These 3 intrinsic qualities make trying new sports my favorite form of therapy

Or: here's why my favorite sports will always be the ones I haven't tried (yet)

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I love sports. Specifically, I love trying new sports. It’s such an enjoyable pastime for me that I thought I’d write this article to try and encourage others to give it a go as well. 

Luckily for me, I’ve been privileged to try out all kinds of sports over the years. In fact, here’s just a partial list of sports I’ve enjoyed at some point:

  • Skateboarding
  • Kayaking
  • Volleyball
  • Ultimate Frisbee
  • Gaelic football
  • Australian football
  • Futsal
  • Tennis
  • Racquetball 
  • Boxing
  • Horseback riding
  • Soccer
  • Snowboarding
  • Cycling
  • Wakeboarding
  • Basketball
  • Hurling
  • Ice skating
  • Baseball

I’m pretty sure I could keep going for a while, but you get the idea. I’ve still got a pretty long list of sports I’d love to try out, from rock climbing and surfing to rugby and cricket.

Some of the sports in the above list, I’ve played on and off for decades. Others I’ve tried only a handful of times. How much time you spend with a sport, in my view, is less important than just getting out there and trying it, although I will make the argument that two or three separate experiences with an activity are usually more rewarding than just one.

Let’s get into the benefits. Why bother with strange games that you don’t understand? I’ll give you 3 major reasons right now.

It makes you humble

Have you tried anything lately that left you feeling stupid and incompetent? If not, you’re probably missing out. I say that because when you try something new and consequently realize how much skill is involved in a particular activity, and realize you don’t have that skill, it gives you a new respect for people that do. In terms of physiological consequences, gaining that respect is essentially the same thing as gaining humility.

The positive psychology movement of the last few decades has led to a lot of interest in studying the benefits of being humble, and while it’s a difficult construct to research, it’s basically obvious that having a certain amount of humility ‘greases the wheel’ for you socially.

This is evidenced by the fact that, despite the difficulty of research in the area, psychologists have decided it’s likely that humility increases the strength of social bonds, optimizes the benefits of being competitive, and generally is correlated with better health outcomes.

I wish I could find more science to back this up, but in lieu of that, I’ll just ask you to try it for yourself and see; feeling a little embarrassed and awkward can — yes, actually — feel pretty good. It’s a little bit like that old Stoic meditation technique where you contemplate your own death; it can seem weird and uncomfortable, but strangely ends up giving you a sense of gratitude and contentedness.

It cultivates mindfulness

Now we’re getting into one of my favorite aspects of trying new things — especially complex mind-body challenges that require plenty of awareness and coordination.

Throughout the process of learning a new sport, including everything from the rules or principles to the physical movements themselves, mental attention is an absolute requirement. This kind of goes without saying, right? It’s impossible to learn something if you’re not paying attention.

The best thing about paying something close attention? All the stuff you’re suddenly not paying attention to.

Let me break it down this way: if you’re teaching me the rules of squash, and I’m really intent on understanding, then there are approximately 5,000 things I’m not thinking about at that moment — things which would otherwise be constantly nagging at me to get them taken care of, from broken bathroom fixtures to overdue library books.

So yeah, ironically, trying new sports can be incredibly relaxing.

Now, once you reach a threshold of knowledge and skill, you don’t have to think so hard, and you can participate in a given activity without as much focus. If you’re like me, however, and you really enjoy this aspect of learning, then the remedy for that is to always push yourself to new heights. Challenge yourself with tougher opponents, more advanced skills, or less forgiving terrain.

It provides human connection

This one is self-explanatory. Really, though. All I’ll say is that the power of meeting new people, forging new social bonds, and developing new layers of empathy can never be understated in terms of contributing to your overall mental well-being and long-term success and happiness in life.

Bonus reason: Life outside the comfort zone is good

I tried to find a cool quote about why it’s so valuable to get outside your comfort zone. There are tons to choose from, and whether or not they resonate kind of depends on your flavor of motivation.

Tony Robbins? Here you go. More of a Monty Python fan? Here’s John Cleese on the topic. Anyway, I found one by actress Kristen Wiig (SNL, Bridesmaids) that captures my own view on the subject pretty much perfectly:

“When you go outside your comfort zone and it works, there’s nothing more satisfying.”

I honestly can’t put it any more succinctly than that.

Maybe you’ve heard (or haven’t) of Carol Dweck and her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, in which she writes about two mindsets — a “growth” mindset and a “fixed” mindset.” Chances are you’ve come across these terms, and rather than go into them here, I’ll refer you to this article, if you’re interested in that sort of thing.

Long story short? Trying new sports (activities of any kind, really) is a physical embodiment of the growth mindset.

Last but not least

Finally, let’s have a chat about privilege, because sadly, someone out there will inevitably say to themselves, “That’s all well and good for you, but I can’t afford to take up ice hockey and bouldering.”

I get where those people would be coming from, I really do. And while I have been very privileged in doing many of the things I’ve done (check my admission of that fact in the first paragraph of this article), it was often only through the good will of friends or acquaintances that I was afforded those opportunities.

Frankly, I can’t afford ice hockey or bouldering, either. Much less sailing, deep sea diving, or even golf. But you know what? For every sport I can’t afford, there’s probably one I can try for free. Disc golf? All you need is something more or less round. Soccer? Here’s some inspiration for the equipment. Swimming, running, and free-solo climbing are examples of other sports you can try with zero equipment and just yourself.

Personally I’d love it if everyone in the world could surf or ski or bobsled on any day of the year they wanted, on any budget. Short of that, however, there’s still not much excuse not to try something new. But please, for the last time, and no matter what ESPN says, Texas Hold ‘Em is not a sport. 

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