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How sport strengthens mental health

The mental health benefits of sport are often overlooked. Any time we can #BeActive, it can have a profound and positive impact on our mental wellbeing.
Published 20 July 2020

Credit: istock 2020

Engaging in sport has myriad physical health benefits, from building body strength to helping people control their weight.

However, the mental health benefits of sport are often overlooked. Any time we can #BeActive, it can have a profound and positive impact on our mental wellbeing. Sport can improve self-confidence and promote a more balanced lifestyle, while combatting stress, depression, anxiety and cognitive decline.

Here, three sports professionals explain how working out can be invaluable in supporting mental health, helping us to face challenges and come out stronger.

Amal Abjahid at competition

Amal Amjahid

Amal Amjahid, 24, is a Belgian grappling champion and coach who specializes in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Born in Brussels to Moroccan parents, she has won five straight Jiu-Jitsu World Championship gold medals, three Jiu-Jitsu European Championship golds, and two World Games golds.

‘I remember how got into sport. I was just seven years old and my parents divorced. I was with my mother and we lost our house. It was a very difficult time. I really suffered - I had a lot of anger and rage. But I couldn’t find a way to express my emotions. I couldn’t deal with what was happening. As a result, I got into lots of fights at school, including fights with boys.

That was when the teachers noticed. They saw me fighting with everyone and thought I might be able to do combat sports. The tried many disciplines and eventually found jiu-jitsu, which is particularly is good for small people.

One of the reasons that it worked with me was that my coach could see how to channel my emotions into the sport. He taught me to be disciplined and showed me how to carry on despite the setbacks.

The effect was striking. Teachers noticed it within a few months. They saw I was much more focused, less argumentative, and I could control my feelings. I started to make friends and build a network. Before jiu-jitsu I felt that no-one loved me; that amplified my depression. But sport helped me rebuild my self-respect and my sense of self-worth.

When I started taking part in competitions, it took the sport to a whole new level. At 17 I already taking part in adult competitions. The adrenalin rush, seeing the crowd respond: it gave me such a huge sense of achievement.

I see my team as my second family, but during the months of lockdown I could not be with my brothers and sisters. As a contact sport, jiu-jitsu is always with other people, and was bizarre not to do it for three months – I have never had such a long break. But I kept myself motivated, doing other sports like running, cycling and yoga.

My message to anyone wondering about working out is this: sport is good for the body and for the mind. Even if I had not competed at the top level, I know it would have helped me. You can find out how to express yourself, how to manage your feelings. You can discover friends, friends that last a lifetime.’

Ivica Kostelić promotional photo

Ivica Kostelić

Ivica Kostelić, 40, is a Croatian champion alpine skier. A four-time Olympic silver medallist, slalom World Champion, and winner of 26 World Cups, he has now switched sports to sailing and is hoping to take part in the Paris 2024 Olympics.

‘Humans were built to move. Our systems have to keep on moving. Sport is especially important now because our lives involve more and more sitting: we spend a lot of time at our desks, not moving.

Doing sports makes you feel better. It is a normal physiological reaction. Exercise makes you happy, triggering endorphins, our feel-good hormones. It makes you think clearer. It puts things in perspective.

My father used to say, “If you have a problem in life, go running for an hour. And if you still have a problem after that, go running for another hour.” He’s right! Sport allows you to be alone with your thoughts, figuring our problems forging your own reality in a positive way.

When I go training, I always feel better. Our modern lives are so stressful – with so many different expectations, and so much bad energy accumulating – and sport is a way to release the energy. Conversely, I get in a bad mood when I cannot train – and need to release a lot of stress and energy.

Sport definitely helped during the quarantine, and it was wonderful to see so many people going out in nature. People were outside, but they were not in cafés drinking coffee: they were out in nature, running and cycling. It shows that we need to move - and I hope that some people who discovered exercise during this time will stick to it

I love being outside. I love feeling the wind on my face. I always thought it was a great privilege to be a skier. I remember once when my team was flying back from a competition in Sweden, flying over the Alps, we recognised a ski resort from the plane: my whole team was jumping from one side of the plane to the other, because everything unlocked. I realised how lucky we are as skiers – because this is our playground.

Now I am focusing on sailing, but both sports are about enjoying nature and feeling the elements. Even if these elements are mostly beyond your power – and these past few months have shown us how powerful nature is. But if you can work the elements for a bit, it is a miracle. This connection to nature can have a very moving effect on our minds, our moods and our wellbeing.

Sam Parfitt promotional photo

Sam Parfitt

Sam Parfitt, 30, is a former tennis player turned tennis coach and mindfulness teacher. Based in Norfolk,England, he founded the True Athlete Project in 2015, launching mentoring programmes, coaching workshops and classes on wellbeing in sport.

‘Everything in the body is connected. When we work on our physical health and fitness, it can have a very positive, knock-on effects on our mental health. We should take a whole person approach to improve our wellbeing.

Sport can be incredibly profound. We feel totally free yet connected. There is a weird paradox of being aware and present and yet in another universe completely. It can feel transcendent, even spiritual. And it comes in different ways. For me it was playing tennis as a kid with my dad - he was my coach - when I would go into a whole new place where I wasn’t thinking of anything else.

Mindfulness works in ways that aren’t obvious. We rely on the release of endorphin chemicals to trigger positive feelings, and the more you exercise, the more endorphins are produced. Its mood-boosting effects are amazing in preventing and managing mental health: if physical activity was a drug, it would be flying off the shelves.

When we face problems, these are seen as cognitive issues. But they are feelings in the body, and if we do something to the body, it can change how the mind responds. Sport can help deal with stress. It can refresh us, clear our minds, and broaden our sense of our total self.

Week of sport