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As Denver Nuggets Capture History, Expert Reveals a Way to Better Fandom Next Year

CU Anschutz therapist says fandom done right offers opportunities for growth and bonding

minute read

What You Need To Know

From rethinking a sports team’s impact on mental health, to improving introductions to fandom for kids, a therapist gives a rundown on the positives – and potential pitfalls to avoid – when cheering a team on. 

They finally did it. 

After 47 years in the NBA, the Denver Nuggets reached the basketball mountaintop and struck gold. Jubilant and long-suffering Nuggets fans watched their team defeat the Miami Heat on June 12 and at last hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy. 

Heart palpitations, gnawed fingernails and cold sweats have been replaced by overwhelming joy – a welcome feeling for a fanbase that has stuck with the team despite decades of heartbreak. 

For fans, this range of emotions can be a potent mix across sports. 

As a big hockey fan, Emily Hemendinger, MPH, LCSW, clinical director of the OCD Program and assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, recalled a recent series-deciding game in the NHL playoffs. 

“I was so anxious and stressed, one of my eyes was seriously twitching,” said Hemendinger, herself a big Montreal Canadiens fan. “My partner is a Dallas Stars fan, and I really wanted them to do well this year in game seven against the Kraken. I was so anxious, but I wasn't even enjoying the game. It prompted me to say, ‘Wait, I'm not even enjoying this experience. Why am I watching this if it's causing so much anxiety? Let me try to reframe this.’" 

In the following Q&A, Hemendinger outlines how sports fandom brings mental health benefits, while detailing how fans can also find a way to reframe their relationship with sports to strike a healthier balance with their teams through a strategy of radical acceptance.

Q&A Header

What are the positive mental health benefits of being a sports fan?

I'll start by saying being a sports fan can fall under the definition of “parasocial relationships” – one-sided relationships where one person is extending time, emotional energy and interest into a person or team, and that other person or team is unaware of their existence. It's most commonly seen with celebrities or sports teams. It could manifest as over-investment in a team, or even sometimes a hatred or extreme dislike for another team. 

Now being a sports fan, with a parasocial relationship, they can be mostly harmless and even beneficial. They can help people with identity development and self-esteem. If a team is winning and doing well, there is research that shows that that improves someone's self-esteem and mood. 

Another positive: strong social connections between fans of similar sports teams – it feels like you’re working toward a common goal and purpose. This connection piece is important because there are so many ways to connect around sports. So, it definitely can be helpful with self-esteem, connection and a sense of belonging. 

On the other side of the coin, what are the mental health costs of being a sports fan? For example, is there grief fans are experiencing after their team loses?

As a sports fan, the area to watch for is when it starts to consume your entire identity and self-worth. That’s when it can move into more problematic places of preoccupation. 

But from a grief perspective, with parasocial relationships, sports fans often feel like a win or a loss is happening to a close friend or even to themselves. Because of that relationship, it's natural to feel really sad and maybe even depressed if your team is not doing well and then, as a result, experience grief. I think grief doesn't have to just be something that's applied to death and dying. Grief can be the loss of a relationship, the loss of identity, the loss of a role. It can certainly apply to the sports that are a big part of people's lives.

Are the emotional swings bigger in both directions when you root for a historically downtrodden or overlooked team – say, for example, the Denver Nuggets?

I think it really depends on an individual basis of how invested you are. I think when fandoms are way more dedicated, there can be a lot more intensity across the board. But I think when there's a team with a history of struggling, the fandom can become overly identified with this underdog narrative. With that, the wins feel that much bigger and more exciting, and the losses might be more disappointing. That underdog narrative can also be used as like, ‘Well, you know what? We gave it the best we could. We were the underdogs,’ and maybe soften the blow a little bit. 

To that intensity point: How can you tell if fandom has gone too far?

When you are so invested in something, it can sometimes really consume someone. I know the word gets thrown around a lot, but “toxic” fandom is when there is so much hatred for a team and the individuals on it that all that anger and disappointment can get projected onto the players through obscenities, slurs and sometimes even threats after the game, whether it's in person or social media. And fans might throw stuff on the court or just really resort to racist, homophobic, or sexist vitriol – and some even get violent. So that is very obviously going too far.

We talked about grief: It’s OK to grieve the loss your team had. But resulting to violence, physical or emotional, means it’s probably time to work on cultivating other hobbies or finding ways to connect with people who are in the fandom in ways that are adaptive and forming positive connections versus connecting over hatred.  

What can be a healthier mindset for a sports fan?

The therapeutic concept of radical acceptance can be embraced. I always have to make it about therapy as a therapist (laughs). 

One example is the “pro-tank” fandom. Instead of struggling against the truth of your team’s current circumstances, you accept it, sometimes even embracing it. 

Embracing, for lack of a better term, “the suck,” isn't terrible because sometimes teams performing poorly or struggling leads to needed changes. A fan base coming even more together, creating some great memes for some increased humor or even good draft picks. That radical acceptance piece helps reframe things and puts things into a bigger perspective instead of getting really lost in the moment.

So “radical acceptance” could help the average fan reframe their relationship with a team they follow over the long term?

It can be one of the best ways to navigate a lot of difficult times in our lives. Radical acceptance doesn't mean that we're like, ‘Yay, my team lost.’ It's like, ‘Okay, it happens.’ 

I think there's a misconception that acceptance means you like it, or you're cool with it. Acceptance is not that, because if we were cool with it, that would be the ideal. And if it was the ideal, we wouldn't have to accept it because we'd be happy about it. 

Instead, acceptance is acknowledging that it isn't great and not letting that consume us and choosing to live our life anyway. Radical acceptance equals looking at that bigger picture. I know saying ‘it's just a game’ is not helpful. But ‘the team will be back to play again’ is a better framing. 

To that point, should sports fans be more in a “this is one chapter in a story” frame of mind over the binary of “wins are good, losses are bad”?

Yeah, it's reframing and looking at the bigger picture, instead of getting caught up in the specific wins and losses or being like, ‘I hate this team; they played so poorly.’ I love that, reframing it as the story and how they got there. That doesn't mean you can't be disappointed because I'm not going to tell someone to not feel how they want to feel and at the same time, looking at, ‘Wow, my team or we got to this point and that was so epic and so meaningful and it was such a journey.’ Yeah, that's a great way to look at it and zoom out, to get that bigger story. 

How does someone identify if therapy would be helpful as a sports fan?

I think self-awareness is important, but also gathering feedback from friends and family can be a really helpful source too. Alongside looking at the behaviors you’re doing around sports and your fandom. 

If it’s small superstitions while watching a game, that’s not impairing. But if those superstitions are getting in the way of them living their life and causing distress, that’d be a great time to seek therapy. 

Getting really worked up about sports isn't necessarily a reason to go to therapy, but if you're getting to the point where your emotions are so intense that people are giving you feedback saying: ‘Every time there's a Nuggets game, you're getting into a fight with the person next to you,’ maybe that's a time to reflect on that yourself and say ‘This isn't healthy emotional regulation. Maybe there needs to be another way for me to work through this.’

Paying attention to how you're showing your emotions is important. Are you getting aggressive? Is that aggressiveness getting worse because you're drinking a lot at the games, or there's problematic betting going on? Those are more good indicators to maybe go to therapy. 

How can family members offer a healthier introduction to sports to kids?

That's a great question. Another positive of sports fandom for mental health is offering something that families bond around. Maybe family dinners can be tough to schedule, but everyone still comes together on gameday. It can be a beautiful bonding experience. 

At the same time, moderation is important. I think that passionate fandom can be a great hobby for the family, but if you’re watching sports and you’re shouting and cursing and getting really upset, the kid is going to pick up on those things. They might model those behaviors or develop more of an anxious temperament, which might lead to further problems down the road. Other behaviors such as alcohol use with sports can be another problematic area around kids. 

I think families just need to be aware of how they are showing up around sports, and when you have kids around to think about moderating behavior and any substance consumption in a healthier, more adaptive way. 

You are a fan of the Montreal Canadiens. How have you personally navigated your own fandom with all the tools you have professionally as a therapist?

Yeah, I love that you're asking this also, because being from New York, everyone asks, ‘Why are you Montreal Canadiens fan?’ I'm like, ‘Well, it's a family thing!’ (laughs)

But I think the radical acceptance piece is key in my own journey with my fandom. Having a sense of humor about it is also really helpful. Not taking it too seriously: I can still make jokes about it, laugh at the memes, laugh at the funny things, or embrace the tank. 

The Canadiens made the 2021 Stanley Cup Finals but lost to the Tampa Bay Lightning. My view at the time was: Did it really stink to have the Canadians lose? Yeah, it was unfortunate, and they haven't been the same since. But looking back on that time, it was so great to see them make it that far. To see them work so hard and come together as such a productive team, while also bonding with family and friends around how much fun that time was.

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Staff Mention

Emily Hemendinger, MPH, LCSW