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Can Steelers Fandom Improve Your Mental Health?

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This may seem like a strange question to ask a few days after a disappointing (at best) loss in the opening game of the 2012 season. My mental health (or at least my mental state) was seriously affected Sunday night at about 2:10 on the play clock. It didn’t really improve much a few minutes later during the subsequent three sacks of Ben Roethlisberger.

I also noticed the ordinary cheeriness in the voice of my eldest son seemed to be missing as he called me shortly thereafter. He was walking home from the coffeehouse a few blocks from his home in Colorado Springs. He had watched the game there, as said coffeehouse is run by a couple from Pittsburgh, and the mood when he left was not what you might call upbeat amongst the other patrons either.

Furthermore, Monday night I began rehearsals with my chorus, and had to bear in mind a comment by one of my singers last year. She was convinced I was less patient and more demanding during rehearsals immediately after a Steelers loss. In fact, she felt the entire tone of the rehearsal was set by how well or poorly the Steelers had performed the previous day.

And yet I am here to tell you research shows you are better off than you would be if you were not a fan, in several ways. Here’s how:

Here is an article published in the Saturday Evening Post during the NCAA finals, aka March Madness. As the article states:

If history and science hold true, no matter the outcome of the three-week tournament that begins March 13, most of the millions who will follow its hard-court action will emerge as winners. "That’s because in the long run it’s really not the games that matter," says Daniel Wann, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Murray State University in Kentucky and author of Sports Fans: The Psychology and Social Impact of Spectators. "Being a fan gives us something to talk about, to share and bond with others. And for the vast majority of people, it’s psychologically healthier when you can increase social connections with others."

After conducting some 200 studies over the past two decades, Wann, a leading researcher on "sports fandom," finds consistent results: people who identify themselves as sports fans tend to have lower rates of depression and higher self-esteem than those who don’t.

The article did say the format of March Madness was uniquely suited to increasing social connections, because of the continuous nature of it. It also frequently draws in people who otherwise have no particular interest in sports.

So what about football viewing? Watching the game with other like-minded people, as Ivan Cole recounts in his recent article, can be cathartic, as well as providing the sometimes much needed socialization factor. (This is speaking as a person whose father more or less disappeared for the weekend, other than church, in his "Wide World of Sports" mancave.)

Are there other benefits to watching sports on television, especially if, like me, you prefer to watch in solitude? How about an increase in language skills and cognitive function?

This article in Psychology Today details the rather unexpected results of a study in which a hockey game was viewed by three types of viewers—hockey players, hockey fans, and people who didn’t know anything about hockey. While they viewed the game they were in an fMRI machine, so their brain activity could be monitered. University of Chicago researcher Sian Beilock analysed the results:

What [Beilock] found is surprising: the parts of the brain usually involved with planning and controlling actions is activated when they listened to descriptions of the sport, even when they had no intention of acting... [The research shows] that adults have more cognitive flexibility than previously suspected. What these finding hint at is that parts of the brain that normally have nothing to do with language get involved with its comprehension during the watching of sport. According to Beilock, these results show that playing or watching a sport builds a stronger understanding of language.

But are these benefits received in equal parts by all sorts of fans? We all know (and, probably, despise) the so-called "fair-weather" fans who are gung-ho when their team is doing well and nowhere to be found when they aren’t. And, naturally, if a given sport or team isn’t actually a passion for you, there is no reason to stick by them in adversity.

I have noticed a number of disgruntled comments on Bucs Dugout, the SB Nation Pirates site, after a home game a few weeks ago. It was handily lost by the Pirates, and apparently the audience turnout at PNC Park was considerably lower than it had been during the previous few weeks. Several commenters grumbled about "fair-weather fans." However, the truth is, given the woeful record of the Pirates in the past 19 seasons, the worst of any team ever in professional sports history (at least in the US,) any significant influx of fans is by definition going to be fair-weather fans. If you want to find out who your real fans are, just compile a dreadful record.

So do the benefits of sports-fandom carry over to those sorts of fans? Well, I would guess the benefits I have enumerated so far would accrue to any sort of fan. If you take an interest, however temporarily, and band together with like-minded fans, you are going to reap the benefits of increased social connection (even if it is on a site such as BTSC) and of increased cognitive flexibility. But there is another sort of benefit to be reaped. And this one is only available to those for whom the team is their passion (or a least one of their passions.)

This passion is, of course, a two-edged sword. If you live and die by the results your team achieves, you are allowing a factor over which you have no control to manipulate your mental state. Obviously this is not a good thing. But I contend it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. It's surely better to live your life in color rather than monochrome.

This article agrees with my contention, although the link comes with a health warning from me. It is in one of those SERIOUSLY annoying formats with lots of pictures you have to click through and tiny nuggets of anecdotal text. The basic premises upon which the article is founded, however, holds true. Sports allow us to escape our sometimes mundane daily existence; it connects us to other like-minded people; it inspires us with stories of heroics and with people who have overcome great adversity to achieve great things, and so on.

Even those of us who have seriously interesting, creative, and absorbing daily lives can find them enriched by the addition of other passions. I love my family, I love my job, e.g. music, I love gardening, and yet I have found great joy in my relatively new passion for football. The key, I believe, is to not let your Steelers fandom to be the only thing you value in your life.

It obvious isn’t healthy to allow one’s entire happiness to rest on the outcome of a football game. Most of us get around this by focusing on the hope for the future, however little based in reality or history this hope may be. Thus long-time Pirates fans have for years typically invested more of their interest in the minor-league system, in other words, the hope for the future, than the actual team, at least by mid-season.

We Steelers fans tend to be a bit contemptuous of those fans of certain other teams who "win their Super Bowl at the draft." And we really shouldn’t. This is an entirely appropriate coping strategy on the part of these fans. And sooner or later their faith may be rewarded. After all, the NFL is set up the way it is precisely to give every team a chance to compete. Given that most fans have no control over the ownership, management and policies of their team, what else are they to do?

Changing circumstances could even turn a team like the Steelers, one with good ownership, management, and coaching, into a non-contender for a year or even a more extended period. We could find ourselves focusing more on team development and less on actual outcomes, and we would have to, or else risk poisoning the rest of our lives with residual unhappiness.

And lest you are one of those fans who lives and dies by your teams’ results, this article gives some suggestions on how to cope. They are just what you would think of yourself if you could do so rationally—rely on your social network, count your blessings, and so on. In the meantime, there is one other caution for the rest of us, noted by the above-referenced Saturday Post article:

[L]est we present too rosy a picture, it must be said that sports fandom can also be a health hazard. In a 2008 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, researchers found that on days when Germany’s soccer team played in the World Cup, cardiac emergencies more than tripled for German men and nearly doubled for women. Of course, European soccer fans are an extreme bunch; but even in the U.S., although visits to hospital emergency rooms tend to decrease during a much-anticipated sports game, there’s a higher-than-usual surge immediately after the game ends. The explanation: To see a game’s final outcome, some die-hard fans delay making that trip to the ER.

So don't be that guy [or gal.] After all, the TV in the emergency room, at least in Pittsburgh, will be tuned to the game : )