American Pharoah and Mental Health

What does American Pharoah’s spectacular Triple Crown win yesterday, the first since Affirmed won the coveted triad in 1978 have to do with mental health (or even if American Pharoah had lost)?


Research reveals that playing and watching sports has an impact on mental health.

Here’s some background:

  • Football can have a major impact on mental health. It is thought to affect emotions, relationships, identity and self-esteem. In a recent study, one in four fans said football was one of the most important things in their lives.

  • When you think about the advantages of playing sports, your first thought is probably that sports improve your physical fitness. But research shows that participating in sports and exercise helps your mind as well as your body.

  • … there will always be at least one silver lining for professional football.

That would be the undisputed, research-supported evidence that there are very real mental health advantages to claiming a sports team as your own. Yes, there are studies that show blood pressure rises during games or testosterone plummets after a loss. But epic fandom is also linked to higher levels of well-being and general happiness with one’s social life, as well as lower levels of loneliness and alienation, according to research by sports psychology professor Daniel Wann of Murray State University.

  • Scientists have found that being a sports fan can be good for your emotional, psychological and social health.

Fans who identify with a local team have higher self-esteem, are less lonely and are no more aggressive as a group than nonsports fans, according to Wann.

  • “Experience playing and watching sports has enduring effects on language understanding by changing the neural networks that support comprehension to incorporate areas active in performing sports skills.”

So, will American Pharoah and the horse racing industry now take a front burner role in interest and discussion with some impact on mental health as noted in sources referred to above?

I’ll have a chance to explore this beginning tomorrow.

Many of my patients are physically and medically challenged and their lives have been significantly changed pursuant to injuries, often disabling and permanent. Those who used to play sports no longer can.

But occasionally, their eyes sparkle and their mood changes when they take interest in a sporting event; or even report that they enjoyed watching their child play a sport.

During the 2014 FIFA World Cup that took place in Brazil from June 12 to July 13, 2014, there was plenty of “FIFA madness” throughout the world, the U.S. (recall how the U.S. team captured our attention, and hope?), and among many of my patients who delighted in watching the games and talking about them. In my main office, the T.V. tuned in to the games and patients in the waiting room were glued to the set, and I could hear cheering from my office.

As far as I could tell, watching sports opened up the door to a host of mental health curative factors.

In retrospect, I could have administered Beck Scales during FIFA to patients who indicated that they were following the games and compared results to baseline measures, and as a control done the same with a comparable group who had no interest in the World Cup games, but this will have to wait.

But something tells me that American Pharoah did a little more than break a dry spell and grease some purse strings.

We’ll see…

After all, many spectators had tears in their eyes.

And two commentators in the NY Times article had tears in their eyes:

  • Margaret:

My dad was a big fan of horse racing in his younger days, and watching the Triple Crown races every year was something we did together. He passed away late last year, and was partly the reason I had tears in my eyes at the finish.

  • And Diane:

Margaret, I have the same memory of watching the Triple Crown races with my Dad, and like you I had tears in my eyes at the finish because he was not here to see this win. Maybe our Dads were watching together–alongside Bob Baffert’s parents? These memories keep our loved ones with us. Thanks for sharing your story.

So, what’s up with that?


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