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Mentally preparing for disapointment, part 1

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I talked with Eric Simons, author of The Secret Lives of Sports Fans about the rootless identity of Sharks fans, coping with a history of losing,

Eric's very good book about the science of why you're so goddamned sad all the time.
Eric's very good book about the science of why you're so goddamned sad all the time.

This is a slightly different post today. I talked with author, Bay Area sports fan, and all-around good guy Eric Simons, who wrote an outstanding book on the neuroscience of sports fandom in The Secret Lives of Sports Fans. We discussed the relationship of Sharks fans to the rest of the Bay Area, the psychological effect that the Sharks playoff failures have had on their fans, the ways in which the Sharks differ from other sad-sack franchises, and the best strategy for rooting for this particular Sharks team as they prepare to face the Kings in round 1, once again. This is part 1.

Post-it notes and the Sharks

Eric: So I was talking to my wife about it last night. She doesn't give a shit and doesn't like hockey, and resents the Sharks mainly because they irritate me and then I'm in a bad mood.

So I was talking to her and she was like you know the story of the guy who invented the Post It note? And I was like, no, I don't know the story of the guy who invented the Post It note. So she said, well, there was this guy who was trying to find the world's strongest adhesive, and he failed utterly. Instead what he found was this stuff that you could stick on anything and remove without a trace.

Eric Simons

I feel that's what the Sharks do. It's like, they're trying to win, but instead they do the opposite, and become an innovative factory for losing. So they always have to one-up the level of losing. So what is the way that they can lose this series or this year that can be any more disappointing than previous losses? And that's when I decided I don't think they can lose to LA because the whole thing that the Sharks do is that you have to invest something to be disappointed. They have to find some creative way to make you believe, and then make it horrible.

So what I'm thinking is that they're going to beat LA, and then lose to Anaheim in the worst possible way so we have to see Corey Perry all summer long. Because that would be worse than if they just lose in four games to LA.

Me: Right, if they look great beating LA, totally outplay them, contain them, and then get swept by the Ducks....

Eric: Right, right. Because the whole science of this is managing your expectations, right? And if you have no expectations they can't really hurt you. Because there's a ton of psychological research on this that says the more you expect to win, the harder it is, and negative cues are much more salient to us, we pay a lot more attention to negativity, and expectations governs all the hormonal stuff.

So objectively, they are not as good of a team as Los Angeles. "Morally" they are superior, athletically they are inferior. If you look at that straight-forwardly, of course they should lose. So [Sharks fans] attitude going in is, "There's nothing that Los Angeles can do to us to touch our moral superiority, [we] know that Dustin Brown is the bottom of the barrel in terms of morals, so what else is there?" This is like how the Romans denigrated the barbarians. When these guys are conquering you and running through your flower beds it's nice to know that they're just barbarians. They're inferior culturally, and there's nothing a bunch of barbarians can do to touch your culture. That's the metaphor you want going in. The athletic contest doesn't really matter. The real contest is moral superiority.

So what [the Sharks] want you to do is to get you to invest. So LA has to do something egregious to make you really hate them. So a Dustin Brown cheap-shot to, probably, Logan Couture, because Thornton doesn't really get cheap-shotted, he's too big. So one of the more helpless Sharks. So they take out Couture and go after Hertl's knee again, or get Vlasic in his first game. So, one of those things. Something that makes you really, really want to beat those assholes. And then it looks like you're going to beat them, and then you lose. This is like Raffi Torres taking out Michalek's knee thing. It gives you just enough reason to care, and then they whack you.

So that's what you have to avoid as a Sharks fan. Investing, at all.

Iterating through how to lose


Me: I have a similar theory. It's not so much about experimenting in how to lose as much as [losing] is incidental to their experiment in testing all the myths about what makes a championship team.

Eric: Right, they're iterating.

Me: Yeah, so, like, "you need to be tough to be in the playoffs," so they change up their game to step up the physical game. So we did that, and that didn't work. And then, "oh we need a goaltender that has Stanley Cup winning experience." No, that didn't work. You just go down the list of every hot-take artist's ideas about what it takes to win. "You need a dominant center." Ok, got that. "You need two dominant centers." Ok, we got that.

Eric: This is why it always comes down to grit. It's the inevitable quality of grit. It could be anything. "Well, this year we had THIS, and I thought that's what we needed, but we must not have had the right grit."

Me: Right, and this sounds absurd, because Doug Wilson's a professional, and he knows a lot more about hockey than any fan or whatever, but I feel like Doug Wilson's been following some of these weird trends from which team relatively recently won the Stanley Cup and then sort of models the team after them. So when the Red Wings were just mopping the floor with us and everyone else, he said, "Oh, we need to change to be like them." And so he hired Todd McLellan and they start implementing Detroit at the end of the aughts systems, and then the Blackhawks and the Kings pass us.

Eric: So you beat Detroit three years in a row and lose to someone else, yeah.

Me: So we retool to be the Red Wings but better, meanwhile some other team has passed us by. That was completely the case with Chicago when they beat us in the Western Conference Finals for their first [recent] championship. It was like, "Wait a minute, nononono. We retooled our team to address this very specific thing that was going to put us over the top." And it was like, nope, you won one game and got completely overshadowed by this younger, better team.

Eric: What really offends me with this year's team is that, for probably a four year window they were one of the top 3 teams in the league in terms of talent and depth. They really were. Thornton and Marleau were in their prime, and this was probably one of the top 3 teams in the league by talent but the general agreement was that they just didn't try hard enough to win. And this year they have a team that is objectively less talented but seems to try harder. And it's just like, "Come on, really? You learned how to try now?"

Me: Well, I kind of feel that this team is the deepest, well, maybe not the deepest but the best constructed team the Sharks have had for a long time. They have the right players more or less in place. They have weaknesses, but they're weaknesses that other successful teams have had. That doesn't mean that I think they're going to win the Stanley Cup. I don't think they will.

Eric: I don't think the top-end talent is there anymore.

The Secret Lives of Sports Fans


Me: If you look at the underlying fancy-stats and stuff like that it's basically...Joe Thornton had an incredible season and more or less single-handedly drove play while he was on the ice. And when he's not on the ice, most of the rest of the team's forwards performed at a really average level. Which basically points to some of the problems they've always had with not having the depth, so other teams just concentrate on shutting down Thornton, and LA for sure will, they're going to hard-match Kopitar on Thornton as much as they can, and it's going to be up to the second and third lines to actually deliver, and I just can't see it.

Eric: I believe in Joonas Donskoi.

Me: I mean, Donskoi is amazing, and the other teams that have been successful have had guys like Donskoi or whoever, guys who were sort of unheralded that got better as the series went on, and gave their teams a little bit of an advantage in the lower lines. And realistically, LA, I don't think they...I mean, they're more talented than the Sharks because their best players are more in their primes, and Doughty is a better defenseman than any of the Sharks defensemen.

Your lying puck

Eric: Quick will dive and that'll be irritating. They'll cheap-shot someone somehow and that'll be irritating, and that'll be enough. There was that game against Vancouver, and they injured a Sharks player, and got a 5 minute major, and the Sharks got scored on shorthanded, and there are times you want the team to respond, and their answer was always, "well you don't respond physically you respond on the power-play" but they never do, and the more egregious the insult, the less effectively they respond. It's the apotheosis of the Sharks identity right there. Get a 5 minute [power play] for boarding and then get scored on short-handed. Jesus. I mean, that's what I expect them to pull against the Kings right there. Quick dives, [the Sharks] take a penalty, and they give up a power play goal. There's the basketball expression "ball don't lie", I don't know if there's the equivalent in hockey, but it lies all the fucking time, with this team. The puck habitually lies, unfairness follows them, and has this vicious thing against them.

Me: There's the expression "puck don't lie" but I've been following this team enough.... I mean, the stanchion in the Vancouver series.

Eric: Awww, Jesus. The Bieksa goal. Our Stanley Cup winning, experienced goalie missed that though.

Me: Yeah, I know.

Eric: That's horrifying. Why'd you have to bring that up? The replay of that is now seared in my head. There's this one camera behind Bieksa that you can see the puck bounce really well through all the traffic and then just him watching it bounce, and then watching it bounce bounce bounce past Niemi. Oh my god. Horrifying.

Me: What I love about that goal is that it's only because Bieksa wasn't following the play that he noticed the puck. If that doesn't define the Sharks playoff experience.... He lost the puck, he wasn't following the play, he was doing something that any defenseman should not be doing.

Eric: Is it possible if you've lost in the playoffs for 20 years in a row, can you make an argument it's all just bad luck?

Me: Well, that's what I mean. It ends up being an experiment. "Well, this is what we need to tinker with." And nope, that's not it.

Eric: It's an amazing psychological experiment on the fans. Because every time you lose, you have to have some recovery mechanism where you find some way to cut off the failure so it doesn't reflect on you, or you rearrange your identity so you don't have the identity that these losers do. You find some explanation for why you lost that is consistent with your identity or at least allows you to preserve some self-esteem. And that task becomes increasingly harder each time they lose until eventually you just divorce yourself from the situation. They've been really creative about finding these...you rearrange your identity in a slightly different way every time they lose, so they've been quite creative about how many different ways there are to lose, so one of the few things remaining to you is, "well, they keep getting unlucky." So the two options to you are, "they're losers" or "they're unlucky all the time."

Me: I mean, I do something like that. It's not so much that they're unlucky but, like, the universe is chaos. It's a deeply cynical viewpoint, because it's not comforting, right?

Eric: It's not that they're unlucky, it's that the odds are always poor, so if you're rolling the dice every time it's more random than it appears, the 1-in-32 odds of this actually happening are quite low, and it hasn't been, you know, 32 years so it hasn't hit yet. And so it sucks to be that person, but it's not outside the bounds of probability. So you're just sort of stuck with it. And you look at Vancouver and think you're glad you're not them.

Me: Exactly. As much as Kings fans like to think that they root for a franchise that in their DNA just knows how to win, they existed for 40 years without finally winning. It took them 25 years to actually ever make it to the Stanley Cup Finals, and they had the best player in the history of the game on that team.

More tomorrow in part 2 about the dispersed identity of the South Bay sports fan, how the Sharks are different from Cleveland fans, and the best possible attitude to take going into the series.