By Matt Blair

As the sun began to return last month, the flowers started to bloom again and daylight continued to stretch longer, another lasting tradition kicked into gear: the Major League Baseball regular season.

More to the point, the Mariners are back in full swing, with a new chance to take the World Series (a boy can dream, can’t he?).

Before I continue, I’d like to take this opportunity to confess that I have been a lifelong Seattle sports fan. Growing up, I learned to support the M’s, Seahawks and Sonics when each of their schedules came into season. I watched live as the Kingdome imploded and walked in awe inside Safeco field for the first time during the 1999 inaugural season.

Through all the triumphs and tribulations, I’ve remained loyal to my favorite Seattle sports teams. With the Mariners partway through the 2009 season, I began to ask myself if my lifelong love for sports teams might be a little unhealthy given that I’ve aged a little since the days of dreaming to be a professional baseball player.

For answers I consulted with Dr. Ralph Vernacchia, director of Western’s sports psychology program, entering his 36th year in Western’s Physical Education department. In addition to being a tenured professor of sports psychology, Vernacchia coached Western’s track team and serves as the director of Western’s Center for Performance Excellence.

Athletes and fans share a common bond through the act of mental agility, a term Vernacchia defined as a creative solution to a complex problem in a timely manner. While athletes must concentrate on constantly refining their abilities, fans must continue to find innovative ways to cope with defeat.

“Confidence is about making decisions for yourself, about yourself, by yourself,” Vernacchia said. “There are a ton of athletes that are out of the game before it even starts because they don’t have the confidence to perform their best.”

Vernacchia jokingly reminded me that the word “fan” is referred to as a shortened version of “fanatic.” He said that while it’s not necessarily unhealthy to follow a sports team, there is a fine line between being a fan and being an internet-ranting sports junkie.

“It’s important to have several passions in your life, but when one passion becomes the only passion you care about, it grows into an obsession,” Vernacchia said.
Vernacchia said sports are appealing to fans because it allows them the ability to identify with something as a culture. He also believes that we tend to identify with players that are capable of superhuman feats. Following sports teams also allows people to enact resiliency; there’s always another game.

One of the biggest tests of loyalty a sports fan can endure is the experience of seeing their team leave the area. This unfortunate occurrence resonated especially close to home for fans of the Seattle Supersonics and Western Vikings football team.

Vernacchia said that situations like that of the Western football resemble underdog situations where fans root for an unlikely victor. When these situations arise, Vernacchia said sports offer lessons that can help a fan cope with a sudden loss.

“A lot of things we teach in sports psychology are decision skills, which is another term for life skills,” Vernacchia said. “Sports are games of mistakes and it’s not about making mistakes, it’s about what you manage to do afterward.”