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How sport shapes you – on the inside

We always think about sport shaping our muscles, but actually it plays an equally crucial part in shaping our minds too.

Lonely, worthless, vulnerable, frightened.

No, I never feel that way when I’m exercising either.

Despite being about as far as you can get from a professional athlete in terms of ability or achievement, every adjective I can think of to describe the feelings I get when I’m active is positive.

From an exhilarating and energising bootcamp in the park, to the serenity and peacefulness of yoga practice, to the sheer joy I feel watching my son’s resilience and determination on a rugby pitch, sport colours me happy.

Everyone knows that physical exercise is good for you at any age. Say yes to a healthy heart, and strong joints and bones! Say yes to clear arteries and cancer prevention! Say no to Type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure!

But for me, the biggest advantage being active can contribute to your life is how it can shape you as a person and how it makes you feel on the inside, no matter your age, size, gender, nationality or anything else.

Shape of You

By playing sport, we fall back in love with what our bodies are capable of, what they can do, rather than what they look like. And in an image obsessed society, that’s a welcome relief.

We become more grateful for arms that rhythmically push and pull rowing oars, for legs that can run – maybe not that far today, but further tomorrow. We think about balance and willpower, not Balenciaga and Wonderbras. Whether you are playing or watching sport, the focus always falls on achievement rather than appearance. The Paralympics and Invictus Games are a case in point; you soon see the sport, not the disability.

In terms of body image, getting involved in sport has to be one of the most affirmative and empowering things you can do. It’s very hard to feel negatively about your body, whatever its perceived shortcomings, when it has just scored a goal, shot a hoop or shaved half a second off your personal best time.

Down About It

The huge effect physical health has on mental health has been well documented. That’s not to suggest that being physically fit renders you magically immune to being sad or experiencing grief, or that clinical depression requires nothing more than a walk in the park to cure it.

However, wake up one day in a lower than usual mood and, actually, going for as little as a 10 minute walk will give you a boost. In fact, regular low-intensity exercise has been proven to be the best way to keep yourself feeling alert and positive, no matter what challenges you are facing in your life.

Take stress for example. Everyone experiences stress at some point; peer and social pressure, taking exams, rocky relationships and punishing work schedules can all take a serious toll on health.

The worst thing is, during stressful times, our brain takes an evolutionary leapfrog backwards. It gets stuck in a ‘flight, fight or freeze’ cycle that it can’t stop. We can’t think clearly. Decisions seem impossible. Thinking creatively grinds to a halt. We stop sleeping, which makes everything much harder to cope with.

Exercise is like a re-set for the brain; those feel-good endorphins won’t release themselves without it. The more active your body is on a daily basis, the more your mind can relax at night so you’re more likely to sleep. And if you’re still having problems sleeping, can I recommend Yoga or Tai Chi? Not technically sports, perhaps, but probably the best ways of decreasing tension and dispersing stress that I’ve ever found.

Let’s Stay Together

A key part of our nature as human beings is to crave a sense of belonging and connectedness to other people, and sport offers this opportunity in spades to people of all ages.

If you move to a new area or country, for example, joining a cricket, hockey, bowling or any other kind of team immediately opens up a social avenue to you. You have joined their club. You are one of the gang. You instantly have friends with whom you share at least one interest.

Older people, especially those over 65 years old, are exceptionally vulnerable to feeling lonely and socially isolated. This is even more serious than it sounds. In fact an Age UK report found that loneliness can be as harmful for health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and that people with a high degree of loneliness are twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s than people with a low degree of loneliness.

The same study found that group activities, including health-maintaining and exercise groups, such as walking clubs, reduced feelings of loneliness in 95% of cases. So whether it’s a lively round of Tennis Doubles, a sociable game of boules (definitely a sport, not a game – 20 million French people can’t be wrong) or just getting together to watch some horse-racing, sport can offer a sense of camaraderie and something to chat about.

Above and beyond the physical benefits, this social inclusion keeps you happy, vibrant and young at heart at any age.

Been around the world

One of the things that I genuinely love about sport is that it is so woven into the very fabric of our society, across every country in the world, that it unifies us in a way nothing else really does.

In the wake of terrorist atrocities, we can use sport to signal our support and solidarity. As an example, the 10th anniversary of 9/11 was observed coast to coast in American sporting events, as well as at English soccer matches, the Walker Cup golf in Scotland and the Rugby World Cup in New Zealand. In fact, each anniversary has been marked with similar remembrance and respect by the sporting world.

Or take the terrorist attacks in Paris in 2015, when around 130 people died. In Italy, the French national anthem was played before each Serie B soccer match. In London, Wembley Stadium was lit up with the French flag colours. In the USA, the ice was lit up in blue, white and red before a National Hockey League match between Washington Capitals and Calgary Flames.

In the wake of devastating acts of nature, we can use sport as a way to raise awareness and much needed funds. For example, in 2005, after the tsunami disaster in south-east Asia, European and world soccer stars gathered at Nou Camp in Barcelona, Spain, for ‘Football for Hope’. This was a charity match, watched by 35,000 spectators, that raised millions of dollars in support of the tsunami victims.

These types of tributes underline our connection and our commonality. They show we stand together in the face of adversity. They display the true meaning of team spirit.

Peace, Love and Understanding

In the same vein, it’s no coincidence that there are so many initiatives around the world that use sport as a medium for bringing hope and economic development to the less fortunate.

There’s the Olympic Sport for Hope programme, educating underprivileged children in developing countries about everything from general hygiene to pro-social values and behaviours. There’s the UN’s digital ‘#WePlayTogether’ campaign, which extols the “power of sport to promote peace, unity and inclusion” and endorses the International Day of Sport for Development and Peace on April 6th.

Sport, it seems, is universally recognised as a symbol for courage and optimism. And did I mention that it’s also fun?

Bad Romance

Unfortunately, however, it would be guileless to pretend that there is no downside to sport. The pitfall with anything that inspires as much passion as sport does is that, on occasion, this inevitably boils over into less desirable traits. There is a thin line between love and hate, often crossed by zealous competitiveness and the desire to win at all costs.

Taken to the extreme, competitiveness can lead to aggression, which in turn can lead to acts of the most deplorable violence. A case in point is British soccer, where hooligans use matches as an opportunity to drink excessively and then commit acts of blood-thirsty, mindless brutality. The hostility is depressing, and flies in the face of everything the beautiful game is supposed to stand for.

To my mind, overt competitiveness can start baring its teeth right from Little Kickers – not necessarily in the children, but amongst the adults. Being screamed at by a coach or parent for not being good enough quickly drains all the fun out of participation for small children.

While I’m not a proponent of school sport days where there is no individual competition at all, a trend that is worryingly gaining pace in the UK, no-one wants to see team-building and athleticism curdle into a loss of confidence or a sense of rejection for our youngest players.

The winner takes it all

That’s not to say that winning shouldn’t be an important part of sport – it should. There is nothing wrong with pushing yourself stronger, higher, faster. In fact, it is absolutely to be applauded. Sport gives you an unbridled opportunity to be fearless and to be unapologetically your best.

But it’s also about learning to lose gracefully (with the possible exception of tennis players, when destroying your racket appears to be de rigueur). Storming off or sobbing into your pillow is not the way to go. Loss is a part of life, and we all need to learn how to deal with it. You might be disappointed, but sport teaches you to pick yourself up, dust yourself off and jump back on the horse.

Admitting defeat – this time – also spurs you on to do better in the future. It stops you being complacent. So, regardless of the outcome, we need to leave the pitch holding our heads high, and to remember it’s all about how we’ve played the game.

Respect

In fact, to me, sportsmanship is the golden rule of sports. It’s about shaking hands at the end of a match or game, no matter how intensely you’ve fought during it. It’s about showing your opponent(s) respect, because they’ve trained as hard as you. Sometimes it’s about helping another runner over the line when they are too exhausted to finish a race, regardless of the fact that this could jeopardise your own placement.

Any person who displays this type of behaviour will be well-placed to land their dream job, no matter what sector or role this might be. After all, who wouldn’t want to work for or with someone who plays fair, shows respect and looks out for their colleagues’ well-being? Who doesn’t want to employ someone who is a shining example of a decent human being to their very core?

We are the Champions

If by a successful life, we mean a happy and healthy life full of pleasure and purpose, sport certainly teaches a skill-set that equips people to become successful.

Playing any type of sport – from snow polo to underwater hockey, cheese-rolling to chess boxing (yes, they are real things) – teaches you about setting and accomplishing goals.

Sport teaches you about communication skills and getting along with people from all different walks of life. It teaches you about managing conflict. It teaches you about focus and concentration. It teaches you about hard work and self-discipline. It teaches you about thorough preparation, and about adaptability.

You learn when to lead and when to follow. You learn to work collaboratively, as well as autonomously. You learn not to give up at the first sight of an obstacle, but to keep on trying different ways of succeeding. You also learn that life doesn’t always revolve around you.

As I mentioned at the very beginning, I’m certainly not a pro-athlete in any way, shape or form so I’m going to leave the summing up to someone much more qualified to comment than I. Arthur Ashe, the American World No 1 tennis player, said it best when he said: “You are never really playing an opponent. You are playing yourself, your own highest standards, and when you reach your limits, that is real joy.”

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