Young hockey player woman with ball in attack playing field hockey game

While the thought of competitive, collective exercise might make you shudder, research suggests that playing team sports can give a big boost to our mental and emotional wellbeing. 

If the words ‘team sports’ bring you out in a rash amid flashbacks of muddy school playing fields, communal showers, hockey injuries and angry PE teachers, you’re not alone. According to a poll, only 1 in 4 of us continues to play team sports as adults, with the rest of us preferring to go it alone to reach our fitness goals. Now, however, research is highlighting that solo exercisers might be missing out. Not only are you fitter if you take part in team sports (people who exercise in groups do nearly twice as much activity as those who exercise alone), but it’s better for emotional health, too. A report published last year shows that being part of a team is beneficial to your working life, helping with goal-setting, focus and grit. It also boosts your motivation, makes you happier, improves feelings of social-connectedness and peer-bonding – which all help to reduce stress, anxiety and depression.

But despite the wellbeing gains to be made in team sports, women are much less likely than men to take part. According to Women in Sport, there are over 700,000 more inactive women than men in England and the charity’s latest research showed that women’s activity levels have been disproportionately impacted by the summer’s lockdown, especially those women with children, juggling home life, work and schooling. So if you’re struggling to re-find your fitness motivation, or are looking to increase your fitness while also bolstering your emotional health, here are three research-backed reasons to find your team spirit. 

It boosts self-confidence. 

According to a recent study by the Institute of Leadership and Management, 75% of employees who play sport competitively believe it gives them the edge at work. The team players report that they feel more skilled and capable; that it helps with team-building at work – and crucially, more confidence and grit. ‘In sport, when you’re benched, or told you haven’t made the squad, those feelings of rejection are similar to those you feel when you’re excluded from an important client pitch or meeting,’ says Kris Chesney, former England rugby player, commenting on the survey results. ‘This is the time you can call on the mental toughness or the confidence you’ve developed in sport to help you deal with disappointments in the workplace.’

It brings greater life satisfaction

Not only do you make a whole new network of friends when you join a team, you also pull together – both on the pitch or court, and off, say researchers. Team players report feeling supported and motivated by their teammates, and friendships flourish. In a large-scale survey, team athletes reported higher life satisfaction than solo exercisers, and the survey authors suggest feelings of belonging, and the social side of training, are key. ‘When competing in sport, this study shows that the social environment of the team is important in terms of overall life satisfaction,’ Dr Chia-Huei Wu, assistant professor of management at LSE. ‘We found that this can be explained by the social interaction and feelings of identity that come from being a team-member, which are not as present when an athlete pursues their own individual goals.

‘There are important lessons in this study for those participating in sport at any level, as the team sport environment will bring a range of benefits beyond the health benefits of exercise. Joining a team may bring feelings of belonging with your teammates, and being satisfied with your team will help you be satisfied with your life.’

It increases motivation 

Exercising in a team means you’ll be more committed and motivated to take part – and it’s this consistency that gives a huge boost to both mental health and physical fitness, according an Australian study. Kate Dale, who leads Sport England’s This Girl Can campaign, agrees that team sports are a great idea if you struggle to maintain motivation. ‘If you’ve made a commitment to other people it’s much harder to decide you’re too tired and not bother going,’ she says. There are teams that cater for every level, she adds, from the competitive to fun. 

So if you’re haunted by memories of being the last person to be picked for the school team, or you don’t consider yourself ‘sporty’, there’s no need to let this to hold you back. Just make sure to check the current government guidelines about team sport before you get involved.

If you do get involved in a team sport, make sure you’re eating right – read our article on how to fuel your workout: what to eat before, during and after exercise.

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