By Lauren Donley

    Our hearts collectively broke as the Matildas bowed out of the Women’s World Cup without a well-deserved spot on the podium. Luckily, there were many silver linings. Women’s sport has never been more visible. Junior soccer registrations are at an all-time high. And despite all those tense moments, our broken hearts are mostly fine. 

    But what was happening elsewhere in our bodies as we experienced those exhilarating highs and crushing lows?

    Hope and glory

    Prior to the World Cup, our Tillies were ranked number 10 in the world. In reality, the chances of making it beyond the initial pool games was quite low. But our sports-fan brains are hardwired to cling to hope and loyalty, even when the odds are stacked against us. So why do we do this to ourselves?

    From a psychological perspective, supporting a team fills a basic human need. It helps us to build social connection with family, friends, and even complete strangers in the pub. These feelings of hope and belonging have positive effects on our self-esteem and wellbeing. Win or lose, the experience creates a memory.

    Personally, I watched that marathon penalty shoot-out game between Australia and France at an under-the-sea-themed fortieth birthday party. And let’s just say that the sight of dozens of costumed adults huddled around a television in a children’s playroom is not something I’ll forget in a hurry.

    Brain and brawn

    As I was sitting there between King Neptune and a human jellyfish, the chemistry of my brain would have also been changing (and not due to anything that I ingested). More specifically, the act of watching sport increases our levels of cortisol and testosterone – two hormones regulated by the pea-sized pituitary gland at the base of our brains.

    But don’t just take my word for it. A very niche study conducted during the men’s World Cup final between Spain and the Netherlands in 2010 showed that both male and female fans recorded higher levels of cortisol and testosterone while watching the game, compared with control measurements taken on another day.

    Cortisol helps us respond to stress by increasing blood pressure and releasing glucose into the bloodstream to fuel our cells. It also plays a key role in the ‘fight or flight’ response. 

    Testosterone has many functions around the body in both men and women. In the context of watching sport, it drives competitive and dominant behaviours.

    Perhaps this swirling mix of hormones helps to explain why over-excited sports fans set off flares and overturned barriers in Federation Square after a particularly stunning victory.

    Pleasure and pain

    A rise in testosterone can also trigger the release of dopamine – a brain chemical that allows us to feel pleasure, satisfaction and motivation. Anyone who watched the Tillies go down to England in the semi-final can probably relate. When Sam Kerr kicked the equalising goal, we all got a glorious dopamine hit. And we wanted more. But instead, England kicked the next two goals.

    Confusingly, our dopamine response isn’t just triggered by something good happening. It’s also triggered by the possibility of something good happening, which helps to explain why we were all chasing a miracle right up until the final whistle. 

    While hope isn’t a bad thing, it raises our expectations, and this can make losing hurt even more. In fact, losing activates the same pathway in our brains as physical pain. 

    On the upside, this dopamine-induced hope also brings us together in defeat and look towards the future. So, thank you Tillies, and bring on the Women’s World Cup 2027. 

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    Human Interest
    Human Interest
    Welcome to your regular column on the science of human beings…and being human. Brought to you by Lauren Donley, an unashamed science nerd who never misses an opportunity to share a story about bodily functions. Please note that this article is for general interest and is not a replacement for medical care. If you have any questions or concerns about your health, please contact your doctor.

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