Participating in sports and exercise can help a person create new, positive stories about themselves and reframe the future as a positive event to look forward to.
In the social constructionist narrative approach to therapy, it’s found that most people view the future as an extension of the past. For people with serious mental illness, this past/future narrative can lead one to feel trapped, with only defeats experienced to be repeated.
A study of men with mental illness who took up golf found that participating in a sport enabled them to focus more on the present and create action, achievement, and relationship narratives that were missing from their lives.
As their skills developed, they were able to see themselves as competent, skilled and proficient at something when, prior to taking up the sport, they defined themselves as inactive and life as pointless.
Interacting with others on the course and telling stories about their games after playing helped the men to reduce their self-focus and become more aware of others.
The simple act of playing a game enabled them to redefine themselves, be involved in a meaningful activity and be supported by others through the camaraderie of play and competition.
This led to a renewal of hope and a new commitment to life.
Instead of sitting inactive lost in thoughts of past failures or daunting future challenges and likely continued failure, sport gave the men a focus on the present while they played. That focus on the present continued after the game.
Such a focus enabled the men to construct restitution narratives in which they used their present joy of playing and socializing and projected that onto a more positive view of the future. The inclusiveness of playing and kidding with others, the friendly competition, built confidence in men who had so little confidence to begin with.
The promise of future games gave them something to look forward to, and they built new identities as golfers instead of loafers.
The physical fitness benefits of sport are obvious, but what the researchers found equally important is sport’s inspiration on a person to tell new self-stories that “facilitate a new sense of meaning and purpose through a reconstruction of identity and sense of self.”
In other words, it’s of real benefit to your mental health to play a sport with others, sit around and talk about it after, and plan to do it again.