The mental health benefits of sports fandom

Sports psychology: Mental health benefits for fans

“You guys talking to each other today?” I asked my dad and stepmom via text message the Sunday before last, just before the games began that would determine who goes to this year’s Super Bowl.

“More like screaming,” my dad, a Patriots fan, replied.

“It’s a football throw-down,” said my stepmom, a Broncos fan.

In the weeks leading up to those final two games before Super Bowl 50, people everywhere were in their football gear. Packers fans nodded to each other in the grocery store, recognizable by their jerseys and beanies. Here at Banner’s Phoenix headquarters, we were given the green light to wear Cardinals gear on casual Friday. Up in our sister facilities in Northern Colorado, orange and blue was the norm.

Now that the teams have been set and chips of all varieties are getting ready for their biggest weekend of the year, I was curious whether there might be some behavioral health benefits to sports fandom.

Shawn Crawford, a licensed professional counselor at Banner Health Clinics in Northern Colorado, says yes.

“In vastly large part, it’s a very positive thing and a healthy outlet,” Crawford said. “There are those exceptions where sports fans take things to extremes and become obnoxious and violent, but those instances are few and far between.”

Identifying with a sports team, even if it’s for an arbitrary reason like living in the same city, satisfies a human trait to gather with like-minded people.

“It provides a sense of belonging and of acceptance,” Crawford said. “These are human needs that we all crave.”

Establishing camaraderie with complete strangers helps build a sense of community.

“When you see someone at the game, or even in the store, that can be a positive thing,” he said. “People are connecting with people they might not otherwise interact with or acknowledge.”

I thought about my dad and stepmom. About my sister, a UC Berkeley fan, getting in her digs at my husband when they defeat Arizona State. Or my husband and I each trying to get our daughters to choose our baseball team over the other’s – all in good fun, of course.

“Going back to what people just naturally do, we find ways to organize socially and identify with an ‘in group’ which means, on the flip side, there’s an out group,” Crawford said. “The healthy expression of that is a kind of friendly rivalry, teasing, connecting with people – we both like football even though we like different teams and we can razz each other about it. In sports, when we talk with others about their team versus our team, in the end what we’re really doing is emphasizing a common interest that binds us. It’s a different way of connecting with people.”

Crawford said when people take a rivalry to extremes, they typically already have a propensity for violence and use sports as a format to act that out.

“Any of us can get fervent about our team or sporting event,” he said. “Part of vicariously being a part of the sport is creating that atmosphere of the fervor, excitement. It’s a harmless way to express the human tendency toward aggression. Watching sports allows us to participate vicariously in a healthy way and satisfy the urge for competition. I can sit in my living room and project myself into the role of the players. Kind of a healthy fantasizing outlet.”

Crawford cautioned that getting too caught up in sports can also be a negative.

“It’s largely men who get overly absorbed in sports and ignore the relationships available to them,” he said.

The other risk is overindulgence of alcohol – whether at home or a bar or a game – which can disinhibit behavior and contribute to intrusiveness to others, aggression, DUIs or other poor decisions.

Whoever you are rooting for this weekend, please keep it fun and safe.

Read more: Wellness means having good physical and mental health

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