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Psychologists: Lack of sports takes away a key outlet for fans

There were no fans at Madison Square Garden

There were no fans at Madison Square Garden before the Big East basketball tournament stopped on March 12. Credit: Getty Images/Sarah Stier

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The ballparks and arenas are empty, the practice facilities closed and networks are re-airing past games with known outcomes instead of live events.

There have been breaks in the action before, usually because of labor strife or wartime or political boycotts. But the global athletic hiatus in response to the COVID-19 pandemic is somewhat unique, certainly in modern times.

And experts contacted by Newsday believe the sudden deprivation to sports fans can have a negative psychological impact in terms of anxiety and depression.

“One of the first things to recognize is that, yes, sports is a form of entertainment. But it is also a source of social connectiveness with family, friends and with a team,” said Dr. Mark Terjesen, a professor of psychology at St. John’s who attended Hofstra and lives in Glen Cove. “For some, maybe not fans, the absence of sports compared to everything else may seem frivolous. But, for the rest of us, it’s a way of life. Many fans have a deep, personal history with teams and with fellow fans."

For now, the new normal is one devoid of sports.

“Psychologically, the term most frequently used in the current situation is anxiety,” said Dr. Stanley Teitelbaum, a clinical psychologist and author, including “Sports Heroes, Fallen Idols: How Star Athletes Pursue Self Destructive Paths and Jeopardize Their Careers,” and “Illusion and Disillusionment: Core Issues in Psychotherapy.”

“Uncertainty is one of the most anxiety-producing phenomena there is,” said Teitelbaum, who has an office in Manhattan and lives in Teaneck, New Jersey. “What’s less talked about is there’s also a lot of potential depression. Depression, in many ways, is related to loss. When we lose something central to us, it introduces feelings of depression.

“We’re going to miss our sports outlets increasingly, especially as people feel more confined and stir crazy.”

The loss of sports is not just the lack of games being televised or available to be attended as live events. The opportunities to participate have dwindled.

Teitelbaum said it was imperative for people to find other ways to exercise — he is an avid tennis player who instead is taking daily walks — or other ways to maintain an interest in sports. For instance, watching sports documentaries.

“The sports world stopped the clock, basically, and people didn’t get to process this and be ready for this,” Terjesen said. “I would encourage people, in the absence of sports, funnel any energy or focus into something positive. Maybe, in the past, it was watching or thinking about sports, which is a way to connect with family and friends. It may be to find other ways to connect with people.”

Terjesen also said maintaining a structured routine, which includes exercise, is paramount.

“Our normal patterns have changed so dramatically over the last couple of weeks, so it is unclear what impact the loss of sports is having given all that other change,” said Dr. Craig Johnson, the chairman of the Psychology Department at Hofstra. “Any given sport has an offseason so, even for die-hard fans, they go months of the year without that sport. Leagues have had work stoppages as well. So, the absence of a given sport is less unique compared to the other things happening right now. Of course, the absence of essentially all sports over an extended period is something most of us haven’t experienced.”

Of course, the longer this absence of sports extends, the more normal it might seem.

“I think people will adapt to that,” Teitelbaum said. “The more they have anxiety, the more they connect with safety first. However, I don’t think that’s going to be a permanent situation. Increasingly, people will miss their sports. They will increasingly get used to life without sports but also long for the return of sports because it will signify things are better in the world.”

“There may be a few exceptions where individuals discover a new hobby and their previous interest in watching sports wanes,” Johnson said. “But I think, for most, they will appreciate more what was missing for a while. I think this is especially likely because the absence of sports right now is not being replaced by good alternatives. People are being asked to stay home and avoid interactions with others. That really limits the kind of activities that people often find most rewarding.”

But even if the current situation seems bleak and fraught with psychological dangers, mental performance coach Mark Lerman of Baldwin believes people will be strong.

“I feel pretty optimistic,” said Lerman, who works with the United States Tennis Association in player development, strength and conditioning and mental skills as well as working with his own clients.

“I don’t know what it’s going to look like," he said. "But I think we’re going to come through this and we’re going to thrive again. That’s what we do as a nation and globally. But, also, as athletes and competitive people. We thrive, no matter the situation. We’re going to succeed.”

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