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PETTYCORD: How sports have helped me get through this year — and how they can help you too

Detailing the positive effects of being a sports fan during life’s most arduous moments

<p>I found myself turning to sports more often than usual throughout 2021.</p>

I found myself turning to sports more often than usual throughout 2021.

I had an epiphany as the clock ran down to zero while I was sitting in the press box for the Virginia women’s soccer team’s third-round clash against BYU. The air was freezing cold, the team had just dropped the match — despite being favored to win — and I was watching multiple players break down on the pitch. I had only watched a total of four matches throughout the season, including that one, and I was distraught over the loss. I shed a few tears that I quickly wiped away, but I eventually realized that my tears were caused by more than just an empathetic sadness for the team.

Watching sports has always been one of my favorite pastimes. I started following the NFL towards the beginning of high school and expanded my horizons as the years went on — getting invested in hockey, baseball and even professional cornhole at times. When I came to Virginia all the way from San Diego in 2018, I was exposed to college sports for the first time and rested some of my identity in being a Cavalier fan and, more broadly, a sports fan.

I’ve sat with this identity for a while now, and it’s not exclusive to me. Millions of people across the globe consider themselves sports fans. According to research by Dr. Daniel L. Wann, a psychology professor at Murray State University, there are at least 24 different mental health benefits to being a sports fan. Some of these include fewer depressive episodes, lower levels of loneliness and experiencing positive emotions more often. The psychological effects of identifying as a fan are remarkably evident.

Another thing is true about sports fans — sports wouldn’t be the same without them. In his book “Fans,” acclaimed journalist and author Larry Olmsted writes that “without fandom, sports has no platform.” This is repeatedly emphasized by Virginia’s own coaches, who have stressed the importance of fans.

“I think we all missed [the fans],” Women’s Soccer Coach Steve Swanson said. “There’s some places we go where we have to generate our own atmosphere … but I think here at Klöckner it’s a special atmosphere … and it makes a big difference for us.”

Football Coach Bronco Mendenhall also spoke on how incredible Cavalier fans can be.

“It’s just great to play football and have our fans here,” Mendenhall said. “[At the William & Mary game] I saw something that I hadn't seen maybe in my whole time here, where as soon as they opened the gates our student section were racing to get their seats up at the front. Yeah, that was a moment that I'm not going to forget, that was just gratifying.”

Throughout 2021, we saw the sports world adapt to changes induced by the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite not having many in-person sporting events until the fall, sports fans were still sports fans. Even with fluctuating COVID-19 numbers, polarizing politics and whatever other stressors presented themselves, they could always identify as a fan and find a game to watch.

Sports became my escape from the unpredictable reality of this year — they gave me the opportunity to take a step back when life became taxing. I could retreat to my bedroom or living room, turn on a game and silence my worries — even if it was just for a short amount of time.

The same can be said even as in-person sports returned. I spent a lot of time attending games at Virginia’s respective athletics facilities, and every time I did, I could drown out life outside of the facility. All I could focus on was the game, and that brought me immense amounts of mental clarity.

So as I sat watching BYU defeat our highly acclaimed women’s soccer team, listening to Cougars fans chanting, tears ran down my face. I was sad that we had lost because I genuinely believed that our team deserved to win that match. But beyond that, the clock hitting zero snapped me back to reality.

That was the first time I understood why I always feel a tinge of sadness at the end of every game because, to me, the end of a game means the resumption of real life. No matter the fact that I know there will always be a game somewhere, it’s still a little agonizing to walk out of a stadium or turn off the television, even if my team has won — though that does make it a little easier.

As we enter 2022, I encourage everyone to watch more sports. You will find a welcoming community amongst other fans, feel more connected to others and perhaps even fill a void that you didn’t know existed. Being a sports fan is one of the best things that has ever happened to me, and I wish that everyone is able to say the same about themselves one day.

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