March Madness

March 26, 2018 by School of Medicine Webmaster

March Madness is here, the time of year when many of us construct brackets with the teams we think will win games in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.  In addition, if a team we normally root for makes the tournament we may have a more personal investment in how they do.  Given that the tournament extends over more than three weeks, there are few other times that many of us invest so much time and energy in watching sports.  This makes this an ideal time to pay attention to how being a sports fan affects us.

What happens to us physiologically when we are spectators has been studied, and we may have responses similar to the players, with our heart rates going up as the players exert themselves.  In addition, we may have a similar response when a game is close near the end, or when the team we support isn’t doing well and we feel frustrated.

Changes in neurotransmitters and hormones have also been documented among individuals watching sports.  Watching the team we support do well has been shown to increase dopamine, a principal neurotransmitter involved in the reward circuits in the brain.  A loss by the team we’re rooting for can result in an increase in cortisol, one of the principal hormones involved in mediating the stress response.

In addition to these physiologic responses, being a sports fan can also affect our well-being, often in a positive way.  Being a fan can contribute to a sense of community, to a feeling of being a part of a group, and having something in common with others who support the same team.  Being a fan can also be a safe way of expressing emotions, which may be especially important if this isn’t something we normally do.  If our team is winning we can celebrate openly, and if they aren’t we can also express our frustrations.

Fans of the University of Virginia men’s basketball team, and I am certainly one of them, have had the opportunity to experience the extremes that can come with watching sports this year.  First we got to experience the positive impact of watching the team’s very successful regular season and their ACC tournament championship, culminating in being the unanimous number one ranked team in the country and the overall number one seed in the NCAA tournament.  This was quickly followed by a profound low, a first round loss in the tournament, becoming the first number one seed to ever lose to a number sixteen seed.

Many of us were caught up in all of this.  We felt a sense of pride in how well the team did and how well they responded during the season, winning a number of close games, including when they were down by four points with less than a second left.  Along with this pride however, we might also have recognized that we would feel disappointment with any outcome other than the team winning the national championship, that any loss would indicate unreached potential, and that even though they were the number one seed in the tournament that a loss at some point was more likely than not.

As things transpired, the season was over very quickly, more quickly probably than any UVa fan even wanted to contemplate.  In response to this we had the opportunity to acknowledge our own disappointment, and that whatever we felt it was much less than the players and the coaches were feeling.  They were the ones who actually played and managed the game, as much as it might have felt to us like we did as we watched their shots fail to fall and the vaunted pack-line defense wilt.  This perspective can be important, remembering that this is a spectator sport and that it is the players and coaches who are on the floor.  Given how we can feel as fans that we’ve been let down, it can be easy to blame the players for playing poorly.  Yet no high level athletes want to play poorly, and they undoubtedly gave the best effort they could in the moment.  And these are young men in their late teens and early twenties, some not even old enough to drink alcohol legally, to whom we have given the tasks of fulfilling our dreams and expectations as fans.

In addition to perspective taking, we can also practice awareness of our thoughts. When we become aware that we are replaying the game and reinforcing our disappointment we can choose to let the thoughts go, recognizing that such rumination serves no purpose other than to make us feel worse.  We can also choose not to allow others to do the same.  With the profusion of sources of criticism and commentary on air and online we can unplug for a while, to allow ourselves time to recalibrate without being further reminded of what someone else might think of the game or the team.

I found doing all this very helpful.  In a few days, while still disappointed, I found I was able to move on from the final loss, proud to be a fan of such a remarkable team, sad for how things ended, especially for the team and coaches.  So as UVa supporters this year, we have had the opportunity to experience both the positives of being sports fans, the community and positive emotions associated with good performances, and the negatives of failing to achieve the goals we had for the team.  When we pay attention we can be aware of both these extremes, and how we may choose to respond to them, perhaps by not getting quite so caught up in either end of the spectrum.  As with many experiences in life, we have no actual control over the outcome, only of how we respond, whatever transpires.  Personally, I’m already looking forward to next year and the ups and downs which will undoubtedly occur, and which might even end with UVa finally winning a national championship in basketball.

Filed Under: Monthly Musings