Losing can be bad for sports fans, physically as well as mentally

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Positive thinking. A brisk walk. Crunchy snacks.

When the home team wins, as the Pirates did Monday, everything comes up roses.

But when fans lose -- think Sunday's stinky Pittsburgh Steelers opener and sidelined starters, or the Pittsburgh Pirates' weekend pounding, if you prefer -- keeping the faith takes training.

"Just keep your mind on positive thoughts and say, 'That was just one bad day,' and don't panic," said sports psychologist George Pappas of Squirrel Hill. "Anyway, every team in the [AFC] North Division lost, so if you look at it that way, we're all tied for first place."

Fandom, he said, begins when people use sports or other entertainment as an escape from daily stress -- if a team succeeds, fans feel as if they succeeded, too, even though they didn't do anything but watch. But a loss? For fans, that can feel like their loss, too.

But those fans, experts say, can insulate themselves from the debilitating effects of a losing team: crabbiness, hopelessness, twitchiness, overconsumption of sausage and general feelings of outrage and shame.

Giving up the division lead to the St. Louis Cardinals? Seriously? And with three key Steelers sidelined during that horrible loss to the Tennessee Titans, what kind of football season is that going to be?

Now that you've vented to a trusted friend -- step one of feeling better, Mr. Pappas said -- it's time to take action. Stress and anger prompt a fight-or-flight reaction during which lactic acid builds inside the body's muscles unless they are moved, releasing it. That build-up causes "partial muscle reactions" that show themselves as tenseness and twitchiness. The only way to get rid of that feeling is to put the body through its total range of motion with 10 to 15 minutes of walking or other aerobic exercise.

"The stress won't be up around 10," Mr. Pappas said. "It will be lower and then you'll start to think more clearly, that it's only one game, it's not the whole season."

But when losing one game becomes two, and two become three, and three make you start drowning your sorrows in buckets of chicken wings and gallons of cookie dough ice cream? Well, then it's time to think about some healthy alternatives, the experts say.

French researchers reported in the August issue of the journal Psychological Science that fans of losing NFL teams gorge themselves on 25 percent more sweet and fatty junk food -- bacon-and-maple-glazed donuts, anyone? -- than fans of winning NFL teams. Similar results were found among French soccer fans, for whatever that's worth.

But if fans focus on positive thoughts and self-affirmation -- I am good enough, I am smart enough, people like me, the Steelers have already won six Super Bowls, and so on -- they are more likely to reach for the carrot sticks, researchers found.

And crunchy foods such as carrot sticks actually help calm anxious fans, said Leslie Bonci, director of sports nutrition at the UPMC Center for Sports Medicine.

"If you can get something crunchy, it doesn't have to be a bag of Cheetos, and we can get the frustrations out so that when you're gnashing your teeth you're not consuming a million calories," said Ms. Bonci, a nutritional consultant for the Steelers, the Pirates, the Pittsburgh Penguins and sports dietitian for the University of Pittsburgh Athletics Department and Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre.

Fans can dip those carrot sticks into plain Greek yogurt flavored with vegetable dip seasoning, for the same creamy taste as sour cream without the calories, she said. And for comfort food, think soup.

"Food is comforting anyway -- it doesn't talk back and you want the food to sort of wrap its arms around you like marshmallow cream," she said.

"It's damage control. Chicken noodle soup could be very comforting and not over the top calorically."

In place of ice cream, Ms. Bonci said, fans can blend frozen watermelon and strawberries with a splash of orange juice for a fruit slushy, "and then put it against your head because you just watched another fumble."

The Steelers, however, need a more austere dietary regimen, at least until they redeem themselves.

"They've got to be on a kale diet this week, until they figure this out," Ms. Bonci said, laughing.

Steelers - region - health

Amy McConnell Schaarsmith: aschaarsmith@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1719.


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