Eric Stinton: Healing Through Sport
Last weekend was the first time spectators were allowed to attend outdoor sporting events since the start of the pandemic.
It is a good thing for the athletes. It’s a lot more fun to compete when people are clapping on the sidelines. For youth sports in particular, the hearing and hearing aid of your loved ones is invaluable. Two boys gave hard-hitting quotes to KHON2 about their families’ absence from their games: “I was angry they weren’t there,” one boy said. “I felt like no one really cared about me,” the other boy said.
Of course, whenever children are affected, so are parents. The extra bit of salt in the wound watched visitors gather for beach parties while local parents were stuck in the parking lot trying to watch their children play soccer 50 yards away. In the ongoing jungle gym of our local mandates, allowing families to watch sports outdoors together is a small but meaningful step.
But the truth is, watching sports isn’t just good for the people who play it; it’s also good for the people watching, in a way that’s very relevant to us here in hawaii.
Journalist Larry Olmsted recently published a book titled “Fans: How Watching Sports Makes Us Happier, Healthier and More Understanding”. The title gives a pretty good overview of the content of the book, which cites various psychological and sociological studies on how being a sports fan improves social, mental and physical health; makes people more connected with each other; helps maintain better cognitive processing with age; and correlates with better educational outcomes, including higher GPAs in college, better graduation rates, and higher earnings after graduation.
Simply put, watching sports offers benefits that address many of the challenges that exist in Hawaii.
In 2019, Hawaii had the 15th highest high school obesity rate in the country. While the adult obesity rate ranked much lower at 48, that’s a misleading statistic because it’s compared to the rest of the country: we’ve seen steady increases in the adult obesity rate since. 1990. This was almost certainly made worse by the pandemic. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has an extra locking flab to prove it. The ability to get out and move around a bit is important, and watching sports is a great motivation to do so.
It is not just physical health that improves by watching sports. Dr Daniel L. Wann, professor of psychology at Murray State University in Kentucky, has conducted numerous studies on the ramifications of sports fandom since 1989 and has consistently found that sports fans are happier people.
In three decades of research, Wann has “found no less than 24 specific mental health benefits” for people who “identify with a sports team.” These include greater self-esteem; fewer episodes of depression; lower levels of loneliness; more friends; higher levels of trust; less fatigue, anger and tension; and a greater frequency of positive emotions.
“Sports fandom helps meet basic psychological needs, things like the need to belong, to feel a sense of connection with those around us,” Wann said.
Many of these benefits resonate with me. The initial lockdowns were imbued with anxious and delusional energy, but the longer the pandemic went on, the more isolated, edgy, and miserable I became. Over the past seven months, I have experienced the loss of my grandmother and two of my closest friends, one to medical complications and the other to suicide.
While I always want to be sensitive to the reality that other people have gone through much worse than me, I nevertheless fell in dark places in the past year. One of the things that kept me afloat was the routine of watching sports: the impossible magic of NBA basketball, the mind-blowing immediacy of mixed martial arts, the inspiring championship of the men’s volleyball team. the University of Hawaii. However, it’s worth noting that the same mental health benefits that Wann described also apply to fans of losing teams, which is sadly more common for us pitiful UH fans.
Watching sports has been personally uplifting for me when I was on my own texting friends and family about Lebron doing things to Lebron or Max Holloway putting his name on record books . But now that my friends and I have been vaccinated, being able to once again watch games and fights with other people has been deeply invigorating. I’ve never wanted to scramble for parking at the Stan Sheriff Center so much before, and I can only hope for the opportunity to cheer on my students next year alongside their peers and parents.
Sport is crazy, frivolous, joyful and hopeful at the same time. That is to say, they are deeply human. They are one of the only places in modern life where a real surprise still occurs. They connect us to each other and help us form stronger communities. I believe problem solving is best when it starts locally and we need each other to tackle the types of challenges that lie ahead. If sport can push us in this direction, we must embrace it.
That’s not to say that if we all encourage volleyball enough in Hawaii, all of our problems will go away or that the effects of the pandemic will be reversed. But action on a large and small scale has virtues. Watching sports – from the court or couch side – is an easy, fun little thing we can do to at least slightly improve a lot of serious long-term challenges.