A Great Match: The benefits of football
Assistant Psychologist Aisha Walker writes about the great benefits that playing a sport has brought into her life. Read on to learn about her experience as a women in football from a young age.
The first time I played football as part of a team I was three years old. To be honest, I don’t remember it but from what I’m told, I spent most of the time picking grass while the other kids ran after the ball. My older brother was an accomplished player at the same club and my Dad was so embarrassed at my lack of skills (at 3 years old), he didn’t enrol me the next year. I did other activities for a few years but I always felt drawn to football. Eventually I joined again at 8 years old and haven’t looked back. There’s something about making the perfect pass, putting in a good tackle, and playing my hardest to help the team that keeps me coming back for more.
Football is the world’s most popular sport with about 240 million people playing worldwide. All you need is a ball, space and some teammates to get some of the benefits described below.
Impact of football on physical health
Football builds stamina by running or walking on the pitch for at least 90 minutes. It involves a lot of short and sharp movements to, and with, the ball, which can help to improve speed. Strength and coordination are also improved by kicking the ball, doing throw ins, making tackles and protecting the ball from opposing players. Playing football can also decrease the risk of chronic health issues in adults like heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes (NHS Scotland).
Impact on mental health
In general, sports-based exercise can provide structure and a positive change in aspects of mental health including confidence, optimism, a sense of purpose and self-esteem (Llewelyn et al., 2020). Football can also increase mental wellbeing and reduce symptoms for people with mental health issues (Friedrich & Mason, 2017). Behaviour in the game can be a helpful model for behaviour in society (Smyth, 2014). For example, stopping the ball and looking around for a pass before kicking it encourages pausing for a moment to think before acting, communicating, and working collaboratively with others. These are skills that can be applied both on and off the pitch.
The importance of teamwork
An important benefit of football is being part of a team. Increased social interactions and the common interest of sport can make it easier to build friendships and connections (Llewelyn et al., 2020). Whenever I’ve moved to a new city, joining a local football team has been an easy way to make friends. Being embraced by the team can also build confidence. Each team member has their unique role to play and adds value to the team. Being part of the team can also keep you accountable to someone or something bigger than yourself. If I don’t feel like turning up to training or a match, I have to consider how that might impact on the rest of my team.
Women and girls in football
In 1921 The Football Association banned women’s football from its grounds for 50 years as it was “quite unsuitable for females” (The FA). This was a massive setback for the women’s game, which has just started to recover in the last couple of decades. This is similar to other sports like boxing, where regulators have previously tried to keep women out of the sport. Today the profile of the women’s game continues to rise. As a girl growing up in the 90s, I was always in awe of professional football players like Mia Hamm. Recently there is a diverse range of players for young girls to look up to like Megan Rapinoe and Nikkita Parris. Whenever I play football I feel strong, athletic and valued for something other than my looks.
Not everyone has access to open, safe space to play football or money to pay for kit, pitch fees, and travel to games. This particularly disadvantages working class people from inner city communities from reaping the benefits of football (Wrack, 2020). Some women and girls have been put off the game by experiences they have or had in school, where they had to play as the only girl in a team of boys, or to not play at all. Some people think they need a certain level of skill to join a team, and are intimidated to play in front of a group as a beginner.
Terrible football is a group that is challenging this belief. They are creating opportunities for adults of any age, ability and gender to have a relaxed kick about in the park for free. This kind of initiative is a great way to start as it’s low stress, free and gives people an opportunity to try football out.
Football has a positive impact on physical and mental health. It can build social connections and empower players to make big moves both on and off the pitch. If you're looking to try something new, why not give football or boxing a shot?
Friedrich, B., & Mason, O. J. (2017). “What is the score?” A review of football-based public mental health interventions. Journal of public mental health.
Llewellyn, M., Cousins, A. L., & Tyson, P. J. (2020). ‘When you have the adrenalin pumping, it kind of flushes out any negative emotions’: a qualitative exploration of the benefits of playing football for people with mental health difficulties. Journal of Mental Health, 1-8.
Smyth, D. (2014). Sport and thought. Football as therapy: A year in the life of an inner city project. Psychodynamic Practice, 20(2), 104-115.
Wrack, S. (2020, October 20). Nikita Parris urges FA to set up more inner-city bases to boost diversity. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/football/2020/oct/20/nikita-parris-urges-fa-to-set-up-more-inner-city-bases-to-boost-diversity