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Nursing sporting dreams back to health

From helping them to concentrate better, to developing resilience and channelising energies well, there is so much sport does for children

Photo: RODNAE Production/

As a child coming to grips with the delights of sport, there’s little more satisfying than pitching the perfect leg-break or finding the bat’s sweet spot; or, connecting ball with boot and seeing it hit the back of the net; or, sending a beautifully struck forehand into a corner of the court. And, if you’re part of a collective, nothing beats the camaraderie that flows from sharing in each other’s success, that moment when you joyously high-five your teammates after taking a wicket or scoring a goal.

For the girl or boy in search of a voice that can be heard, a place and meaning in an exasperating world, and a happiness beyond words, sport offers the way to a healthy mind, and a lesson (to paraphrase Kipling) in treating those two impostors, triumph and disaster, just the same.

In its very nature, of highs mingling with lows, sport imbues the participant with equanimity. And setbacks can spur children to work even harder next time. Still, what if there was no sport to drive away the blues, to banish the insecurities and comfort the anxious?

Sport, interrupted

The pandemic acted as a spoilsport (pun unintended) for the many girls and boys who would devote several hours most days to extracurricular pursuits. With physical distancing curbs enforced, and stadia and gyms shut down, they were unable to train or play in groups. Solo practice, meanwhile, was logistically challenging and psychologically unfulfilling.

Suddenly, the sporting dreams of these youngsters were forced into cold storage. And online keep-fit classes or practical lessons were a poor substitute for the real thing. “The struggles faced by children who play sports were perhaps the most profound,” reckons Esha Mehta, a counselling psychologist. “The decline in children’s mental health was also because of an absence of social connectedness that participation in sport inevitably provides.”

For the girl or boy in search of a voice that can be heard, a place and meaning in an exasperating world, and a happiness beyond words, sport offers the way to a healthy mind, and a lesson (to paraphrase Kipling) in treating those two impostors, triumph and disaster, just the same.

Sport is also healing, especially for children who suffer from behavioural problems. But through 2020 and 2021, the dearth of any sporting activity impacted teens and pre-teens, both mentally, as evidenced by the emergence of cases of OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder), depression and anxiety, as well as physically, with the young having to deal with weight gain, liver-related issues and diabetes.

“Children felt lethargic, and lacked motivation to continue to keep fit. They also felt as if they were not good enough,” reveals Mehta. “And they felt very lonely, because sports classes had been cancelled, and there were no events happening and no peer interaction.”

While youngsters, she informs, were encouraged to engage in online fitness programmes, home workouts, and general cardiovascular training to maintain an optimum level of fitness, such diversions did little to dispel the emotional anguish of being cooped up at home.

“Children became easily annoyed, frustrated, upset, demotivated and angry. They reported low self-worth and moods swings, and also high levels of anxiety, fear and self-doubt,” she explains.

“A lot of children reported a lack of growth. They felt a loss of time, and a state of loss, as sporting seasons kept on passing.” At their wit’s end, they were forced to face up to an uncertain future.

Once a thrill, now a grind

As much as teachers and textbooks matter, science has proved that playing a sport raises the endorphin count (and reduces cortisol, the stress hormone). Games help the child concentrate better, while acting as a great tonic for self-confidence, self-esteem and mood. “I have observed that while children play a sport and interact with their own peer group, they are able to create their own safe space. And they thrive. All this was missing during the pandemic,” stresses Mehta.

Yet, the challenge now, when most of us have returned to our pre-pandemic existence (if not the earlier ‘normal’), is empowering girls and boys to reconnect with their sporting selves, to rediscover those old joys. Mehta has noticed a reluctance among some children to resume their sporting lives after being disengaged for so long, and after seeing their belief and self-worth evaporate. Meanwhile, the fears and self-doubt remain. “They feel that it’s too hard to get back. Even now, I see a lot of children complaining about how they have lost the stamina, lost the motivation. They say, ‘I don’t have the mental strength. I don’t think I can fight with my opponent, I don’t think I’ll be able to make it’.”

Games help the child concentrate better, while acting as a great tonic for self-confidence, self-esteem and mood.

Yet, amid this darkness, there has been a silver lining, in that the lockdowns allowed families to come together and find solidarity. Daughters and sons took inspiration from seeing parents take care of their health, physical and mental. Says Mehta, “I encouraged parents to participate with their children in sporting activities. And I know a lot of children who play sport who started doing a lot of yoga exercises – earlier, we never saw children developing an interest in yoga.”

Nonetheless, parents need to be gentle with their wards. “I suggest not putting pressure on children as they return to sport. Let them do what they’re most comfortable doing,” advises Mehta. “They are not ready yet, they’re not there yet. Physically they’ve lost the stamina and mentally they’re demotivated. They’re still affected by self-doubt, still believe they’re not good enough.

“I feel we should just let them take their own time. If they’re feeling loss, let them understand what loss is and process it in their own time. We, as adults around them, as their caregivers, must understand what it means to have lost time.

“Sports after lockdown should focus on fun. I feel efforts to re-engage children with sports should be centred around a message of enjoyment and positivity. It doesn’t have to be competition, as of now. We should first let them fall in love with the game again,” she offers, hopefully.

Mothers and fathers would do well to heed Mehta’s words. Because, for a fair few young women and men, the road back might not be straightforward. Still, there’s every chance the flame can be rekindled, and the promise of a budding career rejuvenated.


How sport helps in building a child’s mental health

· Learning of positive life lessons

· Building of character

· Forming of friendships

· Fostering of team spirit via healthy competition

· Chance to interact with children from other cultures

Through sport, children can…

· Channelise their energy in the right direction

· Increase focus and concentration, and help keep distractions at bay

· Build confidence and self-esteem

· Use challenging moments to build resilience

Sport also…

· Enables awareness, understanding and acceptance of themselves, of their strengths and weaknesses

· Pushes them to take up challenges, to strive and thrive

· Teaches teamwork and the benefits of social interaction, more than any other activity

· Instils respect for authority and rules, and for colleagues and opponents

· Creates an important learning environment for children – numerous studies have shown that children who play sports perform better at school

· Establishes and develops peer status and peer acceptance

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