Even if you can’t relate to the sports fanatics who paint their teams’ colors on their bellies and go on week-long alcohol benders when their teams lose, you can still identify with the tragedy writ large on 7-year-old Prince George’s babyish features when England lost to Italy in the Euro Cup 2020 championship on Sunday. The boy was in real pain. Even future kings can be brought to tears over penalty kicks. 

And poor Prince George needs to steel himself for even more emotional ups and downs when England competes in the Tokyo Olympics this summer. (As do all people who follow sports and tend to fall apart when their team endures a tough loss.) Fortunately, we have some advice for Kate and William as they comfort their son and prepare him for a lifetime of sports fanaticism. And hopefully the rest of you super fans can benefit from this guidance as well. 

Sports, Personal Identity, and Parasocial Relationships

Prince George’s fandom is especially interesting because so many people are in a parasocial (one-sided) relationship with him. Hopefully his royal family keeps him somewhat grounded and oblivious to his rabid fanbase. But Prince George will probably grow up feeling the emotional investment so many strangers have in him. That’s a lot of pressure on a young boy–and on his sports team.

Why do people get into these one-sided relationships with sports teams even though fans routinely get psychologically crushed by losses? Easy. You keep supporting your favorite teams because sports fandom can lead to:

  1. A sense of belonging and well-being.
  2. Increased self-esteem when your team wins, perhaps due to basking in reflected glory.
  3. Feelings of bonding and goodwill. You’re part of a community, like a church or a family. (Though at its worst, sports fan camaraderie can lead to fan violence.)
  4. A sense of purpose and meaning.

Great! But unfortunately, there’s a flip side, which Prince George had to experience the hard way. 

Tough Sports Losses and Sports Fan Depression

Sports fan depression isn’t trivial; it can cause real anguish, or at the very least, a diminished mood. Unexpected losses (which are a thing, even though there’s always a 50/50 chance your team will lose) can have a particularly strong impact on your short-term mental health. What could be at play during post-game depression?

  1. Because your personal and social identity is wrapped up in the team, you can feel as if you lost part of yourself when the team loses.
  2. You’re dependent on an outcome that’s entirely out of your control, which can make you feel helpless.
  3. You have the delusion that you could have controlled the outcome, which makes you feel responsible. 
  4. You can’t commiserate directly with the players because they’re all millionaires.

What to Say to Prince George and His Fellow Sports Fans When Their Team Loses

When a child is disappointed about losing a soccer game they played in, you tell them “Great game!” and “Good effort!” and “Let’s go get ice cream!” But when your son is the future king of England and England loses, you may have to approach the pain of loss from a different angle. To console your distressed child (or your fellow sports fan), try the following approaches:

  • Your team will get another chance at victory–and redemption. There’s always more games to be played (like in the FIFA World Cup in Qatar next year). 
  • Spread the love. You don’t have to root for just one team. George, you’re going to have to schmooze with Italian diplomats at Buckingham Palace one day. You’ll have to say something nice about their team’s soccer performance. 
  • Use this opportunity to hone your empathy skills. If you feel bad as a fan, imagine how miserable the losing players feel with the national spotlight shining on them. Show your team’s players that you still believe in them, especially when they’re suffering from a barrage of racist abuse. (Fortunately, Prince William spoke out about this.)
  • Focus on the joyful, mood-elevating moments in the game, not the outcome. Laugh together about the funny moments. (For example, the Euro game had a streaker, but they couldn’t show him on TV.)
  • Whatever you do, George, don’t take out your pain on your siblings Charlotte and Louis. (This is obviously not comparable to hitting your little sister, but reports of domestic violence have been known to spike 10% after NFL upsets.) 
  • Share the pain with other fans (like the second person in the line of succession to the British throne). Hug it out. Talk it through. Sports fanaticism is fundamentally about social bonding and human connection. You may feel the athletic defeat cruelly, but you’d suffer even more if you hadn’t watched Sunday’s game at Wembley Stadium with Mum and Dad (and David Beckham, and Kate Moss, and Tom Cruise, and…).
  • Keep the loss in perspective. It’s true that your team didn’t make all its penalty kicks, but you still live in a castle.
  • Step off the football turf for a mental health break. Ice cream, anyone? 

If none of this is comforting, Prince George could always be more like my kid, who is not destined to be queen (though that may come as a surprise to her). You can root for “the blue guys” because their shirts are prettier. Then you can fall asleep on the couch during overtime while Mom shouts at the TV. Everybody wins.