I’ve said this before, but I generally can’t take local sports talk radio for longer than an hour or so in the morning. As soon as they open up the phone lines, I’m generally out of there. For instance, earlier this week they were debating the fate of Dan Bylsma, coach of the Penguins, who the night before, with most of the super star lineup not on the ice, became the fastest coach in NHL history to reach 200 wins. The team has locked the no. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference and, let’s not forget, Coach Bylsma has already steered the team to a Stanley Cup. Yet here we were, for the second day in a row, having a serious conversation about whether or not he will survive into next year if he doesn’t bring us all another one. And people were seriously making the case that he won’t. To my mind, that’s a little surreal. I thank my lucky stars every day that Bylsma is in charge of the team I love because he’s kept us in the playoffs despite serious injuries to star players ever since that 2009 championship. You wonder if Coach Bylsma ever calls up Mike Tomlin and asks incredulously, “You believe these people?”
Cowboy Fan Hubby scoffs at all of us, assuming it is a uniquely Pittsburgh sports fan attitude (it’s not), and loves to bring home stories of one co-worker in particular who embodies the definition of a Pessimistic Fan. PF, as I’ll call him, is actually rather sour on everything, but local sports are his primary hobbyhorse, and he’s not only pessimistic, he’s downright fatalistic. Hubby was particularly galled last baseball season when PF predicted that the Pirates, who at one point looked to be a lock for their first playoff appearance in two decades, would come crashing down and end up with just another losing record. As if he had a crystal ball, that is in fact what the Pirates did and CFH, who actually likes the Pirates, had the double aggravation of watching the team collapse and seeing the man be right. So, he came home the day after the Steelers schedule was announced grumbling about PF again, telling me that he was predicting the team would go 5-11 this year. This is before Jarvis Jones was drafted mind you, but there was no adjustment in the prediction as of this morning, so he seems to be sticking with that call. Even CFH doesn’t think the Steelers will dip to that level, and he is of the opinion, that even if you really think that, you don’t say it as a fan. Your job, if you will, is to maintain a level of optimism and maybe it’ll actually catch fire.
I have always assumed that people like PF exist in droves around here because we’re spoiled. We’re the City of Champions. And the Pirates aren’t enough to keep us humble. I get aggravated by it, but confess I’ve found myself falling into the same negative trap from time-to-time. However, when the radio talking heads went down the schedule and picked straight up and down wins-losses and ended up predicting a repeat 8-8 season, I pondered whether it was something more. Because I can find other instances of pessimism run wild among fans that have nothing to do with the Steelers or the Penguins. There is, for example, a rather lively chat room for an English soccer team where debate is heated over whether or not the team is horrible despite leading their division, apparently by quite a bit. So, maybe it is the way fans cope with the unknown nature of sports. Rather than maintain a high level of optimism and risk having it dashed by events outside of your control, fans lower the bar on what they will publically say they expect and then anything over and above that is gravy. If they end up being right, then they at least have the satisfaction of being able to say, “I told you so.”
There seems to be some basis for this among psychologists. I did a little research to test my theory and found Julie Norem, author of The Positive Power of Negative Thinking. Wellesley researcher Norem embraces something she calls “defensive pessimism” saying that, “Negative thinking helps you be prepared for things.” Her premise seems to be based on the concept that optimists find themselves unprepared when things go wrong, as will inevitably happen. Bob Knight, the controversial former college basketball coach, also embraces negativity as a philosophy toward success and co-authored The Power of Negative Thinking (I am noting a trend with these titles). Easy to debate his methods, but hard to debunk his results over the years and therefore his philosophy could be seen to have some merit.
Maybe there is something to all of this negative thinking after all, but I think the Hubby will tell you that PF is just a jerk, and I’ll still tell you we need to be thankful for Coach Bylsma or I’ll have something more negative to say to all his detractors.