This study examines the effect that supporting a football team and attending their matches can have on the mental health of the supporters. The examination of the interplay between supporting a team and developing and maintaining some of the conditions needed to maintain good mental health is developed along three main themes.
Firstly ideas around a sense of belonging, inclusion, group membership and the impact that such issues have on a person's mental health are investigated. Although supporters, in general, are not prioritised in research about sport, literature from sociology, psychology, sports and mental health areas all suggest that the inclusive nature of the supporting experience can impact positively on the supporters involved. Most of the work done in this field, however, has focused on North American sports such as basketball, baseball and ice hockey. This study explored whether the same impact was actually found in the supporters of English lower league association football.
Part of this area of the study addressed the importance that ritual behaviour played in the development of a sense of identity and belonging in the group setting.
The second area for exploration, specifically linked to mental health, focuses on the importance of developing and sustaining good relationships and the impact this has on a person's mental health. In a time where much is made of the apparent decrease in the amount of time, and, more importantly, the quality of time spent, between family members (especially parents and children) the study looks at the role of supporting a team in the development of parent child relationships and how the football supporting experience offers opportunities for family members to spend time together.
The most prominent of these relationships is the relationship between fathers and sons and the study looks at how football supporting may offer opportunities to develop relationships with specific "ring fenced" time together in an activity that both may be involved with throughout a whole lifetime.
The final major theme to develop is around the question of catharsis. Although a disputed concept academically, the idea of cathartic externalisation of emotion is a prominent feature in the data collected. Ventilation of emotion through cathartic behaviours is seen as important by fans in terms of their mental health. Many fans described a conscious system of coping wherein the stresses they accumulated from their day to day lives at home, and at work, are "carried" until the match then vented in the safe environment of the stadium. Fans suggest that the live element of the experience heightens the intensity of the experience as opposed to an experience, such as theatre or cinema, where the outcome of an event is predetermined. Participants in this study are all supporters of Mansfield Town FC and self selected for the study in response to an article on the Mansfield Town FC website and to Radio and TV coverage of the project. The study uses a grounded theory method for collecting and analysing data. In a two stage process diaries were used to collect data from fans and these were analysed with the help of the Nvivo software package to identify recurring themes.
These themes formed the foundation of the interview schedule used for data collection in the second phase of the process. The interviews were also analysed with the help of Nvivo and the Grounded Theory steps of open coding and axial coding described by Glaser and Strauss (1967) and Strauss and Corbin (1990) were used to develop a core theory.
The main findings reflected the themes outlined above of belonging, relationships and catharsis. Analysis of the data suggests that the identification of the fan with the club, and the identity of the club as part of a local community, helps fans feel part of something bigger than themselves and this generates a sense of belonging, security and warmth. Exploration of the role of relationships in supporters' behaviour suggests that most of the fan' early experiences of being taken to a match were with their fathers and were resonant with a feeling of being old enough to enjoy and appreciate the game and of having some clearly defined time with their fathers which was sacrosanct and expected. This was time which was set aside with a definite purpose and involved a shared experience which was guaranteed to generate interaction and conversation between parent and child on a subject about which each could have a view and exchange an idea. The development of lifelong friendships that cut across age, social background and culture also feature in this area of the research.
The text discusses the findings and suggests ways in which the experiences described by the fans, and the resulting impact on them, might be used in a mental health context to help promote better mental health. It makes recommendations about the use of football in general, and football clubs specifically, for this purpose. The study concludes that if the behaviours, thoughts and feelings associated with supporting do offer the benefits outlined in the diaries and interviews used for data collection then it may well be that football clubs, from large superclubs like Manchester United to small local clubs like Mansfield Town, can have a part to play in the maintaining of and promotion of mental health within communities.
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Reference : Pringle, Alan (2008) "I must be mad to watch this lot" :a qualitative study examining the effect that supporting a small, local football club has on the mental health of supporters. PhD thesis, University of Nottingham. Available from: http://etheses.nottingham.ac.uk/1854/
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