Stress & Sports: Why Being a Fan Takes Such a Toll

Kate Chard, PhD, is a UC Health psychologist and a professor of psychiatry in the UC College of Medicine. She gave us insight into the toll being a sports fan can take, and offered a silver lining to sports-induced anxiety.

Q: Non-sports fans often say it’s silly to get so worked up about a game or team. Is there truth to this?

A: I think there’s two sides to this.

It’s wonderful when you can have things that you enjoy watching and can feel part of a group with. For people who don’t enjoy sports, this may seem odd.

Typically, people who watch sports at a high level do it with friends. As we get older, it can be harder to find time for activities and new friends. The last hope for that is really in high school and college. After that, you either hope you work with people that are your friends, which can be difficult, or through activities.

However, there is a secondary socialization that comes from it this that’s exciting and healthy. So I have to say that side of it, people say, “Oh my gosh, you’re making too much out of it!” For some of these folks, it’s about family and socialization.

Q: When can healthy enjoyment cross over into something more stressful for fans?

A: When you’re depressed after your team lost and you can’t shake it off the next day. Or even where you’re getting so upset that you’re becoming angry. Ultimately, this is just a game for your enjoyment, not to create more stress in your life.

Q: What is it about sports that make it easy to hold on to things like that?

A: Part of it is if you have collegiate or hometown pride. For example, when the Bengals made it to the Super Bowl in the 1980s, the whole city showed its’ support. The same is true now for FC Cincinnati. For people who don’t have a lot of social connections in other ways, this is big.

When you root for something heavily, you begin to care a lot. There’s a sense of pride and it becomes almost a part of you.

Q: What are some things that you can do to cope with the stress?

A: The number one thing is putting it into perspective. It’s not about if your team wins, it’s about enjoying it while it happens. If you’re getting angry or depressed after each game, then you’ve lost perspective as a fan.

Q: What is it about sporting events that make the bonds among fans different?

A: Watching sports allows you to have a common bond with someone. You can have similar likes in a team, even if you don’t have much in common outside of it. People can love the Reds, but may have different interests outside of sports.

Q: What exactly happens to your brain and your body in these exciting or disappointing moments while you’re watching these events?

A: You have a surge; your entire endocrine system is on high alert. You get anticipatory in your anxiety.

It’s exciting to be that invested. There’s a thrill within all of us that likes to feel alive. You get your entire endocrine system firing when you’re razzed up. When your team wins, the endorphin release is fantastic.

In that sense it’s good, but when you get your system amped up, what happens if your team loses? You have a crash. You have a neurochemical crash within your system that can be harder to come back from if you don’t reset it cognitively.

Q: Can we talk more about the role of family and your friend group in sports fandom? How does that shape who you root for, and why?

A: When you have family that’s involved with a team, it gives you an affiliation. Being a sports fan is a common bond that spans across age. It gives you a way of connecting to family, which can be wonderful and rewarding. Families want to have things they can connect over. Sports can be a lovely way to do that.

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