The Stanley Cup Playoffs are currently in full swing, with the Pittsburgh Penguins and San Jose Sharks face-off for a chance to be this year’s Stanley Cup Champions. In a potential seven-game series, emotions are at an all-time high and anything is possible. This uncertainty is enough to keep us on the edge of our seats regardless of which team we support. From the moment the puck drops, a rush of adrenaline overtakes our body all the way up until the last buzzer sounds.

So, what exactly happens to our mind and body during the most crucial moments that have and will come to define sports history?

The answer: A lot.

Monkey See, Monkey Do: The Brain On Watching Sports

The spectating brain is also a playing brain when it comes to sports. When we're watching sports, it feels as if we're actually playing in the game. We begin to place ourselves in the "athlete's shoes" thanks to mirror neurons primarily found in the right side of the brain. These cells allow us to reflect and connect to someone else’s movements without verbal communication.

“This phenomenon allows a feeling of connection, and community without verbal communication or the need to directly talk to the pro athlete who just won the World Series with a grand slam,” Dr. Jesse Hanson, clinical director of the Helix Healthcare Group, told Medical Daily.

Previous studies have found that when we see a familiar action, our mirror neurons activate and fire for exactly as long as the observed action. This is what allows us to instantly understand the action, its goal, and even the emotions linked to it. For example, if we're watching a strenuous action, mirror neurons will get excited, and lead to an increase in our heart and respiration rate.

In a 2008 study, researchers at the University of Rome recruited 10 professional basketball players; 10 expert watchers, including basketball journalists and coaches; and 10 students who never played basketball, to observe the influence mirror neurons had on motor skills — the precise movement of muscles with the intent to perform a specific action such as jumping or running.

In the first experiment, researchers had all three groups watch video clips of players attempting free throws. They stopped the clips at 10 intervals mid-action to let participants predict the likelihood players would make the free throws. The pro athletes made more accurate predictions at every interval than the expert watchers and students, but the researchers found they had a greater advantage at predicting earlier intervals, or before the balls had left the players' hands, when there were no trajectories to refer to, such as familiarity with a player’s playing style. This suggests athletes are better than non-athletes at understanding cues from the players' bodies.

Now, the researchers wondered how much of pro athletes' motor systems contributed to reading these cues.

In the second experiment, transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), a technique that gives the exact timing of neuronal firing, was used to monitor the patterns of motor system activity in all three groups while they watched free throw video clips. The participants' motor systems peaked while watching the free throws, but the students showed a generalized boost, while the players and experts showed activity of specific motor areas involved in shot-taking.

The researchers noted the latter groups showed greater stimulation of the hand muscles controlling the ball, specifically the muscle that controls the angle of the pinky finger as soon as the ball left the shooter's hand, according to the study. Although the pinky didn’t visibly move, there was an increase in "motor evoked potential, which signals preparation for a pending action.

Surprisingly, this activation was greater when players watched the launch of a ball that was going to miss the basket. This shows the players were not only simulating the shot-taking, but they were also trying to score. The specific skill set of pro athletes may be related to fine-tuning of specific anticipatory “resonance” mechanisms, or their ability to predict others' actions before they are realized.

Communication Breakdown

The researchers measured mirror neurons that are “strictly congruent,” meaning they fire at the sight of an action that is identical or observed in spectators lives. In the early 1990s, researchers found a strictly congruent mirror neuron fires both when a monkey grasps an object with two fingers, in a “precision” grip, and when that same monkey sees another primate grasping with the same grip.

Other mirror neurons are “broadly congruent,” which means they fire at observed actions that are similar but not identical to ones a spectator has performed. Two-thirds of mirror neurons in the brain are broadly congruent.

In other words, if we're watching someone take a free throw, and we've never played basketball, our strictly congruent mirror neurons will not fire, but the broadly congruent ones will remember tossing clothes into a laundry basket.

Neurotransmitters in our brain generate feelings and actions and enable the brain to communicate with our body. They allow the transmission of signals from one neuron to the next across synapses. Dopamine, a neurotransmitter that helps control the brain's reward and pleasure centers, helps regulate emotional responses, as well as movement.

According to Hanson, this means when we’re excited that our team won a game, our brain will release dopamine, followed by a feeling of positivity. On the contrary, when we are sad or angry over our team losing, our brain produces cortisol, the “stress hormone,” or excess amounts of serotonin — a neurotransmitter that, if deficient, can cause conditions like anxiety and depression.

“This will have an effect of slowing down and sedating the nervous system, as opposed to an uplifting and arousing experience in the nervous system, such as when a person is happy to watch their team win,” said Hanson.

Regularly listening to and watching sports stimulates different areas of the brain, and can even improve neurological function. A 2008 study found being an athlete or a fan improves language skills when it comes to discussing their sport because parts of the brain used while playing sports are also used to understand sports language. Researchers observed the brains of hockey players, fans, and people who'd never seen or played the game.

The participants were asked to listen to sentences about hockey playing, such as shooting, making saves, and being engaged in the game. They also listened to sentences about everyday activities. such as ringing doorbells and pushing brooms across the floor. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), the researchers were able to pinpoint the areas of the brain that are most active while listening to language. After hearing the sentences in the fMRI scanner, the participants were asked to perform a series of tests designed to measure their understanding of those sentences.

Unsurprisingly, while most subjects understood the language about everyday activities, hockey players and fans were substantially better than novices at understanding hockey-related language. Brain scans revealed that when hockey players and fans listen to hockey-related language, they show activity in the brain regions usually used to plan and select well learned physical actions. The increased activity in motor areas of the brain help hockey players and fans to better understanding hockey language.

All sports, not just hockey, require planning, strategy, and reaction. Watching a game boosts our thinking and visualizing abilities. This means even when we're not actively playing sports, our brain still is.

The Brain-Heart Connection: Die-Hard Fans

The expression "die-hard" fan can be taken quite literally, since most fans live and die by how their team performs throughout the season. A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found viewing a stressful soccer match more than doubles the risk of having a minor cardiovascular event. The researchers looked at data from hospitals around Munich during the 2006 World Cup games held in Germany. The number of cardiac emergencies more than doubled when Germany was playing in World Cup matches (43) compared to days when they were idle (18), and when no matches were played (15).

The emotional stress fans experience during these matches fuels their risk of suffering a heart attack.

“When there is an intense game or intense play some fans have a very emotional response — a fight-or-flight response with an increase in the sympathetic nervous system output and an increase in adrenaline levels,” Dr. Robert Kloner, director of cardiovascular research at Huntington Medical Research in Pasadena, Calif., told Medical Daily.

This can increase heart rate, blood pressure, cause localized vasoconstriction — narrowing of blood vessels — and sometimes arrhythmias, or abnormal heart rhythm.

Unsurprisingly, die-hard sports fans face an increase in heart attacks, especially during a high-stakes game, like the Stanley Cup Finals. There is a 300 to 400 percent increase in blood flow pumped out of the heart, according to Vicki Greenberg, University of Phoenix Family Nurse Practitioner Program manager. This is because the heart is pumping more quickly, and with more force, which can lead people with high blood pressure to experience damage to the interior lining of their blood vessels. Over a period of time, this can lead to inflammation, increasing their risk of blockage and constricted arteries, which reduces blood flow to the heart. Greenberg added that the spleen can begin to pump out more red and white blood cells, making the blood stickier, and increasing the risk of cardiovascular disease or heart attack.

Kloner, however, emphasized that most of us are just fine watching sports. He suggested symptoms to look for are chest pain or pressure, shortness of breath, palpitations, feelings of lightheadedness or dizziness, or passing out.

“If a fan knows that they get overly excited and emotional, especially if they have known heart disease or risk factors for heart disease, they may want to discuss these with their health care providers,” warned Kloner.

Watching sports doesn't always have to have a negative impact on the heart. Simply watching other people play sports could actually make us more fit. A 2013 study found watching sports on TV increases our heart rate, just as a workout does. For the study, researchers inserted fine needles into the nerves of participants to record the electrical signals of nerve fibers directed to blood vessels. This is considered a very sensitive measure of the body’s physiological responses to physical or mental stress.

When asked to watch video of someone running, participants’ breathing and heart rate accelerated. These returned to normal once the person stopped watching the sport. Overall, the findings showed that muscle sympathetic nerve activity — the traffic of nerve impulses to the muscles — increases when people watch physical activity.

Sports And Hormones


Our brain regions activate, our heart rate increases, and our hormones begin to fluctuate while watching sports. For example, fans’ testosterone rises when their team wins but drops with a loss.

“The release of testosterone is likely correlated to the feeling of dominance,” said Hanson.

This explains why so many riots happen after sports championship wins.

A 2012 study found when Spanish soccer fans were cheering for their home team in the 2010 World Cup final between Spain and the Netherlands, the match triggered a surge in testosterone in both men and women. Researchers believe it's because we identify with our team so much that we feel we're personally getting them ready to win.


Watching sports is something we do during our leisure time, but can make us just as stressed as if we were at work. In the same 2012 study, researchers from VU University Amsterdam also measured hormone levels in saliva samples taken from 58 Spanish soccer fans during the World Cup. Despite Spain winning the World Cup, the participants had higher levels of cortisol and testosterone. They were the most stressed because they knew they had no control over the outcome.

Once the stress response is activated, however, the power to dominate becomes readily available, according to Hanson. Then, once this dominance is asserted, testosterone will flow to help reinforce the dominance.

Hanson reminded us: “These hormones are not gender specific; they will come up with the act of dominance in either a man or a woman’s body.”

Watching Sports And Wellbeing

Non-sports fans often ask extreme fans why they’re so into sports.

It all seems to come down to the sense of community and fascination being a fan of a sports team offers.

Sports fandom can be linked to social status and our self-esteem, based on the social identity theory. This explains why certain people are motivated to behave in ways that can boost their self-esteem, like being a sports fan. So when our team loses, our self-esteem suffers, and this is when we get stressed, collectively as a community. However, it still gives us a sense of belonging, which makes us feel good, especially on the days we have a win. We are fascinated with players who are legends like Wayne Gretzky — and it doesn’t matter what the skill is.

When we want to escape work and other real life stressors, it can be nice to turn our undivided attention to sports. Doing so allows us to experience a collective glory when our team does well, and gives us hope for better even when they don’t.