Is This Big Dance the Most Important One of All?

Some identify March as the most important month of the year. The bleakness of winter transitions to the promise of spring. Those of us who reside in cold weather states can finally spend some quality time out of doors without bundling up in a dozen layers of apparel. And then there’s The Big Dance. March Madness. “The Tournament.”

The NCAA basketball tournaments

The NCAA men’s and women’s college basketball tournaments have evolved into the most popular sporting events in America. But the Big Dance has significance beyond providing spontaneous drama on television.

For MS patients and their caregivers, the tournament can provide a great way to relieve stress. This benefit is especially critical now, in the wake of a worldwide health crisis that has added additional anxiety to those grappling with an illness that produces stress every day.

Do sports benefit couch potatoes?

There are innumerable studies confirming the mental and physical benefits of participating in individual and team sports. But are there benefits to actively rooting for your favorite teams?

The answer is clearly yes, according to psychologists and other professionals who study human behavior.1 The most obvious benefit is distraction; sports provide a distraction from our everyday worries, including the harsh reality that nearly 2.7 million people have died from COVID-19, including about 540,000 fellow Americans.

The return of sports, though risky for those competing, has been a boon to a nation that has been cooped up and depressed over the pandemic, divisive politics, etc. Rooting for our favorite players and teams has been, for many, the first step towards returning to normalcy.

Can rooting for our favorite teams boost our mental state?

It is widely accepted that being part of a community can contribute to a healthy state of mind. In this electronic age, it is easier than ever to feel a sense of belonging to multiple communities. After my alma mater, Wisconsin, won its first-round game this year, social media provided several community bulletin boards where gleeful Badgers could share their feelings and celebrate together.

The camaraderie of college sports

The camaraderie of college sports is particularly strong because the connection between fans and student-athletes is special. No matter their age and background, alumni and active players all have at least one life experience in common: they attended the same university. This is a personal connection that simply does not exist in professional sports where, as Jerry Seinfeld once quipped, “You’re basically rooting for the clothes.”

The Big Dance really is special

Once upon a time, the NCAA men’s basketball tournament was unexceptional. Along came Magic Johnson and Larry Bird and the 1979 showdown between Michigan State and Indiana State and the event was transformed. With 68 teams in the field and with millions of alumni and fans connected to those teams, March Madness sits with the Super Bowl and the World Series as a premiere national sporting event.

A meaningful connection to a greater community

But following the men’s and women’s tournaments may provide us with some important health benefits this time around. “In pre-COVID times, sports offered a notable mental and physical boost for both viewers and athletes,” writes Sara Lindberg, M.Ed., a mental health and fitness expert. “For some people, being able to watch their favorite pro golfer or baseball team offers some semblance of a return to normalcy, providing a meaningful connection to a greater community.”1

The flip side

I never imagined that watching sports might require an admonition akin to a black-label warning on prescription drugs. But at least one social worker, Allan Schwartz, LSCW, Ph.D., has advised that fans need to remember that it’s all just a game.

Schwartz has discussed a study of the eating habits of NFL fans on Mondays after their teams played on Sunday. The study, published in the Journal of Psychological Science, found that frustrated fans tended to eat more food with saturated fat after their teams lost; those whose teams won tended to eat healthier.

“I do not mean to imply that any of you sports fans should give up either watching the games on TV or going to the ball park,” Schwartz said. “However, it’s important to keep these things in perspective. Win or lose, avoid those saturated fats.”2

Good advice, but if my team keeps winning, I might have to celebrate with a hot fudge sundae.

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