Watching sport – is it really harmless fun?

I am an Australian male who has quit watching sport; a hobby that I used to turn to every weekend. A hobby that was considered normal when I grew up. It didn’t matter what sport it was and the more dramatic the end of the game was, the better. Anything to get you excited and up off your seat.

Watching sport was something I thought was harmless and just a bit of fun. Is this really the case? What really goes on in our bodies when we watch sport? There are studies that suggest your heart rate can increase (while watching sport) to a level that is similar to actually playing the sport yourself.[1] Even more concerning, there are studies that suggest an increase in reported domestic violence (mostly against women and children) right after major sporting events have completed.[2]

Recently, I watched a game of rugby league (one of Australia’s national sports) with my son. It was my old favourite team, who are having their best season in years; after seasons of me watching them when they were always finishing near the bottom of the table. I had not watched a single game in almost a year. It was interesting to observe how I was feeling during and after watching the game. The contest ended up being what the commentators called one of the best games of the season and it had all the usual dramatics and momentum swings. What the sporting world calls a cliff hanger.

This feeling was definitely reflected in how I felt watching the game. As far as games to watch go, this was one of the games that sports fans long for. Observing myself during the game, I found myself feeling what I would have called enjoyment, on the surface. What became clear was that those feelings I used to experience watching sport were not actual enjoyment at all. I became aware how we are totally not present when watching sport. I immediately became so invested in the outcome of the game and when it completed it felt like I returned to my body and didn’t know what had happened to the last two hours. I clearly felt irritated by the referee’s calls. The stimulation of debating whether referee calls are correct or not seems to add to the drama of the spectacle.

This feeling I used to describe as excitement, are actually the ups and downs of stress and after returning to watch sport after one year off, I realised I don’t like that feeling at all.

What I realised, is how conditional watching sport is. In this instance, the team I was cheering for won right at the end. This resulted in me feeling satisfied and confirmed that I enjoyed the game. Yet this felt so false. The feeling of victory had me walking around like I had achieved something, when really this was not true. Deep down I could feel that if my team lost, I would have been in a bad mood and said that I hated to watch the game. On reflection, I realise that whenever my team has lost the true loss is the effect this has on me and then my family. Often when my team loses I feel drained or emotionally upset and this takes me away from being all that I am for my family, for the rest of the day or sometimes longer. All this shows how conditional sport is, we are not actually watching it for any real purpose other than to say, “If my team wins, I will feel good and if my team loses, I will feel angry”.

If you are a regular sport watcher, I invite you to observe how you feel before, during and after watching a game. How do you feel before the game starts? Do you get excited and think about the game all day? Is this excitement based purely on the hope that your team will win, so that you will feel good about yourself? When the game is completed, do you feel better or worse than expected? If your team loses, do you feel worse than if they won? During the game, do you feel a rise in your heart rate and do contentious referee decisions make you react when they go against your side? Observe all these things and see if you truly see the purpose in watching sport. See if your enjoyment is conditionally based on the result and see if the investment of your time is really worth it.

What I realised after watching this game with my son, is that for many years the only way we bonded together was watching sport, playing sport and talking about sport. There was nothing else that we really connected on. Yet, this never really brought us closer together in a true sense. Our relationship and how we enjoyed our time together was based on the outcome of an external event that we had no control over.

Basically, we rated our time together on whether our team won or lost. This was not a genuine connection and while I struggled to connect with him when I first quit watching sports, this process brought me to reflect on how I cared for my son and as a result we have added more quality to the time we do spend together. This is an ongoing process, but it has been enjoyable to build a true relationship with my son that is based on love and respect and not reliant on anything outside of us to determine the experience.

As a point of further reflection and especially if you watch sport excessively, you could ask yourself what tasks you are leaving unattended when you turn to watch sport. I have noticed how I have improved many aspects of my life by quitting watching sports. When you remove anything from your life that you spend a significant number of hours on each week, it leaves a hole at first. It can feel like you have left a lot of space and you may not know what to replace it with. Start by focusing on what areas of your life you have been avoiding putting any attention to. I went through this process and after a few months I reflected back and honestly thought to myself, ‘I don’t know how I used to spend so much time watching sport’. Now it feels like I have so many rewarding and enriching things to attend to, that I could not imagine dedicating 10, six, four or even two hours a week to watching other people play a sport. I realised I would rather dedicate my time to myself rather than watching other people.

There is no limit to what things you could replace watching sport with. In many ways, I feel like watching sport can become an addiction, especially when you add gambling to the mix. If you are able to replace watching sport with purposeful or rewarding tasks, then the benefit your life will receive from this will be monumental over time. You may have a partner, children, other family or friends that you can have more meaningful connections with where you can bring your full presence to what is going on in their lives. Dedicating this extra time will have a positive impact on your relationships. You may like to dedicate the extra time to looking after your body and your health more by exercising, cooking more quality meals and building a better sleep routine. This will have an exponential effect on how you feel in your body and will lead to many health benefits and other positive changes in your life. You may use the extra space to start a business you have been wanting to start or completing some study that could lead to a change in your career and more purpose in your work life. Or you may have a number of overdue tasks to attend to that will improve your home and your living space. There is no limit to the rewarding things you can do here.

Perhaps more importantly, the quality in how you live your life can shift as you make these changes to your weekly routines. My wife shared with me that she felt I was often drained after watching sport and this affected the quality of how I lived and how I was as a husband and a father. This alone was enough for me to respond to this and make some changes. We may not be aware of the effect watching sport has on our energy. There may be emotional effects that change how we look at life and how we are as a person at home, work and in social settings. I hated feeling a sense of anger in my body when my team lost. These are feelings that I don’t miss. I can absolutely feel an overall lift in the quality of many aspects of my life since I decided to stop watching sports and my family and I appreciate this added quality to my life.

I would encourage any sports fan to deeply observe how they feel when participating in sports viewing and review if they may like to cut back or have a break for a while and see how they feel from there. There is no need to put any pressure on yourself and try to force yourself to give up straightaway, but it can help if you observe how you feel and then ask yourself – is it really worth it?


  • [1]

    Macmillan, A. (2017) ‘Is Watching Sports Bad for Your Health? Here’s What New Research Says’, Time, 5 October, 2017.

  • [2]

    Pescud, M. (2018) ‘Whether teams win or lose, sporting events lead to spikes in violence against women and children’, ANU School of Regulation and Global Governance, 12 July, 2018.

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