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Using sport to support better mental wellbeing

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Posted 9th October 2020

It’s cold. It’s probably wet. You don’t know if you’re going to have eleven players to make up a full team, and your boots are twice their normal weight because of the mud you haven’t cleaned off from last weekend. 

If any of this sounds familiar, you’ve probably got out of bed on a Sunday morning to go and play football in a local park. If you’ve never played football on a Sunday morning, you probably read that and wondered quite why anyone would want to.

But when you scratch the surface (and we don’t mean the mud on a pair of boots), there’s much more to it. It’s being part of a team. It’s doing something you love. It’s the day of the week that against all logic to an outsider, is the one you look forward to the most.

For some people, the importance of all those things cannot be underestimated.

James Moore was diagnosed with depression a couple of years ago, at a time when he says he was suicidal. He was being supported with counselling through Mind charity, but wanted to do more to tackle his illness head on.  He bought a dog knowing that needing to walk it would give him a reason to leave the house that otherwise wouldn’t be there.

One night, scrolling through Instagram, he saw details of a new football session being run by mental health charity, Mind Over Matter, and supported by the Active Dearne project.

“I wanted to get back playing and being part of a team,” said the 28-year old. “The fact it was mental health based was a big pull for me.  Before I set off I wondered if I might bottle it, but I made myself go and it was a really good decision.

“Being a teacher, I’m used to talking to people.  But it was a bit unnerving introducing myself to a whole new group.  Straightaway I felt like I fitted in and was part of everything, so I went every week. It was a good group of lads, good standard and competitive.  But mainly it was just a good laugh.

“Sport has always been the outlet for me and where I could forget my issues.  I was big on my running but I wanted to get back into football, because with running you’re mainly just running by yourself. It has become a big part of my life – it’s a highlight of my week.”

As a junior, James’ running ability saw him as one of the leading juniors for cross country in South Yorkshire. That drive to become a better runner, he admits, made him ultra-critical of himself as he strived to get more from himself. As he got older, he acknowledges that mindset didn’t really leave him.

In a 2016 survey by Opinion Leader for the Men’s Health Forum, the majority of men said that they would take time off work to get medical help for physical symptoms such as blood in stools or urine, unexpected lumps or chest pain, yet fewer than one in five said they would do the same for anxiety (19%) or feeling low (15%).


Sport has always been the outlet for me and where I could forget my issues


“I’m quite ashamed to say that I didn’t really believe in mental health when I was 18 or 19, and it’s just something you can get over,” admitted James.

“There was no real trigger for me, such as a certain event like can happen for some people.  It just sort of happened and that made me realise that it can hit anyone at any time.

“When I was younger and competing at cross country, being critical of myself was good to drive you on.  But now I’m an adult and not competing to that standard, it’s almost becoming a bit detrimental.  But the lads in the team are always there to pick you up.

“I broke my collar bone four years ago and missed six months of running. When I got back to it, I was definitely better.  It was my stress release to just go and run.

“When I did my shoulder, it almost knocked me into that depression.  People know me as a runner and someone who is quite fit so once I couldn’t do that, it did have a knock-on effect.  To be able to get back into was a massive relief for me.”

Football is part of James’ working life too, in his role working with sixth form students as part of the Sheffield Wednesday Community Programme.  There’s also the possibility of him using his running experience to setup a running club as part of the Mind Over Matter activity offering.

The charity offers Zumba, yoga, walking groups and plenty more as they try to cater for as wide a range of people as possible in the Dearne Valley, and James says the welcoming aspect of any sessions is essential for people with mental health problems.

He’s now proud to be an advocate for the role talking about mental health can play, and the impact sport and activity can have on good wellbeing.

Researchers found that people felt more content, more awake and calmer after being physically active compared to periods of being inactive. They also found that the effect of physical activity on mood was greatest when mood was initially low.

“It’s one of the first things I say to the young people I work with: ‘Come and talk to me, I’ve been through it.  I know what that dark, horrible place where there feels like there’s no exit, is like.’

“I think that helps knowing you can talk to someone who has been there, and they’re more likely to believe it and take it on board.

“I’ve had people comment on how much more confident I’ve become and I think it is down to the team and the help the lads have provided. I have noticed it myself.

“It’s about self-achievement, however small that is.  There will be people who haven’t left their house since March, and just going out of the house could be their achievement for the day.  Then they can set that little target of doing something else, like a walk to the park or a first run for a year.

“That feeds the mental wellbeing, which feeds your confidence.  It almost sets a target to do it the next day, and that sense of achievement is there again.”

For advice and support on mental health, visit the Mind website.

For tips around using physical activity to support your mental wellbeing, click here.

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