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Why sports breakups can hurt as much as the real thing

Sports breakups are their own kind of pain. Why do we let them hurt us so much?

Chicago Bulls v Detroit Pistons Photo by Scott Cunningham/NBAE via Getty Images

Breakups suck. When you get into a relationship with someone, you’re sure that it’s going to be a fairy tale-type thing. It’s going to be like the movies you grew up watching. You and your person will be at a fancy hotel, and they’ll open up a jewelry box and show you the contents before they accidentally close it on your fingers and you both giggle. Then you hold hands in a flowery field and experience nothing but good times.

The reality is that it doesn’t usually work out that way. You meet someone, they make your world awesome, and then most times you’re unceremoniously dumped at the restaurant that everyone goes to if they want to dump someone.

Just like anyone, I’ve had my fair share of breakups in my life. None hurt me more than the one I experienced when I was 14 years old. It was the summer of 2000 and I was flying high. We had been together since I was eight years old. I was sure this would last forever. Then one day he got traded to Orlando.

Oh, you thought I was talking about a romantic relationship. No, I’m talking about a sports relationship. The day that the Pistons traded Grant Hill, I felt something I had never felt before. Here was my hometown sports hero. His posters, trading cards, action figures and jerseys populated my room. This was the guy who was going to lead my Pistons to a championship and retire in glory in Detroit.

That didn’t happen. It was the first time I realized that sports was a business.

I swore I’d never feel this way again, and for a long time, I didn’t. When I got into the sportswriting world in 2014, the last layer of the onion that had kept me believing that sports weren’t a business faded away. This business will dull those senses a lot. Then the Lions traded Matthew Stafford, and it was like I was 14 all over again. I felt that pain and it actually depressed me. When the Rams won the Super Bowl last February it was as if I had to sit there and watch someone else live my dream. At least when Hill left I didn’t have to deal with that problem.

A lot of time has passed since the Stafford trade. Just recently I had a realization that I didn’t have after the Hill trade. As I was sitting there thinking about sports and how the NFL season was going, I realized that I just didn’t care anymore. The pain was gone.

This inspired me to go out and find out why I ever let it affect me in the first place. After all, these athletes aren’t my friends or family. While I’ve met and talked to Matthew Stafford on multiple occasions in the past, I don’t really know him. I doubt he could even pick me out of a police lineup if he needed to. Why did this affect me?

To help me figure this out, I spoke with clinical/sports psychologist, and fellow Michigander, Dr. Dan Pillow, to get an idea of what this is all about. Here’s what I found out.

It starts with connection and looking up to someone

“One of the priming agents for even brain growth is through the connection with others.” Pillow said. “Now because, like I said, I don’t think there’s any research or anything that I’m familiar with. But when I think about the formation, developmentally speaking, we as children, we do find and we look up to different people and many of us who maybe are less fortunate than others or others that are extremely fortunate. Again, it’s so individualized, but I think we gravitate through reality, but also through some fantasy, some healthy fantasy play and fantasy early. Even when I think of early child fairy tales, early stories, it’s really a beautiful way of kind of nurturing and giving some guidelines of where we want to go and how we become. And I know myself, I was so impacted by so many figures through my prehistoric age.”

The stages of grief and self-messaging

I’m sure you’ve heard of the stages of grief before. There’s denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Turns out that’s not just something people say. We all go through these stages after a breakup, a death of a friend or a family member, and yes, after one of our sports heroes leaves our team.

“These theorists or researchers write about the process of grieving and loss, we have to write about it in a linear fashion so that people can understand it. But there really is no formula. There’s no timeline.” Pillow said. “The stages, even though they list them in a particular order, people don’t go through them necessarily in that order, and people don’t just go through them one at a time, and then the next one is just a cluster. It’d be kind of like if I just could draw a big circle and just scribble for the next two minutes and then hold that up for you and I’d say, okay, that’s grief, that’s loss. That’s what it feels like. You’re just all over the map, and it’s not as easy just to process.”

One of the big things that Pillow talked about is self messaging. It’s all about the things we tell ourselves. “How we talk to ourselves governs so much about how we’re going to feel.” Pillow said. “The unfortunate thing with self messages, and everyone has a tendency in the rest of my field, we really believe so much of the self talk and the self messages. We believe so much that shouldn’t be and things we don’t need to”

This explains that a lot when to comes to the idea that someone could simply forget that sports is a business and that an athlete is there for you. You easily trick yourself into the idea that an athlete owes something to you as a fan or owes something to the city that they play in. It’s hard to turn that off. Especially when you equate so much of that person with the jersey that’s on their body.

When you bring in the idea that you look up to that persona and you’ve self massaged to yourself that they’re just as entrenched in the cities culture and sports as you are, it’s easy to see how you could fall in love with the idea that they’ll just be there forever. It’s just as easy to then understand why you would be personally hurt when that person leaves.

As much as I’d love to tell myself that Matthew Stafford and Grant Hill were the only two players I’ll ever feel this way about, I’m sure that’s not true. There’s another out there and I’m looking for them.

In the words of Michael Scott, “I’m ready to get hurt again.”