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

Stressed out by sports? Experts explain what's happening — and why you're still hooked. (Photo: Getty Creative stock image)
Stressed out by sports? Experts explain what's happening — and why you're still hooked. (Photo: Getty Creative stock image)

Maybe you punched the air for every one of Coco Gauff's match points, then sobbed with relief when she actually won the U.S. Open. Maybe you're only days into the NFL season and you're already bereft about injuries, losses and bonehead plays. 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, Calif., sports fandom can represent both "a sense of membership as a fan and an emotional attachment to a star player."

The latter involves parasocial relationships, in which a fan has a one-sided attachment to, and invests time in watching or cheering on, an individual player. This might be a team leader like or LeBron James, or a standalone superstar like Serena Williams, whose retirement last year, Rutledge notes, struck a chord with many.

"The longevity of her career lets people get to know her over time and become familiar and, therefore, more connected," the social scientist explains. "Frequency increases familiarity and liking. Someone with an extraordinarily long career also becomes more embedded in individuals' lives as an anchor point. This makes her retirement a more poignant loss."

Cheering on a team — the Triple-A club, the Buffalo Bills, New Zealand's national rugby team — can also given people a deeper connection to their community and social identity, Rutledge says. Identifying and engaging with "our" team can be meaningful in determining how we feel about ourselves.

"Group membership helps shape an individual's self-image," Rutledge tells Yahoo Life. "A fan's identification with a team is related to collective self-esteem, which is enhanced by media consumption because fans can get current information on the teams and players they support. Group membership also creates 'othering,' or an 'us vs. them' view of teams."

As anyone who has cried into their beer after a stunning defeat knows all too well, this membership can wreak havoc on our emotions. Rutledge explains that when a team or beloved player wins, fans engage in "BIRG-ing," or "basking in the reflected glory." They're elated, and proud — not only of the athletes but, by extension, themselves, too. With a loss, however, comes CORF-ing, or "cutting off rejected failure." A fan may feel disappointment or disgust, and want to distance themselves from the sports star they normally support. A fan may also place blame on others for the loss, which Rutledge says is "a way of making sense of a loss while protecting their self-esteem."

Rutledge notes that these behaviors can be amplified if the stakes are deemed higher. Teams that are considered bigger threats activate "more negative emotions," she says, adding that "a win over an important rival is a more emotionally rewarding victory than 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 desperation. Some fans may slam the table when things don't go their way, some holler in disbelief and others nervously shut their eyes, grit their teeth, bite their nails and pray when the action gets intense. Rutledge says that it's all part of the "powerful narrative" of sports, one in which "sports fandom and spectatorship link emotions and cognitions in a way that gives meaning to the experience."

But stress is, of course, not unique to sport, says Simon Rego, chief of psychology at Montefiore Medical Center/Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. The way a die-hard Red Sox fan might react to the action on the field is akin to how a political junkie might behave on election night. One person's "seeing your kicker miss a game-winning field goal" is another's "getting stuck in traffic on your way to an important job interview" or "seeing your favorite Great British Baking Show's contestant unwittingly mistake salt for sugar." There may be different triggers, but there's a cognitive commonality at play when we are invested in something and perceive 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 while the outcome is still uncertain," Rego tells Yahoo Life, noting that these consequences are often just imagined and non-tangible, though the mind has a way of convincing us otherwise. ("Someone standing up to give a talk can react with as much anxiety as someone being mugged," he points out.)

What can someone do if their emotions are getting the better of them before, during or after a game? As tempers flare on and off the field, Rego recommends learning to "curtail the behaviors that your anger is convincing you 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're drawing." A sports fan might be angry because they feel some sort of "injustice" was involved — a bad call from the ref, another team playing dirty. But is that what actually happened? It's worth examining the legitimacy of those finger-pointing claims and hopefully quell some of that anger and blame.

Rego also suggests having a more open mind and learning to "rethink the consequences" about what a loss or other setback might signify rather than jumping to the worst-case conclusion. He notes how some fans may come away from a sub-par game feeling "disappointed, but not depressed, or frustrated, but not angry." This suggests that they're looking at the consequences from a different, less defeatist perspective.

He cites the case of Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott, whose thumb was broken in the 2022-23 NFL season opener. Some fans came away from 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 a back-up quarterback and ended up with a 12-5 record.

"The way we respond to our initial thoughts can modify them and temper them a little bit," Rego adds, emphasizing the benefit of widening our lens and not rushing to "over-emphasize" the relative significance of any one 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 points out.

This article was originally published on Sept. 26, 2022 and has been updated.