It’s Not a Fantasy! Sports Can Help Us Through These Pandemic Times
As Titans and Vikings fans know, COVID-19 has changed the playbook. But rooting for your team may be just what the doctor ordered.?
Empty stadiums. Fewer games. Players sitting out competitions to self-isolate after possible COVID-19 exposure. The coronavirus outbreak has drastically altered the playbook for professional sports this fall season.
Major sports leagues — from football to baseball to basketball — have all found ways to get back in the game by adopting policies to keep players and staff protected. But it hasn't been smooth sailing.
The National Football League (NFL)?had zero positive test results from players the week ending September 19, according to Bleacher Report. But the Tennessee Titans have now closed their facilities until Saturday after three players and five team personnel members tested positive for the coronavirus, according to ESPN. The Minnesota Vikings, who played the Titans on Sunday, did the same as a precaution.
While attending games live may still be off the table for the most part, competitions are being broadcast to big (and small) screens across America.
“Professional sports play an interesting, yet often overlooked, role in public health,” says Sian Beilock, PhD, the president of Barnard College in New York City and a former professor of psychology at the University of Chicago. “When we’re invested in the success of our favorite team, the highs and lows that athletes experience on the field can affect our physical, emotional, mental, and social well-being as sports fans.”
With people more socially isolated than ever, Dr. Beilock sees watching sports as a potential healthy outlet. “We’re all looking forward to activities that remind us of happier, pre-COVID times,” she says. “Sports fans, naturally, are excited by the prospect of seeing their favorite teams back in action.”
A Mood-Lifting Activity
After months living under various levels of lockdown, Americans are in desperate need of an emotional boost. A study published September 2 in the JAMA Network Open found that 3 times as many adults met criteria for a depression diagnosis during the pandemic than before it.
“In the midst of all of the continued uncertainty and unrest, reengaging in something that’s familiar — something that can be a source of enjoyment and that typically provides an outlet for people — can potentially help in terms of boosting overall mood,” says Kensa Gunter, PsyD, a sport psychologist in Atlanta and executive board member for the Association for Applied Sport Psychology.
“It may also be helpful in terms of shifting people’s general feelings that we can get through this and reclaim some aspects of life that were temporarily unavailable to us because of the pandemic, that we can return to some version of normalcy,” says Dr. Gunter.
A Connection With Others
Daniel Wann, PhD, a psychology professor at Murray State University in Kentucky, has written in the Northern American Journal of Psychology that identification with a sports team is “correlated with social psychological health because it will result in increased social connections with others.”
He notes that fans who identify with a local team have higher self-esteem and are less lonely.
Certainly, the connectedness to others is harder now as people cannot attend most live games and may not be able to gather with others to watch competitions.
“Live events create a shared experience that’s difficult to recreate in a virtual environment,” says Beilock. “Cheering on your team while sitting alone on your couch likely won’t be as immersive or generate the same sense of community among sports buffs. But it’s better than nothing!”
She adds that the lack of live fans in the stadiums could affect the athlete’s performance, as well. While some team members feed off the energy of the crowd, others may have anxiety and perform better without thousands looking on, according to Beilock, who has studied why individuals choke under pressure and delivered a popular TED Talk on the subject.
Keeping the Brain Sharp
Research from the University of Chicago has demonstrated that viewing games on television and talking about them with friends can light up the brain. Scientists observed that a region of the brain usually connected with planning and controlling actions is activated when fans listen to conversations about their sport. They noted that neural connections related to linguistic ability and comprehension improved among those who watched sporting events.
A Physical Bonus
Some picture a stereotypical sports fan as a beer-swilling, snack-devouring couch potato. Dr. Wann, who is the author of Sport Fans: The Psychology and Social Impact of Spectators, claims in a CNN interview that “sports fans are quite active physically, politically, and socially.”
If you watch an exciting tournament while trapped inside avoiding the virus, the experience could boost your physical wellbeing. A 2017 study published in October 2017 in the Canadian Journal of Cardiology found that spectators viewing hockey on TV increased their heart rate by an average of 75 percent, the equivalent of a moderate workout.
On the flip side, too much cardiac stress fueled by sports can be a bad thing. A study published in October 2015 in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology demonstrated how a rise in hospital admissions in New Zealand for heart failure correlated with watching the Rugby World Cup Tournament during a semifinal loss of the national rugby union team. A separate investigation published in June 2018 in the American Journal of Cardiology detailed a rise in cardiac arrests in Japan that occurred out-of-hospital during the Japan Professional Baseball Championship Series.
Beilock suggests that watching sports may motivate fans to get active themselves and start exercising regularly. In some cases, fans may combine their spectating with a workout. “Watching a game on TV will usually make an hour on the treadmill pass by very quickly,” she says.
A Source of Hope
For Gunter, sports brings together elements that represent the best of humankind and can offer hope during this challenging time.
“In this shared experience, people may collectively identify with or rally around characteristics such as competition, teamwork, witnessing the will of the human spirit, navigating emotions, facing a challenge and rising to the occasion — all of which are elements of daily life,” says Gunter. “Watching sports can create an additional point of connection even in a time of physical distancing.”