I am a massive advocate of using sport to combat mental illness. Why? Because it really works.
I read an incredibly interesting post yesterday from the England Squash Facebook page, on the difference playing squash has made to one woman’s life. And it made me think about why sport can have such a positive impact on our mental wellbeing. I am a lifelong lover of squash. Apart from the odd gap, I have pretty much been on the squash court since I was 12 years old. It’s basically fast snooker so you get both intellectual and physical stimulation.
My relationship with squash is so much more than simply playing the game. It has given me a place to escape (both physically and mentally), introduced me to a classless world with a common aim, provided support and counselling from kind and caring people and allowed me to excel and feel pride in my ability.
I preferred the men’s game, fast and furious, but most importantly because my dad loved to see me being equal and hitting my back-hand drive harder than most blokes!
My squash career started with my dad. A wonderfully talented player that I never did get to beat, not until the day his knee gave out and then it didn’t count. Every Wednesday night I would play my dad at squash. It was an incredibly special time and I loved it. After he stopped playing, I continued, all the way through University and during my early career. I preferred the men’s game, fast and furious, but most importantly because my dad loved to see me being equal and hitting my back-hand drive harder than most blokes! I took a break when I had my children but missed it enormously. The smell of a squash court, the rhythm of the rally, the pump of adrenaline and the camaraderie of the people. I went back to squash after 10 years off court. It hurt, a lot. I could hardly lift my leg to put my knickers on or walk down the stairs for 3 days. But I persevered and after 12 months of coaching, blood, sweat, and tears I finally got back to some sort of reasonable standard.
We would then talk through and analyse the game usually ending with him saying “don’t be too hard on yourself, it will come”.
And then my dad’s cancer spread and my world collapsed. Squash became my saviour and his too. Each day when I visited on my way back from squash, his words as I walked in would be “how did you go on today love”. We would then talk through and analyse the game usually ending with him saying “don’t be too hard on yourself, it will come”. At the squash club, my partners would listen patiently to me on the latest updates on my dad’s health and wipe my tears. They would sit long after the game had ended listening to my heartbreak over watching my larger than life dad slowly die. If they could take my mind off it for just a little while they had been successful.
The cleaner at the club, who tragically lost her daughter to cancer during the same period, would be waiting for me – to give kind words and a shoulder to cry on. Nobody in the gym, during the warm-up session, looked or judged the mad woman on the rowing machine sobbing her heart out or raging at the injustice of it all. I was allowed just to ‘be’, shown an enormous amount of kindness and made to laugh when I needed it most.
So, sport is not really just sport. For me, it’s a community of support, kindness, and escapism. I am my whole self there, both good and bad. I am accepted and have found sport to be one of the few places where I genuinely feel free. And that’s why it helps enormously with mental illness. It doesn’t matter what the sport is, just give it a go. It has saved my bacon many, many times.
The phrase “mens sana in corpore sano” is by Giovenale, who at the time gave it a rather different meaning from what it later assumed with modernity. It must also be said that over the centuries, science has shown that actually physical activity (and therefore a healthy body) is able to prevent certain diseases of the mind (for example Alzheimer’s). The common sense is that if you want to have a healthy mind you must also take care of your body, and it is precisely for this reason that the sports world has often made it his own.