Thursday, March 3, 2016

Arsenal's Problems Aren't Mine

If you’ve read any of my writing on Arsenal, you’ll have gathered that I approach the subject with an analytical eye and attempt to offer a reasoned perspective. This suits my demeanor and I hope makes my efforts distinctive, if probably not unique.

This piece will be a departure from that style and outlook.

The context is, of course, the team’s three consecutive losses and its apparent squandering of a reasonable shot at the Premier League title. But the focus isn’t on the team’s performances, its needs in the short- and long-term, or manager Arsène Wenger’s competence. There are myriad voices discussing those matters, few in edifying ways.

Instead, I want to address—feel compelled to address—two characteristics of the Arsenal supporter mindset, aggrievement and resignation, and the unhealthy and pointless application of these characteristics.

Let go

Let’s establish the main premise first. We supporters have virtually no control over what happens at the club. There is some evidence to suggest that match-day fans can, through positive reinforcement, strengthen players’ states of mind. Their psychological advantages, which escape those who haven’t excelled in elite athletic competition, are strengthened when they perceive they’re being supported.

Other than that, we are powerless. The Arsenal board does not consider us when it’s taking action, Wenger and his staff don’t factor our perspectives into their planning, and the players don’t ultimately feel responsibility or anything toward us.

Now, I understand that there’s a direct line between this feeling of powerlessness and outrage. Any observer of politics, particularly US politics, has to acknowledge that. But I think we have a choice individually and collectively over how we handle the lack of control. Actually, our reaction is the only thing we can control.

It helps to recognize that when a group of 20- to 33-year-old men fail in an athletic endeavor, that’s no reflection on my worth as a person. Maybe they didn’t provide the uplifting distraction we were looking for. Maybe we’re disappointed because we expect better when we invest our time, money, and emotional energy.

Does that mean my family doesn’t value me, my associates don’t respect my contributions, my friends no longer enjoy my company, my other pastimes don’t fulfill me? No.

So outrage, particularly in the form of abuse, is twisted and pointless. It’s also boring.

The quest for fun

Second premise: Sport is entertainment.

I know many people are making a statement of cultural affinity when they support a team. So the connection is a deep psychological one that may seem impossible to separate from who we are.

I also acknowledge that entertainment means different things to different people. I personally prioritize enjoyment and inquiry in my entertainment, which means I prefer pastimes that I learn something from, laugh at, or feel taken away from myself in some way.

Others see entertainment as a way to relieve their frustrations, often connected to an impulse to voice criticisms. There’s also a belief among some that they can criticize sources of entertainment and seem smart or clever, especially in the era of social media.

We’re free, of course, to choose types of entertainment and to react in a way that matters for us individually. The problem is that some of those reactions, distributed and intensified by the Internet, reduce the value for others. That provokes another choice—keep paying attention or seek the benefits somewhere else.

It’s really a question of how we want to spend our limited time on this earth, a choice which might, I believe, extend our time here. We can wallow in the negativity, think we’re smarter because we notice the problems, and resign ourselves to the worst-case scenario.

Embrace the uncertainty

This resignation, in the form or low-stakes gallows humor, is a popular choice in the British Isles. Stiff upper lip and all that. I understand how it helps cushion the blows when unwelcome events, such as losses by one’s preferred sports team, occur. I also understand how resignation and its interpretive offshoots predictability and inevitability help brains process random, complex, and uncontrollable events.

Indeed, all of the post facto observations about predictability are just methods of self-soothing. “We saw that coming.” If you saw the worst coming and you still paid attention, you are sick.

Or maybe outcomes of human endeavors, including sporting competition, aren’t predictable at all. Although chances of specific results are better or worse based on correlations in the past, each event is new and could conclude in many ways.

That is why more and more people watch the Premier League, for example, because despite the correlation between expenditures on salaries and transfer fees and final position in the league table, the end is not at all predictable. We can’t foresee the champion, and we certainly can’t know the winner of each individual match.

If your method of coping with this uncertainty is to identify the most uncomfortable outcome and make quips about it, okay. I guess that can be entertaining and funny in small doses. As a persistent tone and unyielding point of view, though, it’s tiresome.

What’s the healthy response? Well, I’d say maintaining perspective, respecting others’ decisions if ignoring their tedious expressions, and focusing our energies on things we can control.

My hope is that the Arsenal first team will respond to its recent setbacks in this mature way. If they can't, I'll recognize that it's no reflection on me personally.

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