The power of play
Staying active is good for us — right? UCalgary researchers explore the benefits of sport beyond the physical – from social wellness to life skills – and challenge the notion that you can't be healthy and fit without suffering and deprivation.
Not everyone can be an Olympian, but playing sports and staying active can enrich your life far beyond the physical benefits. For some, sports are a life-long pursuit. High-school football and basketball stars go on to be varsity superstars. Track athletes pursue Olympic dreams and, later, marathons. Many become coaches, devoting professional and volunteer efforts to mentoring young athletes.
But for others – the majority of us – it’s something we want to do, something we should do but, for the most part, we don’t. In fact, research shows participation in sports is declining. Statistics Canada reports that in 1992, 57% of Canadian children took part in sports. By 2005, that number fell to 51%.
Kinesiology researchers like Simon Barrick, who is doing his PhD research at UCalgary’s Faculty of Kinesiology, want to reverse that trend for children and adults alike.
“My sport is curling. I love it. Sports centres, arenas, curling clubs – they're a hub for bringing people together,” says Barrick. “We know enrolment in all sports is declining, even iconic sports like hockey. These days, curling clubs are doing extra marketing, offering packages of 8 – 12 weeks with appetizers and social events thrown in.”
So ... back to our original question: why should we get involved in activities like sports?
1. Sports spark friendships and community connections
Research tells us that making friends is one of the primary benefits of playing sports. “Well-designed sports programs are great for people, their physical health and mental well-being," says Barrick. "They offer a sense of belonging, and connection – especially for newcomers to Canada. For those who have been uprooted and left family and friends behind, those new connections are vital."
In partnership with Skate Canada and Hockey Canada, Barrick’s PhD project is focused on optimizing learn-to-skate programs for newcomers to Canada.
There are barriers for new Canadians who want to enrol in sports, including cost, language barriers, and, with parents working long hours, difficulties getting kids to games and practices. “We are being really thoughtful and mindful as we set up a pilot program,” says Barrick. That includes interviewing coaches and sports organizers to identify best practices in programs for new Canadians, and focus groups that ask participants why they took part, and what they got out of it.
He also plans to hand cameras to participants so they can capture their experiences of learning to skate. “When we ask people to take photos, that shifts power away from me, the researcher, and towards the participants themselves," Barrick says. "Often, people take pictures of teammates or the friend who brought them. I ask them to pick two or three that are most meaningful.” The research team then incorporates that feedback into the framework for future programs.
Barrick notes that if someone’s initial experience with a sport is not positive, they are not likely to continue. Jessica O’Connell (BSc’12, MSc’16), knows exactly what he means. The Canadian National Track and Field Team member has vivid memories of joining the cross-country team in junior high. “Kids threw food at me at lunch as I ran around the school. It was very embarrassing. Because it just wasn’t cool,” she says, with a laugh.
Prior to taking up running, O’Connell was not sure where she fit. “I was very bad at technical sports," she says. "I could not throw or catch a ball. And at first, I was a goofy runner.” Despite that, she kept on running. “It was the best decision I ever made. It was life-changing. I made a whole new set of friends. Doing our sport together was so unifying. I feel so much gratitude for what I have been able to do, running and travelling to all these places."
O’Connell just graduated with her master's degree in exercise physiology and is representing Canada in the 5000-metre event at the Rio Olympics. Her advice for kids and weekend warriors alike? “For anyone starting a sport, I would encourage you to keep going – you will get better,” she says. “You learn so much from participating and giving your best.” After the Rio games, O’Connell aims to work as an exercise physiologist, “and help others do their best.”
2. Sports help us learn about ourselves
William Bridel, PhD, assistant professor of kinesiology at UCalgary, began his sports journey as a competitive figure skater, dropped out completely during his undergrad degree, and then got hooked on long-distance running and endurance events, competing in Ironman triathlon events three times. “I went from being super unhealthy and unfit to being obsessive about it. And I learned a lot about myself in the process,” he remembers. “In my third Ironman, I hated every step but I told myself it was this amazing accomplishment.” He noticed doing Ironman became more about status than actually enjoying the activity itself. Those personal experiences have shaped his academic explorations around the sociology of sports, challenging many dominant ideas, including the capitalist idea that more is always better.
Bridel suggests stretching personal limits is healthy as long as it does not become addictive or interfere with relationships. He cautions people to resist the myth that we are not truly fit unless we push ourselves to extremes. “Long-term, holistic health and wellness are what’s most important,” he says. “I encourage students to think about whether the culture of their training is open to discussions of pain and injury. Listen to your body,” he says. “Then, reassess your goals.”
Bridel invites his students to “lean into your discomfort” and question society’s "no-pain, no-gain" beliefs. The book he co-edited, Endurance Running: A Socio-cultural Examination, asks, along with other questions, why sports culture encourages us to ignore pain at the risk of life-long injuries.
These days, Bridel’s own relationship with exercise reflects that shift in thinking. Teaching classes at a Calgary fitness studio, he has noticed the upsurge of yoga and zumba offerings where participants nurture a healthier relationship with their body. “No more guilt and rigid goals. No more judgment,” he says. Bridel stresses that trying to modify your body leads to disappointment and risks you dropping out whereas strengthening your body in its current form is more sustainable and fun.
Join researcher William Bridel for a fascinating webinar examining how cultural norms impact the way pain and injury are experienced and (not) talked about in sport. William includes findings from the latest academic studies, including his own research on “weekend warriors” and endurance challenge athletes.
3. Sport builds life skills
Tim Main, BPE’72, BEd’74, has also noticed that shift away from winning at all costs. “As a coach, I am developing a whole athlete, not a winning athlete," says Main. "Growth, development, and leadership skill-building are far more important these days." In 2007, Main was the headmaster of the Edge School for Athletes, a high school for elite soccer, dance and hockey athletes. And in 2011, he served as founding principal at Alberta Ballet’s junior-high/high school.
When working with teachers and students, Main sees the benefits of sports go far beyond physical health. “Students learn life skills that transfer into the work world: decision-making under stress, how to lead, and how to take constructive criticism,” he says. A life-long athlete himself, Main emphasizes that when young people join teams, they learn how to set goals, assess themselves, and work closely with teammates and coaches. “Then, in the work world when they suffer corporate defeat or lose clients, they can check in, refocus, adjust and make better decisions."
These days, Main is working with the United Way’s All in for Youth initiative, aimed at re-engaging high-school students who are at risk of dropping out. “By engaging students through their passion, for the arts or for sports, connecting them with a mentor and addressing the barriers to staying in school, we can literally turn their lives around,” he says.
4. Sports are FUN
The power of play is undeniable. Canadians understand the value of playing together in creating social bonds, promoting active, healthy living and, ultimately, building a stronger country. (Playing together, Institute for Canadian Citizenship, 2014)
“When I run and I am just in my body, that is THE BEST,” says Jessica O’Connell, her brown eyes sparkling. Even though her journey to the Olympics meant juggling her master’s thesis alongside a hefty training schedule, O’Connell’s face lights up when she talks about her sport. “It’s a gift to do what we are doing," she says. "Never let the small bits of adversity change your focus. If you work hard, good things will come."
Things to remember
- Choose a sport that fuels your spirit – whether that’s dodge ball, Tai Chi, or swimming.
- If you find a sport you love, you will stick with it!
- Sign up for your sport with a friend. Research shows that will keep you coming back.
- Shift focus away from winning, and towards doing your best. When kids are disappointed they didn’t win, parents can say “I love to watch you play soccer.”
- If you can’t get to the gym, grab a friend for a 30-minute walk around your neighbourhood.
- Having the right gear will help you enjoy your sport and prevent injury – especially in winter.
- A pickup game of soccer doesn’t cost anything and can be a fun afternoon for all ages.
William Bridel, PhD, is an assistant professor at the University of Calgary’s Faculty of Kinesiology. His research explores socio-cultural aspects of the body, physical activity, and health. He is supervising Simon Barrick’s PhD project on learn-to-skate programs for new Canadians. Find a list of William's research publications here.