ (D4) linesman for terrible decisions against

‘…frustrated at the referee and linesman for terrible decisions against Stags’ (D9)

‘It was never a Blackpool penalty!’ (D14)

The key element to the frustration was its cathartic release through shouting, screaming, gestures and chants. This externalising of emotion was viewed positively by fans.

One fan described how he had a stressful job and stressful life. He tried not to shout at his wife and child but `saved it up’, using the 90 minutes to vent his frustration, accrued throughout the week, in a socially acceptable and enjoyable way.

One fan commented that if he shouted and screamed in Tesco’s he would probably be arrested but, at the match, it was acceptable behaviour that was actively encouraged.

Although frustration can be seen as a negative emotion, it clearly generates the behaviours associated with catharsis. Frustration is often the spark which ignites the shouting, chanting and gestures which help externalise the emotions felt by fans.

Positive mood

In the end, attending matches at Mansfield’s ground, Field Mill, did appear to offer the fans what some called `escape from the trials and tribulations of the real world’ and did appear to collate Hirt et al’s (1992) belief that fans experience a lifting in mood as a direct result of their team’s success. This was shown by comments like:

‘…felt as good as I’ve felt in ages’ (D3)

‘…it’s a strange combination – a chance to vent frustration but also relax’ (D20)

‘…felt elated’ (D7)

‘…the win ensured a good night out whatever happened'(D23)

‘…it’s what it’s all about, a decent pint, a decent game and decent company'(D1)

Although, perhaps, there was occasionally a little exaggeration creeping in:

`This is better than watching Brazil!’ (D10)

Other entries showed that sometimes Stags fans sometimes capable of compassion…

‘…felt sorry for the keeper who’s mistake gave us the goal’ (D4)

‘…felt a bit sorry for the Luton fans who wanted to go home but the police wouldn’t let them out'(D26)

… and sometimes not

‘…they had a player sent off


`Swansea were flattered by a 3-0 scoreline. It should have been 6-0′(D8)

Other observations from the fans included that the enjoyment of games was even more if local rivals Nottingham Forest, Notts County and Chesterfield had a bad day


The initial stage of the process appears to support the idea that actively supporting a local football club can help in the development of the elements which Herron and Mortimer (2000) felt were important for the maintaining of good mental health (fig 2). The generation of emotion and subsequent venting through cathartic group behaviours appear to help produce a sense of belonging and feelings of acceptance. The inclusiveness of chanting, gestures, songs and the open display of colours, scarves, shirts and logos appear to help develop feelings of identity and intimacy The shared language of the terraces and shared knowledge of the game appear to help build and maintain relationships irrelevant of class, occupation, wealth or status outside of the ground. All of these things offer a socially acceptable time and place for men, who are traditionally poor at cathartic and expressive behaviours, to behave in a cathartic and expressive way that may have a positive effect on their state of mental health.

The next stage of the project has involved using the themes developed in the diaries to construct questions for interviews and supporting questionnaires with Mansfield Town fans to look further into what being a Stags fan means for them. Perhaps the whole sense of what it’s like to be a Stags fan, or a fan of any club, was in some ways encapsulated in the comments:

‘I do get frustrated but sometimes I get a game that provides excitement, skill and a pride in the performance. When this happens I know that at the next opportunity I’6 want to spend another 12 to see them again’ (Dl 1)

‘…this is what it’s all about, a decent pint, a decent game and decent company, that’s what keeps me sane'(D26)


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Full title: You only sing when you’re winning: Is watching football good for your mental health ? Author: Alan Pringle RGN, RMN, 8 Sc (Hans) is a teacher/practitioner at the University of Nottingham School of Medicine and Health Sciences Address for correspondence: The University of Nottingham, Faculty of Medicine and Health Science, Mansfield Education Centre. Dukeries Centre, King’s Mill Hospital, Mansfield Road. Sutton in Ashfield, Nottinghamshire NGI 7 4JL Mental Health Nursing Vol 22 No 5 pp 12-15

Copyright Community Psychiatric Nurses Association Sep/Oct 2002

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