Why Sports Fans Love Sports Photos

by Jeff Quincy
(United States)

Sports fans experience emotional extremes when watching their favorite teams battle it out on the field, rink or court. The vicarious connection between audience and athlete is visible and palpable, and most people have experienced it at one time or another. How is it that a well-executed sports photograph provides a similar opportunity for emotional attachment and experience? How does an image taken out of context evoke the kinds of emotions people feel during double overtime when their team is down by two against their biggest rival?

Why Sports Fans Love Sports Photos

How You Become a Fan

The word "fan" comes from the Latin fanaticus meaning, "insanely, but divinely inspired." From living in their favorite college football shirts to tattooing their skin, fans vary in the amount of insane, divine and inspired they exhibit. What they all share in common, though, is a deep emotional attachment. For most of these fans, this attachment started when they were young.

When children are between the ages of 7 and 11, their cognitive development advances to the concrete operational stage. This allows them to form long-term emotional attachments. Most sports fans can recall a significant family outing to a game that happened around this time or a family ritual—like watching Sunday afternoon football together. The experience of rooting for a team, the lively discussions about a play or a call—these things create such an emotional and shared experience for a young child that is so satisfying,they continue to seek it their whole lives. Vicarious sports viewing is a place where shared emotional experiences can be had across age lines. For young children, sharing the same feelings with grown-upsis a powerful experience — especially when it happens with a parent or other beloved adult.

Mirror Neurons and Empathy

The human brain has around 86 billion neurons firing at a staggering density and intricacy level. "Mirror neurons" are one typeand are so named because they are imitative. Thought to assist us in the acquisition of skills and language through observation (think "monkey see, monkey do"), mirror neurons firewhenever there is action, whether it is observed or performed. They fire when you poach an egg, and they fire when you tie your shoes. The fascinating thing is that they fire in the same way when you see someone else poach an egg or tie their shoes. So when you see someone score a touchdown, your mirror neurons fire. Because mirror neurons don't differentiate between performed and observed action, it's if you scored that touchdown. These neurons still do their empathetic work outside of the context of seeing another person do something in real time and real space, which leads us to the great sports photo.

The Great Sports Photo

To some fans, it's the iconic shot of Muhammad Ali brandishing a fierce look and muscled arm over a defeated Sonny Liston. To others, it's the sideways shot ofKerri Strug's pain-filled face forced into something a smile after she sticks the landing to her second vault, which gave the American gymnastics team the all-around gold medal. Whatever it is, most sports fans have seen a photo (or photos) that can fill their chests with emotion and their eyes with tears.

Photos — when they're executed well — can impact us just like watching a game because our brain is inherently empathetic. Mirror neurons don't care if what you're paying attention to is a play, a film or a photo of a stranger. If emotion and action are conveyed, they fire — and you feel the feeling at hand. Great sports photos have these three things in common:

  • Faces. A great sports photo shows the face, so the viewer can see and empathize with the emotion being documented
  • .
  • Conflict. A great sports photo captures a moment that is part of a broader plot or drama. We may not know what it is, but a great photo will convey conflict.

  • Technical competence. If a photo displays any oddities (bad lighting or distracting glares) that force the viewer to see it as a photo instead of a dramatic scene, the emotion will be lost.

Sports and its documentation provoke real emotion in fans because we are all wired to feel another's' emotions as our own. Far from being evidence that someone is crazy or taking things too seriously, a fan's emotional response is proof that they are human.

Image by John Martinez Pavliga from Wikimedia Commons

About the Author: Sam Jones is a contributing writer and freelance sports photographer.

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