Why sports stress us out – and why we keep coming back for more

Stressed out by sports? The experts explain what’s happening – and why you’re still stricken. (Photo: Getty Creative Stock Image)

Maybe you punched the air for every one of Serena Williams’ points, then cringed when she lost the final match of her career. Maybe you’re only three weeks into the NFL season and you’re already aware of injuries, losses and bone-headed dramas. Maybe you’re so invested in certain games that you can’t help but wonder, “Why do I do this to myself?”

According to psychologist Pamela Rutledge, director of the Media Psychology Research Center in Newport Beach, California, sports fandom can represent “a sense of membership as a fan and an emotional attachment to a star player.”

The second involves parasocial relationships, where a fan has a one-sided connection with an individual player, and invests time in watching an individual player. This could be a team leader like Tom Brady or LeBron James, or an individual superstar like Williams, whose recent retirement, notes Rutledge, struck a chord with many.

“The longevity of her career allows people to get to know her over time and get used to her and, therefore, more connected,” the social scientist explains. “Frequency increases familiarity and likeability. Someone with an extremely long career becomes more embedded in the person’s life as an anchor point. That makes their retirement a more significant loss.”

Cheering for a team — the Triple-A club, the Buffalo Bills, New Zealand’s national rugby team — can give people a deeper connection to their community and social identity, Rutledge says. It may make sense to identify and engage with “our” team to determine how we feel about ourselves.

“Group membership helps shape an individual’s self-image,” Rutledge tells Yahoo Life. “Fans’ identification with a team is related to collective self-esteem, which is enhanced by media consumption because fans can obtain current information on the teams and players they support. Group membership also creates an ‘other,’ or ‘us vs them.’ team mentality.”

One psychologist suggests questioning whether you're overemphasizing the relative importance of a sporting moment.  (Photo: Getty Creative Stock Image)

One psychologist suggests questioning whether you’re overemphasizing the relative importance of a sporting moment. (Photo: Getty Creative Stock Image)

As anyone who has cried into their beer after a great win knows all too well, this membership can hurt our feelings. Rutledge explains that when a beloved team or player wins, fans engage in “BIRG-ing,” or “basking in the glory of the performance.” They are elated, and proud – not only of the athletes but, of course, themselves, too. With loss, however, comes CORF-ing, or “failure to cut off rejection.” Fans may feel disappointed or embarrassed, and want to distance themselves from the sports star they usually support. Fans may blame others for the loss, which Rutledge says is “a way to make sense of loss and protect their self-esteem.”

Rutledge notes that these behaviors can be increased if the stakes are perceived to be higher. Teams that are considered big threats “act out more negative emotions,” she says, adding that “a win over an important rival is more emotionally valuable than a win over a weaker team.”

Walk into a sports bar on a Sunday and you’re bound to see a range of emotions on display, from jubilation to despair to outright anger to fear and despair. Some fans may slam the table when things don’t go their way, some in disbelief and others nervously close their eyes, grit their teeth, bite their nails and pray when the action gets tough. Rutledge says it’s all part of the “powerful narrative” of sports, one in which “sports fans and spectators connect emotions and understandings in a way that gives meaning to the experience.”

But of course, stress isn’t specific to sports, says Simon Rego, chief of psychology at Montefiore Medical Center/Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. The way a disdainful Red Sox fan might react to the action on the field is similar to how a political junkie might behave on election night. One is “seeing your friend attempt a game-winning field goal” is “getting stuck in traffic on your way to an important job interview” or “seeing your favorite The Great British Baking Showand the competitor unwittingly mistakes salt for sugar.” There may be different triggers, but there is a cognitive commonality involved when investing in something and feeling a threat to our enjoyment of it.

“The more you believe the consequences are significant, the more stressed and anxious you’re likely to be even though the outcome is still uncertain,” Rego tells Yahoo Life, noting that often the consequences of this just imagined and intangible, although the intention. he has a way of convincing us otherwise. (“Someone standing up to speak can react with as much concern as being mugged,” he says.)

What can a person do if their emotions are getting the better of them before, during or after a game? As people collide on and off the field, Rego suggests learning to “cut back on the behaviors that make your anger convince you that they are the right things to do in those moments.”

One way to do this, he explains, is to “step back and consider the conclusions we are drawing.” Sports fans may be angry because they feel there was some kind of “wrong” involved – a bad call by the ref, another team playing dirty. But is that what really happened? It’s worth examining the legitimacy of those finger-pointing claims and hopefully allaying some of that anger and blame.

Rego also recommends being more open-minded and learning to “rethink the consequences” of what a loss or other setback might mean rather than jumping to the worst conclusion. He notes how some fans might come away from a sub-par game feeling “disappointed, but not depressed, or frustrated, but not angry.” This suggests that they are looking at the consequences from a different and less defeatist perspective.

He cites the case of Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott, who broke his thumb in the NFL season opener and will be out for several weeks. Some fans came out of that loss ready to write off the rest of the season after just one game, but the team went on to win their next game with quarterback Cooper Rush. Another example of big-picture thinking, he says, is seeing Serena Williams’ final match not as a victory to be mourned but as an opportunity to celebrate all that she has achieved in her career.

“It might lift your mood a bit to think about all the great things she’s done for women in sports,” he says.

“The way we respond to our initial thoughts can modify them and soften them a bit,” says Rego, emphasizing the benefit of widening our lens and not pushing to “overemphasize” on the relative importance of any single penalty or point.

It brings to mind an old commercial that reminded football fans that after the Super Bowl, everyone is back to square one.

“Every team is back to the 0-0 record,” he said.

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