Can the Return of Pro Sports Help Your Mental Health?

Fenway Park at night

Billie Weiss / Boston Red Sox / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • Pro sports are set to return after months-long disruptions to their normal schedules.
  • Even without fans in the stands, sports may provide a sense of normalcy and community that has been missing during the COVID-19 pandemic.

As COVID-19 continues to spread throughout the U.S., pro sports leagues are working to finalize their plans to return at some point later this summer or early fall. Although fans may not be allowed in the stands, there has been a lot of discussion and excitement around sports coming back, especially since so many of us consider sports viewing to be such an important part of our lives. 

And while experts know that playing sports and being physically active can boost mental health, we're not as familiar with the benefits of watching them from a distance. This may leave you wondering: Could the return of pro sports help improve your mental health? We asked three mental health experts to weigh in about the role viewership—even from a distance—plays in improving our mood.

How the Return of Sports Can Help Our Mental Health

We are living in an unprecedented time in modern history. Fear, anxiety, worry, and stress are mounting, and many people may seem unable to let go of the way life used to be prior to COVID-19. Although staying safe, wearing a mask, and maintaining social distance are the top priorities, finding ways to take a mental break from all that is going on is also important. And that’s where sports come in.

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. But for others, it’s a way to escape—if only for a short while—from the isolation, anxiety, and stress of living in a pandemic.

“There are a multitude of psychological benefits to following and watching college and professional sports,” says Moe Gelbart, PhD, the director of practice development for Community Psychiatry.

Moe Gelbart, PhD

In addition to the thrill and excitement of competition, there is also the ability to vicariously identify with victory, the social attachment to the ‘tribe’ we identify with, and understanding the excellence of performance.

— Moe Gelbart, PhD

Kensa Gunter, PsyD, CMPC, an executive board member for the Association for Applied Sport Psychology, agrees. “For many people, the return to sport may represent a return to something familiar,” she says. As uncertainty and unrest continue, Gunter says that reengaging in something that’s familiar, something that can be a source of enjoyment and that typically provide an outlet for people, can potentially help in terms of boosting overall mood.

Sports Can Give Us a Sense of Normalcy

In pre-COVID times, sports offered a notable mental and physical boost for both viewers and athletes. But during the pandemic we are realizing just how significant the role of sports had been.

“People are looking for anything that feels and sounds like life before COVID-19,” says Souzan Swift, PsyD, psychologist at Heal. With sports viewership, Swift says it provides a sense of normalcy, a healthy distraction, and a way to connect with others during this time of isolation.

For Gelbart, the return of professional sports is about a sense of normalcy and some brief escape from the enormous stress of illness, death, unemployment, anxiety, and fear about the future.

However, even in the best of times, Gelbart says spectator sports are undeniably popular given the myriad needs they fulfill in the viewer, from experiencing a swell of positive emotions to connecting with friends and family to feeling a deep appreciation for athletic greatness.

Watching Sports Can Provide a Healthy Distraction

People often view sports as a distraction or even as an escape from regular life. College and professional sports also provide a sense of connection, belonging, and community. Swift says that when we are able to focus on the game and the players, viewing sports allows us to let go of the stress and negativity surrounding us. “If, even for a few hours, our anxiety and feelings of depression are no longer at the forefront of our mind,” she says.

Sports Give Us a Way to Connect With People

Gunter says she often thinks of sport as both a universal language and a metaphor for life, and in that, it has the power to connect us.

Kensa Gunter, PsyD, CMPC

In this shared experience, people may collectively identify with or rally around characteristics such as competition, teamwork, witnessing the will of the human spirit, navigating emotions, and facing a challenge and rising to the occasion—all of which are elements of our daily life.

— Kensa Gunter, PsyD, CMPC

Moreover, when we have a strong connection to the players and team in general, Swift says we feel like we are part of a team, and feeling connected to others is important to our overall well-being.

Sports Provide Us With a Sense of Community

Whether we’re watching or participating, sports give us a sense of community. “While out in your local city, wearing your local city’s sports jersey, t-shirt, hat, other fans notice and acknowledge you,” says Swift. It may be slight, but Swift says it leaves you feeling good. “Even the smallest head nod, smile, or comment helps us to feel like we are instantly part of a community. It gives us common ground, and we feel less isolated,” she explains.

What About the Risk to Athletes?

Considering the athletes' health and safety should be central to any discussions about returning to sports competitions, as should the health and safety of the people who help put on sporting events. Although we are eager for sports to return, Gunter says most of us are not eager to see anyone put themselves at risk. “I think people are eager for something different than the ongoing uncertainty, loss, change, and feelings of facing the unknown that have defined much of this year,” she says.

And in the midst of all of the challenges we’ve faced and continue to face, Gunter says a safe return to sport may provide that “something different” that offers hope, relief, or simply an outlet as we collectively continue trying to find our way forward.

Like most things in life, and particularly during the pandemic, Gelbart says all choices are on a risk/reward continuum. “As a society, we have to ask ourselves if the risks are worth the benefits,” he says.

On the positive side, Gelbart says it seems like the professional and collegiate programs are attempting to take the maximum protective procedures. However, the sports themselves require contact and exposure, and even worse, any degree of spectator involvement is still considerable risk. “It is a tough choice that will be different for everyone,” he adds. 

What This Means For You

COVID-19 has presented us with a unique challenge to develop new ways to maintain our physical and mental health. With many of our usual go-to strategies unavailable, we’ve been required to dig deep and find other ways to battle stress, relieve anxiety, and feel connected during this period of social distancing.

And while spectator sports will look very different for some time, the idea that we can observe (from a distance) the teams and athletes we enjoy cheering on can offer hope in the midst of uncertainty. 

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

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Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Sara Lindberg, M.Ed
Sara Lindberg, M.Ed., is a freelance writer focusing on mental health, fitness, nutrition, and parenting.