March Madness: Keeping Your Cool as a Sports Fan

As March Madness approaches in the world of college basketball, I’ve been thinking about a different definition of these words: namely, the emotional madness that can be stirred up while watching sports. This is something that I have worked on with my own boys and family members and my professional clients. Can anyone relate to something being so enjoyable and causing such strong emotions that it turns into something that isn’t enjoyable after all?

One of my clients, a young man named Jason, is someone I work with from time to time when needed. He has made tremendous progress in his life and met many of his personal and professional goals. One of his favorite things to do is to watch basketball with his parents; he is a huge Warriors fan. He rarely misses a game, but has struggled to watch without becoming overly emotional or angry. His reaction to a missed shot, bad call, or team loss often made him furious and dysregulated for hours after the game was over. His reactions stirred up anxiety and even dread for him and his parents alike.

Finding ways to manage his emotions while watching the games became a priority for Jason. He wanted to regain the fun of watching for himself and his family. We talked about the fact that the work needed to start outside of the viewing time. Practicing emotional regulation starts with awareness and practicing tools and strategies when in a calm state of mind, separate from the difficult event or situation. Here are the tools and strategies that helped Jason build awareness and manage his emotions and reactions so he could get back to the fun of watching his favorite team in the playoffs:

  • ​First, discuss the situation and challenges/problem involved. Build awareness about the specific triggers, unexpected reaction(s) and uncomfortable feelings that arise.
  • What emotions and sensations come up when thinking about this situation?  
  • Are there other people involved who might be affected by the person having the reaction? Who are those people?
  • Does the reaction make the situation more or less enjoyable?
  • What is the role of others? Perhaps watching a game with certain people stirs up emotion, whereas other people have a calming effect. Those calming people can be viewed as co-regulators because they can alleviate the problem.
  • Is location a factor? Perhaps it’s easier to stay calm in a public place where others are around. Or, perhaps the opposite is true, and it’s easier to be calm at home where things are quieter and more controlled. Home also offers the relaxing option of watching sports on a comfy sofa in PJs while enjoying favorite foods or drink.
  • Before watching a game, it can help to stay well-rested and hydrated to decrease potential irritability. Try working out too. Research shows that getting your heart rate up can increase cognitive functioning, which might support rationality over emotion when the score is tied:
  • Practice using breathing tools to stay calm before, during, and after tense moments 
  • Discuss the size of the problem.  This cognitive tool can help to put things in perspective and can be useful to review prior to watching a big game.
  • When the players take a break, viewers can take one too. Use this time to move around, engage in a breathing exercise, drink some water, or listen to calming music. These can be good ways to calm emotions or take a brain break from a situation that heightens emotions.
  • Before the game, make a plan and include which of these tools (or others) to try. If one doesn’t help, try something different.

Whether your chosen team wins or loses, it’s always a win-win to enjoy sports without feeling anger or unwanted stress. After all, even a big game is still just a game!



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