Women are much less likely than men to play competitive sports – and we may be missing out on an important source of emotional, mental and professional wellbeing as a result.
For many women, the words ‘team sports’ send a shiver down the spine. School-era memories of hockey stick-bruised shins, violent netball matches and playing tag rugby in the freezing rain are enough to make anyone see group games as a trial at best, and downright traumatic at worst.
But while the thought of competitive, collective exercise might make you shudder, research suggests that playing team sports can actually be hugely beneficial to our mental and emotional wellbeing – and even boost our careers.
According to a new study by the Institute of Leadership & Management (ILM), 75% of employees who have played sport competitively believe it equips people with skills and capabilities that give them an edge in the workplace – from team-building to confidence and mental toughness. Sounds good, right? And in a 2017 study by the London School of Economics (LSE), researchers found that team sports can help increase long-term happiness and life satisfaction, while providing the same health benefits as regular exercise.
Dr Chia-Huei Wu, assistant professor of management at LSE, said the difference in life satisfaction levels experienced by people who play team and individual sports could be explained by the “social interaction and feelings of identity that comes from being a team member”.
These benefits just aren’t as prominent when you’re exercising on your own, he explained. “Joining a team may bring feelings of belonging with your teammates, and being satisfied with your team may help you be satisfied with your life.”
Yet despite all its benefits, women are still much less likely than men to play team sports. According to the ILM, 34% of women have never competed in competitive sports, compared to just 14% of men. And we may be missing out on an important emotional resource as a result. Research by Sport Scotland suggests that team sports can enhance feelings such as social connectedness, social support and peer bonding, all of which are crucial to social and mental wellbeing. In turn, these feelings may reduce stress, anxiety and depression.
Journalist Ella Braidwood joined women’s 11-a-side football team Tower Hamlets WFC after going through a break-up in 2016. While she appreciates the physical benefits of playing sport regularly, she says the experience has had a much more important effect on her mental health and social life.
“I get a huge amount from being at my club,” she says. “Although fitness is a part of it, I’ve also made a whole new network of friends, and it’s really boosted my emotional wellbeing.”
“It provides a space for me to go and focus my mind, week in, week out, and it gives me a sense of achievement,” Ella says. “I’ve found I leave training sessions and matches feeling much more positive about myself.”
The community-creating potential of team sports is also emphasised by Georgia Tsakiri, the chairwoman of Manchester Lynx, one of only two LBGT+ women’s basketball clubs in the UK.
“Great friendships have flourished within our club,” she adds. “As well as sexuality, we’re diverse in means of faith, ethnicity and background, and our current players’ ages range from 20 to 45. We organise various socials throughout the year, and we find that this encourages team bonding on the court as well.”
Perhaps surprisingly for something many of us associate vividly with school, netball is the most popular sport among women in England: research by Sport England shows that 264,800 women play it regularly. Helen Fanthorpe, a senior editor at a publishing house, is one of them. She plays netball in a recreational league once a week, and says the sport definitely makes her feel happier.
“We play just to have fun, and believe me – the score lines reflect that,” she jokes. “It’s great to feel like you’re part of a team without being in a work context, and it’s a good way to socialise on a weekday around an activity that doesn’t involve drinking.”
In 2010, researchers found that women who participated in netball clubs enjoyed better mental health and life satisfaction than women who exercised at a gym or walked alone, even though there was no difference in the women’s physical health.
“I think sport – and especially a group competitive sport like netball – is also excellent as a sort of mindful distraction,” Helen agrees. “Problems just can’t fit in your mind while you’re in the middle of a game, so however stressed you are, it gives you an hour’s break.”
Sport England’s This Girl Can campaign has been widely credited with encouraging more women to get involved in sport. Kate Dale, who leads the initiative, points out that team sports are a great idea if you tend to struggle to maintain the motivation to exercise: “If you’ve made a commitment to other people it’s much harder to decide you’re too tired and not bother going.”
There’s also the fact that most people don’t take up sports such as netball, football, basketball, rugby, volleyball and tennis out of a desire to lose weight. They do it because they want to have fun. In a world that still often presents exercise as something women only do begrudgingly when they want to tone up or drop a dress size, there’s something refreshing – and psychologically healthy – about that.
“You’ll be focused on the game you’re playing, rather than the calories you’re expending,” Dale agrees. “There are teams that cater for every level – from the seriously competitive to the just-for-fun.
“And it really is different to school – no hideous PE kit, no maths lesson to follow afterwards. And if you really don’t like it, you can walk away without worrying about getting detention.”
Team sports and where to play them
Why it’s fun: It’s fast-paced and exciting – and the super-simple rules are easy to get the hang of.
Why it’s fun: Women don’t often get the chance to be joyfully, powerfully physical with one another. If you like the thought of (consensually) tackling someone to the ground, give rugby a try.
Why it’s fun: You’re all but guaranteed to make firm friends with the other members of your football team – and there’s no feeling in the world like scoring, setting up or blocking a goal.
Find out more: thefa.com
Why it’s fun: That tiny, whizzing hockey puck is akin to the Golden Snitch in Harry Potter. And like rugby, hockey is great for getting out any pent-up frustration.
Why it’s fun: It’s energetic, intense and seriously competitive. Like basketball, the rules are simple – everyone’s focused on getting that ball back over the net.
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