Why we cheer - excitement and stress on the sidelines

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  • Ashton McKellips (26) of Lake City watches the first play with his teammates on the Timberwolves sideline during a junior varsity football game against the Lewis and Clark Tigers on Saturday, Sept. 7 in Coeur d’Alene.

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    Daniel Close (14), Max Meyer (21) and Mathew Heer (34) try to stop Zachary Adkinson (17) during a junior varsity football game between the Lake City High School Timberwolves and the Lewis and Clark Tigers on Saturday, Sept. 7 in Coeur d’Alene.

  • Ashton McKellips (26) of Lake City watches the first play with his teammates on the Timberwolves sideline during a junior varsity football game against the Lewis and Clark Tigers on Saturday, Sept. 7 in Coeur d’Alene.

  • 1

    Daniel Close (14), Max Meyer (21) and Mathew Heer (34) try to stop Zachary Adkinson (17) during a junior varsity football game between the Lake City High School Timberwolves and the Lewis and Clark Tigers on Saturday, Sept. 7 in Coeur d’Alene.

Being scared at the movies… for fun

Scary and thrilling movies, much like sports, can provide a welcome jolt of adrenaline. It’s a strange phenomenon given the often violent, disturbing and grotesque imagery that is prominent in the genre.

Counselor Ashely Notestine said the desire to see such things in a movie is completely normal.

“You know you’re going to a movie and that it’s going to be scary, but you also know it’s going to be safe,” Notestine said. “We can tease ourselves with these horrible things, and we can allow these feelings to come to us while knowing they aren’t going to happen to us. Intrinsically we know were are watching these things in a safe place.”

The thrill for some is to experience the physical stress reactions - things like a racing heartbeat or the tightening of certain muscles - and still know in your head that the creepy girl from “The Ring” probably won’t climb out of the TV to murder you.

As for physical health concerns, a 2018 Buzzfeed article worked to deflate the idea that a scary movie could result in heart attacks or other health problems. The piece cited Mayo Clinic cardiologist Dr. Regis Fernandes, who said the increase in heart rate you might get from a scary movie is similar to the increase someone would experience during mild to moderate exercise.

So if you can handle a jog, you can probably handle “The Shining.”

Read more: https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/carolinekee/horror-movies-heart-rate-body-health

“Gotta support the team.” - David Puddy, “Seinfeld.”

To non-sports fans, avid fandom can seem like a huge waste of energy. It’s just a game, after all. Yet so many of us jump all over the living room whenever Nelson Cruz smashes a home run (Sorry, Mariners. Go Twins!).

Sports fans can experience extreme emotions and crippling fits of anxiety (especially in the playoffs), and, most interestingly, they choose to have these experiences. With professional sports, you can simply turn off the TV at any time and (usually) go about your day with little consequence.

When kids and family members are involved, the emotional investment might be more complicated. Youth sports, by most accounts, is a lot of fun for everyone involved. The kids learn about the power of teamwork, and parents get to cheer like crazy with a community of like-minded people. But we’ve all seen that parent on the sideline who’s a little too invested. A little too intense. They can have an influence on how the rest of the crowd behaves.

The science of social engagement

The fun we can have cheering at a sporting event is connected to how our bodies react and respond to outside stimuli.

Ashely Notestine, of Evergreen Counseling & EMDR Therapy in Coeur d’Alene, and a lead counselor at Safe Passage, connected the behavior to the Polyvagal theory and the social engagement system, which originated with Dr. Stephen Porges.

It relates to the two distinctive branches of the vagus nerve that runs from the brain, through the face and to the abdomen. Whereas the dorsal vagal complex is associated with more primal responses and visceral survival strategies, the ventral vagal complex utilizes the observations we make in a particular environment in order to decide on a response.

This leads to Porges’ idea that the body has a social engagement system that helps to navigate relationships and balance out our autonomic nervous system responses.

“We’re always acutely aware of what people’s body language is saying and what their facial expressions are saying,” Notestine said. “In essence, we’re pack animals, and we have to be able to read situations well enough to stay with the pack.”

In essence, the behaviors of others can often influence how we behave.

“If you’re at a big sporting event and you’re rooting for your team, there is this collective crowd energy. Everyone there is plugged in,” Notestine said. “That’s a good expression of social engagement. A bad expression is like if you’re on an airplane that suddenly experiences horrible turbulence. You see people grip their seats and their eyes are widening. We’re reading that too and getting plugged into that.”

The ventral branch of the vagus nerve allows us to control aspects of our how we respond to others, and it’s part of the reason why people can enjoy the excitement of a tense sporting event without activating a more severe fight-or-flight response, Notestine said.

“For example, if you can tell your boss is not happy with you, you are usually not going to go into full sympathetic meltdown,” Notestine said. “You aren’t going to run for the door, because you still know your boss is not going to physically attack you. You generally know that you’re safe.”

Entertainers and athletes are often praised for knowing how to “work a crowd.” In turn, certain players (and fans too) know how to get a crowd to respond in a desired way.

“People who are good leaders are able to better sense the mood of a crowd, and they know what to do to bring certain people in, whether it’s using a certain tone of voice or a certain type of body language,” Notestine said.

Notestine said that in most cases, being an avid, excited fan of sports (or really anything) has plenty of emotional benefits.

“As long as it doesn’t become an obsessive thing, like ‘I can’t miss a game because if I do, my team always loses,’” she said.

“I don’t think being engaged in sports could really be all that harmful, unless you’re super bummed about a loss and end up staying home in bed for a week about it,” Notestine continued. “And with that it’s usually people who are already more susceptible to depression and anxiety issues in general.”

Stressing about the standings might also be a way to not stress about other, bigger issues happening in your life.

“To a certain extent, you want to pick the least lethal poison,” Notestine said. “If doing one allows you to be more functional, then do that thing.”

Social engagement and youth sports

Most families are involved with some form of social engagement related to their kids. Theater, dance, soccer, Little League - it’s all opportunities to a. Help your child learn new skills and b. Engage with other parents doing the same thing.

But are parents on the sidelines having an influence beyond their own social engagement responses?

Mariah Martindale’s experience as a youth sports fan and coach runs deep. She coached her sons in T-ball and continued coaching Parks & Rec baseball as they aged. She’s been a team parent and rep for multiple sports through the years, including travel baseball and Jr. Tackle Football Teams. She even served as president for Hayden Little League and is currently on the board for the Lake City football parent group.

“Some of the best people I know I met sitting in the bleachers at Little League games,” Martindale said. “Some remain great friends today, most exchange warm hellos and hugs when our paths cross in the community… and then there are a few who will intentionally avoid making eye contact.”

Martindale said most parents are great spectators. But she’s also seen some less-than-respectable behavior.

“I have been a parent sitting in the bleachers crying tears of joy as the parent next to me watches their kid hit their first home run,” Martindale said. And I have seen the pitcher on the mound in tears after we had to escort his coach/dad from the game site after an ejection,” Martindale said.

From her perspective, sideline behavior from parents evolves as kids get older. The younger kids tend to get more individualized attention from the sideline fans, Martindale said, while parents of older kids seem to get more excited about the team efforts.

“One of my favorite experiences is when a new football team is on the field, and a parent makes rosters for all the other parents so they are able to learn teammates’ names,” Martindale said. “Another is when I see a parent run over to another to exchange high 5s or hugs after a kid made an awesome play.”

Then there are a few disengaged sideline attendees.

“The downside of the busy culture we live in now is when parents miss their kid’s interception because they are on the phone,” Martindale said.

Martindale believes parents in the stands can be the “pulse setters” for a game.

“When fans are cheering and engaged in the game, or when they erupt on the awesome play, the kids feel that,” she said. “When fans are disengaged or negative, it spreads like weeds and you can start to see the kids take on the negative attitudes and attributes they hear from the bleachers.”

Those occasional “bad seeds” on the sidelines can ruin any sporting event, even one as easygoing as a Little League game.

“I have heard people say things at a volume level that is intended to be heard by others, like, ‘Why is that kid in right now?’ or say things demeaning like ‘easy out,’” Martindale said. “Just this summer I read a parent’s social media post in which they were literally trash-talking another 11-year-old baseball team.”

Which begs the question, If excitement in the stands is contagious, can the bad behavior also spread? Notestine said that just like how good leaders can create better, positive results, a “bad apple can indeed spoil the bunch.”

“One person can definitely have an impact on a group,” Notestine said. “Think about a person on a plane that starts to get very upset. They can very easily get everyone else upset.”

Martindale said those negative influences shouldn’t be tolerated by the other spectators.

“When there is that one parent who is super critical or negative, the other parents avoid interacting. You can see the embarrassment on the faces of other parents,” Martindale said. “What you don’t see enough of is intervention. It is obvious that people are bothered by it and they disagree with it, but they won’t stop it.”

Martindale believes the positives of team sports for kids and their parents far outweigh the negative elements and the occasional “bad fans.”

“I just want it to be known that for the 2-3 bad apples I’ve referred to, there are 50 to 100 amazing people, parents and volunteers to make youth sports happen,” Martindale said.

“In the best situations it’s not about which team your kid is on. You build a community where you see people support kids from both dugouts and share in the joy of all of them,” she said. “I have talked to several former Little Leaguers who have some of their fondest memories of teammates and coaches and community members they met while playing. They remember these things way more than they remember wins and losses and good games or bad games.”

Even when the kids are grown, the experience of being fans together with other people can continue outside the bubble of youth sports.

“Shared social experiences gives you an ‘in’ to be part of something. That desire is innate in all of us, Martindale said.”

• • •

Ashley Notestine of Evergreen Counseling & EMDR Therapy can be reached at www.EvergreenTherapyCdA.com

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