Sports fan anxiety. It's a real thing, and anecdotally speaking, a lot of Cowboys fans suffer from it.
I've had a great time getting acquainted with the Dallas Cowboys fandom through live events, networking, remote interactions, social media, and my personal favorite, Twitter Spaces. As the playoffs approach, though, the language among fans is changing.
I'm hearing much more use of words like “nervous” and “afraid” as well as phrases such as “I don't believe…” and “I don't trust…”
A lot of fans sound absolutely miserable. Some sound like they're really not fans at all.
But fret not Cowboys Nation, I'm here to help. I'm going to help you define and identify what you're experiencing.
Then, I'm going to tell you how and why you should regain confidence in this team so you can enjoy the postseason.
What is fan anxiety?
The American Psychological Association defines anxiety as:
“an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts, and physical changes like increased blood pressure… Anxiety is a future-oriented, long-acting response broadly focused on a diffuse threat.”
Fan anxiety, also known as sports spectator anxiety, is exactly what it sounds like – anxiety related to sports fanaticism. However, it's not sports, in general, causing anxiety.
Fan anxiety is directly related to the team one supports and how much one's identity is tied to being a fan or spectator of that team.
Results of a 1998 study supported the hypothesis that fans experience “an increase in cognitive and somatic anxiety” leading up to important games.
More recently, a 2016 study showed that team characteristics and player performance impact emotions, and thereby, fans' behavioral intentions.
In other words, win or lose, the quality of a team's performance can ultimately impact how likely they are to say good things about the team, buy merchandise, attend/watch games, etc.
Another recent development expands on a sports marketing concept.
In 1976, the concepts of BIRGing (basking in reflected glory) and CORFing (cutting off reflected failure) significantly changed the general understanding of sports consumer behavior.
Forty years later, another study supported those concepts and reinforced the idea that team performance can actually impact fans' self-esteem. And it was just a month ago that a new term, COFFing (cutting off future failure) popped up on the scene.
COFFing is a way for fans to mitigate feelings of anxiety and potential blows to a fan's own self-esteem. It is when fans pre-emptively distance themselves from a team or predict failure to prevent their own disappointment.
If the Cowboys are a good team, why am I anxious?
As explained above, team characteristics and player performance can impact fan anxiety. This means that despite wins, losses, stats, or accolades if a fan sees something that makes them uneasy, it can lead to feelings of uncertainty and anxiety.
For many Cowboys fans, issues in the secondary and turnovers by the offense have led to a lack of certainty about what type of performance to expect during a game.
There's also the fact that a large segment of fans has put a lot of weight on winning Super Bowls specifically.
Only one team in a given season can win the Super Bowl. Also, there are usually decades in between championship wins for a given franchise. So, if fans' identities and emotions are connected to the perception of their team, and that perception is based on something so difficult to attain, that by itself could lead to fan anxiety.
The problem with that type of anxiety is that it can make anxious fans view player performance as worse than it actually is.
Basically, that pre-existing anxiety leads to COFFing.
A couple of bad plays can lead to writing off an entire unit of the team as “garbage” even if they're winning.
How can I regain confidence in the Dallas Cowboys?
If you're an anxious Cowboys fan, at this point, you might feel justified in that. That's totally fine. Recognizing that you have a skewed perspective doesn't mean you have to be ready to change it.
Just stay out of the Spaces for now. You're ruining the experience for the rest of us.
If you do want to push that anxiety aside and enjoy the postseason, especially the upcoming game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, you can accomplish that in just a few steps.
– Accept the reality of the situation
The Cowboys are a 12-5 team that has made the types of mistakes that could send them home after Monday night.
Let's be real. What happened to the Packers when they faced the Lions when Aaron Rodgers had a shot to lead his team to victory but an interception snatched that opportunity away — that's what some fans are afraid of happening to the Cowboys.
On the flip side, the Buccaneers are an 8-9 team led by a quarterback who is known for excellent game management and winning games on drives with little time left on the clock. He's also known for appearing in and winning more Super Bowls than any other quarterback.
There is uncertainty surrounding both teams here. It's difficult to predict which team will show up as the best version of itself and what that will mean for the outcome of the game.
That is more normal, however, than most of the talking heads in sports media will let on.
– Look at it this way
Instead of thinking of those records — 12-5 and 8-9 — as huge disparities between these two teams, think of them as differences made by just a few possessions.
Four of the Bucs' losses this season were determined by 6 points or less. Four of the Cowboys' wins this season were determined by 6 points or less. With different outcomes for just four possessions of football, these teams could have identical records.
When the NFL released their new overtime rules for the post-season, the first sentence they included was “NFL games are competitive and unpredictable.”
Then, they mentioned that 34 games in 2021 were decided on the final play and 21 of them went into overtime.
The unpredictable nature of NFL games is something the league feels is so absolute, it is the basis for how they are handling the most important moments in the most important games of the year.
So, if you feel uncertain, instead of looking at that as a knock on your team, look at it as a normal part of the game. It is not unreasonable or uncommon, even for good NFL teams, to face opponents that could potentially best them.
– Decide what to focus on
The uncertainty embedded into NFL games means that most of the time, there is no way to know for sure whether a team will win or lose. Even if you have plenty of basis for your assumption, the unpredictable nature of the game means you could be wrong.
When it comes to the Cowboys facing the Buccaneers, you could focus on the fact that Tom Brady is undefeated against the Cowboys, or you could focus on the fact that the Cowboys have key defensive players returning from injury who will make huge differences on that side of the ball.
You could focus on Dak's interceptions, or you could focus on the fact that Dak usually has the ability to lead enough scoring drives to counteract those types of mistakes.
You can focus on blue jerseys, or the team's history on grass or the curse of Jimmy Johnson (y'all have an exhausting number of conspiracy theories) or you can believe in our star players when they say none of those things matter.
While knowledge of the game and the stats may give you more things to focus on, it will never be enough to 100% assure you of an outcome. Believing in a team is exactly that.
Belief. It will ultimately be more of an act of faith than a result of studying.
Reinforce the facts
If you notice, I'm not pulling a bunch of numbers or rankings for this article. That's mainly because, as explained above, for every stat that says one thing, there's another stat that can point you in another direction.
However, once you decide what you want to believe, it's important to reinforce that as much as possible if you want to quell your fan anxiety.
One of the studies mentioned earlier explained why anxious fans tend to talk negatively about their team. The reverse can be true as well.
Saying good things can help reverse anxiety.
Simple facts to tide over anxious fans until Monday night
- On paper, the Cowboys are the more talented team. This is true whether you look at stats, subjective rankings such as PFF, or player accolades.
- The most important rule in the game of football is that the team with the most points at the end of the game wins the game. The Cowboys average 9.1 points per game more than the Buccaneers do.
- The Buccaneers tend to allow teams to score close to whatever their average points per game are anyway. The Cowboys, however, tend to hold opponents to less than their average.
- The Cowboys are a different team than they were in Week 1. They are better, more cohesive, more disciplined, and even have new additions who have made game-changing contributions.
- Regardless of who is on the other side of the field, when the Cowboys show up at their best, they are hard to beat. Multiple stars have said that their Week 18 loss to the Commanders was “humbling,” “sobering,” and “eye-opening.” They've also said that this week, they have been more locked in than ever. Take them at their word.
Enjoy the Ride
I've mentioned a couple of times now that nothing will give you 100% confidence or certainty in the idea that the Cowboys will win on Monday night.
The seemingly calm fans — confident and happy right now — it's not that they know something anxious fans do not. It's that they've already decided what to believe, who they're going to support, and how they're going to support them.
All the conversations related to unfavorable outcomes will be reserved for after the game.
In the meantime, they are enjoying the fact that the team they love and support is once again giving them the gift of an extended season.