04/07/2015 03:25 pm ET Updated Jun 07, 2015

Why I Was Heartbroken When the Wisconsin Badgers Lost to Duke (And Why That's Normal)


It's a tale as old as time: You're a sports fan. A sports fan who thinks this could be "the year" for your team. You want your team to win so badly it hurts (like, it actually hurts, because you cheered so loudly you no longer have a voice, and you're pretty sure the nail-biting stress of the postseason has given you acid reflux).

And then... your team loses. You watch as your favorite players hang their heads, and your own heart similarly breaks.

That was me on Monday night as I watched my team -- the Wisconsin Badgers -- fall to the Duke Blue Devils in the 2015 NCAA Championship game. You've probably seen the viral video of the Villanova band member who valiantly played her piccolo through her tears after her team's loss in the Round of 32. Wisconsin now has our own meme-worthy display of team heartbreak in the sad young man wearing the red Teletubby costume.

Unless you belong to the lucky few, a sports fan's journey ends the same way each season: just short of one more W. And if you aren't part of the fandom, you probably wonder why so many people care so much about a bunch of players (in this case, college students as young as 19 years old) they don't even know.

Plenty of reasons, actually.

As spectators, we will most likely never experience for ourselves (unless you're an elite athlete who also happens to be a fan, like Aaron Rodgers) the overwhelming thrill and flood of emotion that comes with winning a trophy on a national stage. Rooting for the players gives us a chance to "own" a minuscule share of the team's success. As psychology professor Ronald F. Levant put it in a 2010 article, "Identifying with your sports teams is one of the ways you can vicariously experience success, and in real life, success is hard."

After the Duke loss, when I saw this photo of Frank Kaminsky and Josh Gasser, I swore I could feel the players' pain. A bit dramatic, you think? Maybe not. In a January 2015 piece for the Washington Post, Eric Simons, author of The Secret Lives of Sports Fans, wrote, "In all kinds of unconscious ways, a fan mirrors the feelings, actions and even hormones of players."

Simons said in an email correspondence with HuffPost that people feel for athletes "because you know rationally what it means to them, and because you wanted so badly for them to achieve something." So there's sympathy involved, but there's empathy, too -- something Simons details in his book. In this case, the fan treats the loss "as not just something affecting [the athlete] but as a personal loss."

And it's possible to feel both at the same time, he adds. "You can feel like you personally lost something and you can feel bad for players that you like."

The moment the Duke Blue Devils were named the 2015 NCAA Champions, my social media feeds exploded with messages from and to Badger fans -- the majority of them kind words and support for the group of young men who were likely feeling all kinds of awful. However, there was plenty of frustrated commentary as well. Simons said it's normal for fans to experience a range of emotions following a loss.

"It's so fascinating, all the things that go into your response to a game ... there's so much individual variation ... And it illustrates a really important point, I think, about how messy our response to life is ... We can hold competing and even contradictory thoughts and emotions in our heads, and the players and the fans are all doing this -- you're proud, and disappointed, and sad, and sympathetic, and maybe frustrated or angry, and all at the same time, of course, and that jumble can be overwhelming ... which is why if you're a Wisconsin fan or player, you may spend today just sort of staring blankly at the walls."

It's not all doom and gloom and staring at walls for fans of defeated teams, however. HuffPost editor Anna Almendrala writes in this piece from January 2015 that sure, your blood pressure might rise during a game, which isn't ideal, and you may experience sadness after a loss, but participating in sports fandom "is also linked to higher levels of well-being and general happiness with one's social life." And in a 2014 Seattle Times article, sports columnist Larry Stone referred to studies that suggest "rabid sports fans have higher self-esteem and are less depressed, less alienated and less lonely."

So while we may be disappointed today, Wisconsin fans, we'd arguably be far worse off without the fandom. Keep your chins up, Badgers.