March Madness: Relationships and Basketball have a lot in Common

Marc Brackett, Ph.D.
4 min readMar 29


Photo by Stephen Baker on Unsplash

Co-authored with Robin Stern, PhD

’Tis the season for March Madness, and we don’t mean just basketball. A lesser-known use of the phrase popularized in the early 1900s is in reference to “a form of madness or uncharacteristic behavior said to affect people in March”. For anyone on the East coast familiar with — and, not a fan of — the inclement shifts in weather and lingering dark days of winter, this makes sense. And there is no shortage of research indicating that simply surviving the bleakest time of year is a feat of mind, body, and spirit. But when this madness bleeds into our relationships, as it inevitably can, it is important to know how you can regulate the burgeoning restlessness of early Spring and cultivate healthier connections.

And for those of you who just can’t think about March Madness without basketball — take this opportunity to think about what basketball and relationships have in common: practicing necessary skills and good form to move both forward; remembering that throughout the process of playing together you are on the same team.

Let’s take a quick peek at what is happening in the brain as we trade the dog days of winter for long awaited sunshine: Serotonin, our feel-good neurotransmitter, increases with more exposure to sun. Circadian rhythms, our biological clocks that keep us synchronized with dawn and dusk, right themselves after so much darkness. Sunlight alone has the amazing ability to whip us into cognitive shape as the brain’s receptive neurons are once again flooded with hormones, like dopamine, that heighten energy levels.

With these biochemical changes, we may find that we are more interested in taking care of ourselves, and, for some, re-connecting and nurturing relationships — flooded with the fresh promise that fills the crisp springtime air. Perhaps you’ve been feeling apathetic towards a relationship during these months when you two felt like hibernating. Or maybe you’ve been fielding questions with yourself such as, “Where am I going with this person?” or “How do I know if I should stay and re-commit or walk away?” Well, chances are your emotions already do. Maybe, feeling somewhat blue, you’ve been heads down in work and neglecting to check in with yourself and your closest relationships. Something feels off but you’re not sure if it’s the March Madness or a relationship that doesn’t work for you any longer. Maybe as spring’s promise surfaces, you can move towards a new commitment to self-discovery and new beginnings: either strengthening, limiting or moving on from a relationship.

As emotion scientists, we know that emotions are vital pieces of data that can help guide the decisions we make or opportunities we take- as well as those we don’t. So, as you slowly open your windows to newfound sun and opportunity this Spring, we urge you to check in with yourself first before assessing your relationships. Recognize the emotions you’re feeling and understand their patterns, including the language you use to describe them, before making any big decisions.

Have you downloaded the How We Feel app yet? Guided by the scientific research of our Center, How We Feel is a free, hand-held journal for your well-being that, when used over time, will not only help you to learn precise words to describe how you feel, but spot their patterns. Ask yourself, are there any trends in how I’ve been feeling? Then, are there any trends in how I’ve been feeling in relation to this other person?

So, when it comes to that relationship you’ve been feeling apathetic, drained, or bored about, with the app, you can track when exactly that emotional trend started. If those feelings only emerged a couple months ago, at the height of winter, then consider the change Spring may bring to your social energy and capacity to invest in the relationship. On the other hand, if those feelings emerged well over a year ago and have stayed the same across seasons and circumstances then maybe it is time to walk away from an unfruitful dynamic. Afterall, Spring is notoriously the “love” season. For some, that could mean leaving a romantic relationship that’s run its course. For others, that could mean re-birth to a love gone dormant. If you do decide it’s important to get closer, you will need patience, determination, practice and trust in the process –just like being a better player on the basketball court. Consider the words of basketball great Michael Jordan said: “ I’ve always believed that if you put in the work, the results will come”. With your partner, the hard work may be looking honestly at yourself, considering how you feel and what you are getting and giving in the relationship.

What about March Madness in your life? Is leaving the madness behind having a positive impact on your decision making and relationships? Notice if you just might be more motivated to move closer or more decided to move away. Remember to keep track of your moods — it will lead to more clarity and possibly better relationships in the spring days ahead.



Marc Brackett, Ph.D.

Director, Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence; Professor, Yale Child Study Center; Author of: Permission To Feel;