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Mental Resilience and Sport

As we close in on winter, have less daylight and procrastinate the hours away until January exams and deadlines, I think it’s important to take a moment to consider how we manage our mental health during these times. Students are under increasing pressure from exams, debt, and a multitude of other problems; these require a significant level of support from institutions to be managed correctly. Mental health and the support it receives at the University of York has a notoriously bad reputation, something that we hope will improve following the university’s pledge of £500,000 to help fund support systems such as Open Door. The University's pledge made me wonder what we could be doing as individuals to maintain our own mental well-being.

Its common knowledge now (or should be) that doing exercise has a dramatically positive affect on both our physical and our mental well-being. It helps keep our bodies in shape and manage our weight, as well as boosting self-esteem, reducing anxiety and depression and increasing our general happiness. Of course playing sport provides an easy introduction into exercise, but exercising as part of a group or a playing a team sport comes with its own set of benefits such as social connections – making new friends with people you have something in common with, challenging areas of discrimination, and most importantly having fun! If you enjoy taking part in something once, you’re much more likely to do it again – something many of our players can relate to and the reason they started playing.

I was part of the #StayingOnTrack campaign run by YUSU and this also served to demonstrate just how effective exercise and sport can be in day to day life. Speaking from personal experience (and I’m possibly biased because I’ve only ever played team sports), being part of a team has had a huge influence on my mental well-being. It allowed me to participate in a competitive environment, surrounded by like-minded but different people and I’ve made some amazing friends. It also provided me with a support network that I have never experienced in any other social setting.

It was whilst I was looking into sport and mental health that I came across an initiative in Australia called The Resilience Project. It is run by a small group, created to tackle the startling levels of mental illness that we now see in adolescents and even younger children, and following its initial success it was extended to many sports teams throughout Australia. Athletes are put under considerable pressure to be successful on a regular basis – as are students, and it was there to help athletes manage that pressure so that they can perform effectively and continue to enjoy their sport. We all have highs and lows in our lives and The Resilience Project was developed to teach people how to manage these highs and lows so that we aren’t overwhelmed by the negatives which will inevitably be thrown our way. There are some fantastic clips of some of the talks here and here which highlight the inspirations behind the programme.

The Resilience Project puts at the front of their campaign three (seemingly) simple and perhaps obvious things that we can do to develop our mental resilience.

Gratitude - the ability to focus (and appreciate) the things that we have, and not focus solely on what we don’t have.

Empathy - being able to put yourself into someone else’s shoes. Considering those around you and doing kind things for other people helps us feel better too.

Mindfulness - the ability to shut off disruptive thoughts so that you can just enjoy the present. With so many distractions in our lives (phones/tablets/social media etc), it can be difficult for us to fully engage in what is going on around us and it is healthy to take time away from these things so that we can enjoy the moment.

Combining these three things, the Resilience Project employs use of a ‘resilience journal’ that you complete every night – writing down three things that you appreciate or went well that day. Even if we don’t do this, I think it’s important to think often about and be thankful for the good things we have in our lives. This is also combined with use of meditation – there’s a really great app called Smiling Mind, it could help to improve our mental well-being. In fact, there is evidence to prove that just 21 days practising these things will have a positive effect.

Inevitably, UYWRUFC is something that I am frequently grateful for. At our Christmas meal I found myself just taking a moment to look around at the fifty young women attending and thinking how amazing it is that we’ve grown our club to such numbers in just a few years. In my first year we sometimes struggled to field a full squad every week and this year we are fielding two full squads week in week out! Without this club I wouldn’t be the confident, strong, and independent person I am today and that probably applies to most UYWRUFCans. Playing a team sport has taught me how to look after my body, how to be a leader, and (hopefully) how to inspire my teammates to achieve great things on and off the pitch. The beauty of women’s rugby is also that it’s never too late to start. The majority of our players had never played before University and some of them start on the first team now. All it takes is the mental drive to keep learning and trying, then they start to feel the benefits and they’re hooked. Playing sport becomes part of our identity and I can’t imagine life without it now.

So while it’s sometimes tempting to spend our time watching Netflix and eating mince pies while we’re home for Christmas or when we don’t feel like going to that 9am lecture, it’s important that we prioritize getting our bodies moving. 2017 is just around the corner, so maybe this year a New Year’s resolution should be to join a sport – even better if you choose rugby. You won’t even notice how hard you’re working because you’ll be having too much fun and soon you’ll be reaping the mental benefits too.

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