Fans - Nature Or Nurture?

February 5, 2013

Picking Up where the coaches left off 
 Picking up where the coaches left off

I would like to offer huge congratulations to Coach John Harbaugh and the Baltimore Ravens for such an exciting Super Bowl win.  Despite being a relatively new Ravens fan, the second half of the game still caused enough anxiety to have me picking at my weightlifting calluses to the point where I knew the next day’s workout would involve hands ripping and bleeding.  The things we put ourselves through when living vicariously through sports!  I may be a born-and-bred Seattle Seahawks fan, but I also carry a secondary affinity for the Ravens.  Fair-weather you say? Allow me to explain…

I didn’t know a darn thing about the Baltimore Ravens until members of their coaching staff came out to spend time with us in Park City, Utah, as we did last minute preparations for the 2010 Olympics.  Head Coach John Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron experienced the always shocking first ride in a bobsled, followed by a dinner reception with our entire U.S. Olympic Bobsled Team.  I have no idea how, but my Olympic brakeman Emily Azevedo and I landed the choice seats at Coach Harbaugh’s table along with Coach Cameron.  We were riding high on finally qualifying for the Games, and Coach Harbaugh seemed to really enjoy our candor with his questions.  We spent the meal strategizing how Emily would get the team to wake up early for a photo shoot for the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, think-tanking various inspirational “Save-The-Boobs” speeches.  Boob talk was followed by tackling strategy, which Emily got to practice later.  But it wasn’t until Coach Harbaugh stood up to give us a speech that I learned how beautifully easy it can be to make a lifetime fan.

Emily and I spent forever plotting this video attack, which I ended up so nervous for!
I couldn't even
pronounce Harbaugh's name. All of it was well worth it for Emily's
"forearm" tackle.

NFL coaches aren’t just brilliant strategists; they’re gifted motivators as well.  Coach Harbaugh delivered the most incredible motivational speech I’ve ever heard in all my years of athletics.  It was passionate, genuine, and so utterly inspiring that his words carried me all the way through the critical moments right before we raced down that treacherous track in Whistler.   He reminded us of all we’d been through to make it to that point, what shining individuals we all are, and that we have an unstoppable glow.  He emphasized that now was the time to “let our light shine” and show the world that gift.  As you can imagine, anxiety management was essential when preparing for that Olympic race on what was such a dangerous track at the time.  But there were key moments where Coach Harbaugh’s words popped into my head, and I knew I was exactly where I belonged.  Those moments reminded me it was my time, paved for and earned by me, and it was my job to let that pride and accomplishment glow from within, letting my light shine.

 Excited for breakfast in the Ravens cafeteria
 Excited for breakfast in the Ravens cafeteria

The connection continued on our White House visit after the Olympics, where we were treated to breakfast and a private tour of the Ravens training headquarters.  We met players in the weight room who were ecstatic to see Olympic medals won by my teammates, and even got to run routes on their practice field.  Emily got to further her tackling education, this time sparing Harbaugh and using the appropriate equipment instead.

Most often our sports fan loyalty isn’t chosen, it’s a birthright depending on where you grow up.  I was born into being a Seahawks fan; I had no choice.  The mood in our house on a Sunday or Monday night was entirely dependent on how the Seahawks played.  New pets had to be acclimated lest they wet themselves when my dad and brother started yelling at the television.  I felt physically ill after their playoff loss to the Falcons despite such an incredible comeback.  Such is the theme in households across the globe regarding various sports.  Yet because of a chance encounter my hands are torn up from the stress of rooting for my new secondary favorite, the Baltimore Ravens.

We wear the jerseys, we play in fantasy leagues, and we shout “Kobe” as we shoot a basketball – all of this a product of where we grew up or how well a team is publicized.  But there are those other times when a connection happens and a fan is born out of something as simple as having the pleasure of meeting someone who’s passionate about what they do.  These ‘earned’ fans say so much about an organization. It felt like the Ravens couldn’t lose, because I’d met the staff and they were magnetic and inspiring people.

Emily learning more technique 
 Emily learning more technique

Because lesser-known sports such as bobsled are more apt to make fans one-by-one, the majority of bobsled fans tend to have the same last name as those participating.  Our fans are fanatic, but limited to our families and a couple of dudes on Twitter.  But now I see every new person I meet as a chance to make a new bobsled fan.  I had many people tell me after the Games how much more excited they were to watch having had someone specific to cheer for.  I once sent an acquaintance’s dad (who I knew to be a huge fan of the Olympics) a few signed postcards from the Games.  He was so touched that he sent a box in return full of incredible souvenirs from Winter Olympics past.

All athletes need to remember that we are always representing our sport, and it’s the smallest interaction that can build the biggest fan.  It is a responsibility to be bared with excitement, because that is what catches fire.

That’s how we cultivate bobsled fans, from the ground up.