How team sports improved my mental health

 

There are plenty of health benefits to playing team sports. Chasing a ball around a court or field for over half an hour adds a respectable amount of physical activity to your day, but research suggests that the benefits of sports extend to mental health as well.

A study published earlier this year showed that those who play team sports tend to be more satisfied with their lives overall. This is certainly true for Melbourne writer and keen basketballer TARYN STENVEI, who has found that the mental improvements that come with hitting the court are right on par with the physical ones.

I played basketball a fair bit as a kid. I was always tall, and while I wasn’t a natural ball handler, I was a decent outside shot and a keen defender. I stopped playing when I was 14-years-old – a classic case of my social life getting in the way. I started to prioritise hanging out with friends and withdrew into regular teenage things like music and the internet.

My reasons for returning to the court were mainly for fitness. A few years ago, I responded to a friend’s Facebook callout to form a new team. I was keen to have a run around and see if I still had any of my old skills. It took a few weeks for the cobwebs to clear, but I found that my body retained the muscle memory of how to play – at least the basics.

I’ve been back in the game for over three years now. I play twice a week – Tuesday and Wednesday nights – in two different competitions. The games provide a structure to my week. The fact that other people rely on me showing up means I’m way less likely to blow off a game than I am a gym session, where I need to motivate myself to go.

I’m fitter now than I was when I started. I can really notice the difference when it comes to running. I used to get puffed easily and needed to call lots of timeouts and subs. Now, I can run the court for almost the full 40 minutes. I actually get a little bit annoyed when time outs are called because I generally want to keep playing.

Team sports provide more than just fitness. While the physical aspects are great, I’ve really noticed a difference with other aspects of my wellbeing. My social circle has widened, and there is something unique about the relationship you share with someone you consider to be a teammate. The joint effort on court has taught me how to better work collaboratively in other parts of my life, like at work or in my friendship circles. It’s also nice to get a post-game drink and debrief with my teammates. I get a real sense of belonging.

I find playing to be meditative. As soon as I hit the court, my attention turns entirely to the game. Everything else – work stress, my to-do list, what’s for dinner – all fades away for those 40 minutes. Most of the time it doesn’t even feel like working out. Being ‘in the moment’ is easy when you’re focused on a shared goal that involves so much body coordination. Most of the time, when post-game endorphins set in, any stressful thoughts lose their edge for the entire night.

On the flip side, I get quite invested in games. I can get a bit down or annoyed at myself when my team loses or when I don’t play very well. But even those moments of negativity help to shift my focus from more serious things in my life that I might be dealing with. On the whole, the emotional fallout from losing doesn’t feel like a big deal. I’ve also had a few broken fingers over the years, but that’s always the risk with contact sports.

I think people think of team sports as something they do as kids. The benefits of playing team sports are actually universal, and whether it’s the social, the physical, or the mental aspect, playing team sports can improve your wellbeing in so many ways. I love playing basketball, and returning to my favourite sport as an adult has had a profoundly positive impact on my life.

 

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