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Don't cry for me Fiorentina: men, sport and emotions



Watching the 2023 European Conference League final between West Ham and Fiorentina last week it was striking how expressive the individuals (predominantly men) were of their emotions. Both sets of fans experienced the full gluttony of core emotions as described by Paul Ekman; sadness, happiness, fear, anger, surprise and disgust.


What is it about sport that permits men to be emotionally explicit when in other contexts suppression and avoidance is used instead?


Having last won a trophy in 1980, the joyous final whistle scenes of West Ham fans dancing, singing, shouting and crying was an explosive outburst of pent up emotion. Grown men and young boys hugging each other in joy conveyed a connection. As did the shared despair of the Fiorentina fans who endured defeat. Their collective sadness was permitted and on full display with no need for suppression.


This is a scene that occurs at every major sporting event from the Rugby World Cup to the Champions League to the Super Bowl. Men can be emotional, in fact it goes further than that; men are expected to be emotional. It conveys passion, care and regard that they give a damn. Anything less than that for sporting events will simply not do. Yes these same displays of emotion in other contexts may be construed as signs of weakness, vulnerability, fragility and, at worst, femininity.


Men and young boys are socialised to hide their emotions and learn from a young age that displays of emotion can incur social penalties (no pun intended). However, the context of sport appears to follow different rules for men. There is a huge sense of camaraderie, belonging and association at sporting events. Being part of the collective generates security and togetherness with tens of thousands fellow tribe members all sharing the same goal (again no pun).


This grows into a collective identity and a shared experience where the emotion of the many becomes contagious and sanctions the emotion of the individual. The chants, the anticipation and the hope all help create a space where membership denotes safety; safety to be emotionally expressive. Bad decisions, goals conceded or medals won offer a release of built up stress through shouting, swearing and chanting that is shared by fellow shirt wearing tribal members. The benefits for men’s emotional venting at sporting events is obvious. It can be achieved through watching the event in a bar or home with friends and family. But what about those men who simply have no interest or do not like sports? Where do they get their emotional venting?


Society continues to impose restrictions on men’s emotional expression but as the sporting arena demonstrates it is on men themselves to come together to form a collective, to conquer other spaces where they can feel safe being emotionally expressive. Or will men - in reference to West Ham’s club anthem - be forever blowing bubbles. Where emotional expressions are unachievable dreams that simply fade and die.


In men’s mental health week, perhaps it is time for us to question and challenge some of our ingrained social and cultural assumptions regarding emotions but also the emotional expectations we impose on each other and upon ourselves as men.


 

Dr. Roger Duncliffe is a Principal Practitioner Psychologist at Amplify, an in-house mental health service provider offering 1:1 employee support, consultation on complex cases, workshops & unique data-led strategies to help HR teams and organisations get back to what they do best.




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