What happens to your body on derby day?

13 Min Read

For football fans, there are few things that get your blood pumping quite like a derby day. Playing your closest rival means you are brimming with pride, anticipation, and often anxiety about what the next 90 minutes will hold. Derbies tend to hold a special spot in the hearts of die-hard fans, as this match holds even more weight.

These rivalries, which can be due to geographical closeness or due to being two dominant forces within the sport, often date back for decades and even centuries. But how do these clashes affect the body and mind of the common fan?

A derby is something any fan marks on the calendar and looks forward to, as you want bragging rights over your nearest rivals. As it gets closer and closer to kick-off, fans can start to feel anxiety around the outcome – sometimes coined as ‘pre-match stress’. This can manifest as a ‘butterfly in the stomach feeling of unease or as far as feeling nauseous. This sick feeling can last a minute, or continue for an hour and a half which can be unsettling. 

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Whether or not watching football is good for your health or your mental health has been hotly debated over the years. In 2019, betting firm BetVictor and the University of Leeds began a study into how your body copes with watching football. The study looked at 25 Leeds United fans, aged between 20 and 62 years old to see how their bodies reacted to watching their beloved club in both a stadium environment and outside of it.

The research was conducted during Leeds United’s attempt for promotion to the Premier League and saw that on average a football fan’s heart rate increases by 17% when they watch their club play. When watching their team in a stadium environment, this jumps to a 29% increase. 

Overall heart rate increased by as much as 64% throughout the course of the game and is seen to be a positive stress. This cardiovascular workout is seen to be equivalent to a 90-minute brisk walk. This then would point to football, on the whole, being good for your health. 

There is no doubt that football is a sociable sport. If you attend matches, it’s likely you’ll go with someone else or if you have a season ticket, you’ll know those who sit around you. The experience of watching the game is both idiosyncratic and shared. You can form relationships with other people just by asking who they support. Feeling included is good for mental well-being, and these shared experiences can be felt by millions of people.  

While your heart rate fluctuates throughout the 90 minutes, the final score can have a strong pull on your mood and can even leave you feeling depressed. A football team is seen to be an extension of someone’s identity – it becomes a part of your makeup, it holds deep-routed importance and when you’re left feeling disappointed by your team’s performance, it can affect you long after the final whistle is blown.

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In the ever-changing digital landscape, we’re constantly online and football is everywhere on digital platforms. Some of the biggest and most followed social media accounts include football superstars like Cristiano Ronaldo, and the modern football fan is switched on to analysis, commentary, and even memes from both social media and broadcasters. 

However, if the result from the big derby doesn’t go your way, it’s hard to escape the aftermath. Between post-match analysis, social commentary, to messages from your rival-supporting friends – if you’re feeling low about those 90 minutes, it’s likely to stick with you for a lot longer. Football fans themselves have admitted their ties to their football club and their mental health is quite a strange concept. As quoted in The Telegraph, one anonymous football fan shared, “My mental well-being was hinged upon well-paid strangers who didn’t even know I existed. Surely that’s not healthy.” This all-or-nothing attitude adopted by droves of football fans across the world can mean they are especially sensitive to match outcomes. 

Dr. Daniel Atkinson comments, “Feeling upset or disappointed at the result is a natural emotion but you should try to avoid letting it completely control your mood. Take some time away from social media and exercise in that time instead – this will give you a chance to clear your head and get some activity.”

A particularly hefty defeat can lead to feelings of anger surfacing. Pouring your heart and soul into your football team can lead to emotions running high. Winning games and titles elates fans, to the point of calling historic and emphatic wins the best days of their lives. Losing games, especially rivalries, can be catastrophic. The feelings about a heavy loss can come out in ways they normally wouldn’t – like snapping at a loved one or becoming aggravated at a colleague. This kind of behavior can fray relationships, causing you further problems and leaving you feeling upset or embarrassed as a result. 

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How you share your upset or frustration can have further implications for you. Research conducted by COPA90 found that younger, more modern football fans are becoming much more aware of the perils of social media, and how things can be taken out of context at a later date. One fan who took part in the study stated they are wary of what they post on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook because “you don’t know who is looking at it”. This a fair assumption, given the number of celebrities – footballers included – who have had tweets shared years previously that can paint them in a bad light. These footballers are seen to be role models and these posts that tend to have taken place a number of years earlier can be seriously damaging to their reputation. Because of this, more fans are taking to the encrypted messaging service WhatsApp to talk about their team. 

Football also has a problem with fans directing their frustration to their team’s key players, and these exchanges have been known to become particularly heated and violent. Footballers and their families have received threats on their lives whereas some have been the victims of racist abuse. These incidents are becoming more prominent, not only giving a distorted view of football fans on the whole but also questioning the safety of the players. Social media sites like Twitter have pledged to help eradicate the problem but it can leave others feeling anxious and upset by what they see in the stands and online. 

Some derbies are determined by geography. Some of the biggest rivalries in the UK notably include the Merseyside derby (Liverpool and Everton, whose stadiums sit just one mile apart), the North London derby (Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal), and the Old Firm (Celtic and Rangers). Other derbies are determined by other factors and can mean a long trip to get to the game. For El Clasico, the moniker given to Barcelona’s clash with Real Madrid, traveling fans can expect to arrive at the opposing city within three and a half hours by train, or more than six hours by car. This means long periods of inactivity, which can cause serious health problems as a result. This includes being overweight, having heart problems, and an increased chance of stroke. 

Dr. Atkinson notes, “On these long journeys, plan accordingly. If you’re driving, try to take regular breaks to move around, and don’t stay stuck in your seat if you’re on the train. Remember you have to do this journey twice within a day so it’s a long period to stay stationary.” 

Whether you watch football in the stadium, at home or you go out somewhere to watch the game, your choices for food and drink should be considered. It’s all too easy to snack mindlessly when your focus is on the pitch and it’s much harder to keep track of the calories you’re consuming. This could lead to poorer choices, like fat-laden fast foods, sugary drinks, and a lapsed judgment when it comes to drinking alcohol. Be mindful of your choices and opt for fresher, balanced meals where you can. When it comes to snacking, try to swap out salty snacks for fresh fruit or nuts. 

In the UK, betting on football is very much the norm. Whether you decide to put money on the final score, the half-time score, or even how many yellow cards will be produced, you’ve got the ability to do it at your fingertips. The Gambling Commission state that in the UK alone, gambling on football is worth £1.4 billion and it is clear to see how embedded gambling is in the game. From shirt sponsors to stadium names, to real-time updated odds – football fans are never far away from it. Gambling can be addictive and addiction is on the rise. Falling victim to a gambling addiction can have serious repercussions, notably falling into debt, which can affect your mental health and relationships. In 2018, the number of people in the UK who were suffering from pathological gambling addictions rose by 50%. 

Winning the derby can be hugely important for your well-being. This is likely to release endorphins, chemicals that are produced by the nervous system to cope with pain or stress. As your heart rate increases during the game and panic sets in, you’ll feel a sense of relief at the end of the game. 

Once the derby is all over – win, lose or draw – the excitement, anticipation, and drama can zap a normal football fan of their energy. This will leave you feeling tired at the end of the game, with a potentially long journey in front of you, once you’ve made your way through the crowds. If you have been drinking alcohol during the game, this can contribute to feeling tired too. Once fatigue hits, it’s easy to reach for coffee or sugary snacks to keep alert and awake. This is only a short-term solution and you can feel much worse once the effects of the caffeine and sugar have worn off.

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Tom Perry, M.D., attended Tulane University and graduated Magna Cum Laude with a B.S. degree in Parasitology. He received his M.D. degree in 1983 from the University of Virginia School of Medicine, where he gained extensive research experience, including studies conducted through the National Institutes of Health.