Watching Sports for Your Health

With the Olympics right around the corner, sports are the topic on many people’s minds. While sports provide many benefits for people who engage in them, what might be less obvious is that just watching these star athletes compete can actually provide benefits to those watching as well!

It’s a well-known fact that playing sports can improve your physical health by strengthening bones and muscles through routine aerobic activity. However, it also has some psychological effects that are not quite as obvious. For example, one study found that the motor experience acquired through specialized sports actually has a positive effect on the neural networks that govern language processing. Interestingly enough, that same study also found similar effects in those who were only watching other people execute the techniques. There is also a great deal of literature that suggests being a member of a sports team can help improve things like self-esteem. But again, this might not be completely unique to the people playing the game; research has provided evidence that suggests that identifying yourself as a fan of a sports team can help combat feelings of isolation and depression, as well as raise self-esteem.

Daniel Wann’s Team Identification-Social Psychological Health Model outlines the benefits that identifying with a team can have on your social-psychological health based on two main types of social connections: enduring and temporary.  The key difference between these two types of social connections lies chiefly in the environment. When you connect with other fans of a sports team in your area, you are within an environment where you can foster these relationships; this is what makes them enduring. If a few fans of your team happen to be in the area, perhaps for a weekly meet-up at a coffee shop, you can foster temporary connections by attending. The moment you enter that coffee shop, you enter an environment similar to that which is a constant for the enduring connections, and are therefore able to reap the benefits of it while you are in that space.

The Olympics are, by design, the ultimate catalyst for both types of connections.  Because every country participating has a team competing in their name, every member of that country is suddenly surrounded by fellow fans that you can build new connections with. These connections can be temporary and confined to the duration of the games themselves, or they can end up being more long-lasting, because in the end, you are all still members of that country. However, as Wann’s model is careful to point out, the social-psychological benefits of team identification only occur if you actively seek out these relationships with your fellow sports fans. So when the Olympics start this year, take advantage of it! Invite some friends over and watch the games together. Alternatively, strike up a conversation about the games at work – a short conversation about last night’s gymnastics competition can lead to stronger and longer-lasting relationships with those co-workers you usually don’t connect with.

Finally, as beneficial as sports can be for those who watch and participate in them, there are some potential negative effects as well. If you identify too closely with a team that then ends up doing poorly, this can decrease self-esteem and even cause spectator aggression for those viewing the sports live. Luckily, there are ways to combat these negative side effects by distancing yourself from your identity as a fan when it is beneficial for you to do so. These coping techniques are often referred to as BIRGing (Basking In Reflected Glory) and CORFing (Cutting Off Reflected Failure).  The specific ways to do this vary, but it’s probably for the best to find a personal strategy that works for you before the games begin.

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