This week we’ve been heavily focused on discovering how sports and physical exercise go hand-in-hand with positive mental wellbeing. Our team’s very own counselling psychologist in training, Caroline Outterside, tells me about her personal experience playing badminton, and how this has shaped a happy and very holistic part of her life.
I hear you are a fantastic badminton player; can you tell me a little bit about it and how you got into it?
As a little girl I always enjoyed playing games and running around with my friends. The key influence was my father who played badminton to a good standard. He took me and my brother along to hit shuttles when I was about 8, he also suggested we went to coaching Saturday mornings. We grumbled about formalising the play, but he said it was a great social sport to learn and a great way to make new friends and enjoy yourself.
I picked it up pretty quick and began to enjoy it a lot, I also started to enter local junior tournaments. I won a few and lost a few but wasn’t put off by this. Dad was great, he wasn’t a pushy parent, he enjoyed seeing me play and be good at the sport he loved. I started to play further afield, outside the county and eventually in Wales. Following Junior badminton, I represented Yorkshire 3rd team aged 15, 2nd team aged 17 and 1st team aged 19 to 29 when I had my first child. I was born in Wales and was invited to play for them when I was 20 and continued to do so for several years.
At the time did you recognise that it was having a positive impact on your mental wellbeing?
I think because I started young, the mental fitness became a part of my keeping physically fit, so I never actually thought in terms of my mental health. But naturally I enjoyed the sport and felt good, so I knew it was good for me.
I could tell it made me feel good: when I was running around hitting shuttles, nothing else mattered and I could get lost in that world, not thinking of anything else except badminton. I was naturally introverted but my confidence grew; normally I hated anyone watching me – but I didn’t mind when it came to badminton, this was a revelation.
So, although I didn’t think in terms of mental health (and mental health wasn’t spoken about much back in the 70’s), I intuitively knew this sport was good for me.
Looking back now, is there anything specific about badminton that supported your mental wellbeing?
Now that psychology and psychotherapy are my career, looking back, I can see the huge value of playing badminton. On a regular local playing level, it was the fun I was having with others, doing something we were all skilled at to some degree, and feeling proud for mastering a skill so early on.
I also recognise that being good at something helped my self-esteem. Another element that was mentally beneficial I now recognise is ‘flow’. When I was on the court I entered a state of flow where nothing else mattered. I just focused intently on what was happening in the moment to moment experience.
I know badminton helped my mental wellbeing because when I stopped playing to have children, I noticed some differences. I always kept a level of fitness up, but not as high as it was, and as we had moved areas it wasn’t as easy to find a decent place to play, so we pretty much stopped for a few years (my husband was an ex England International).
I loved having babies but having a family, working and general life stresses I began to notice I had a stiff jaw, a lot of body tension, was becoming more stressed and increasingly quite anxious. This was completely new to me, and I recognised that badminton was so good for getting rid of stress and tension in my body, helping my breathing and keeping my mind focused all helped my anxiety.
The badminton had in one way hidden that I had quite an active nervous system, by managing it for me. These days I use lots of things to manage mental wellbeing, from yoga and tai chi, to the gym, and walking - and they all make a difference to my life.
Do you think sports have a positive impact upon us mentally as well as physically?
Yes, sport does have a whole body and mind positive impact on us. It keeps us active and moving which is what we are designed to do; it keeps our joints flexible and muscles strong, and our breathing balanced.
It focuses our mind on the present in an intentional way and most sports require connection to others. Team sports provide camaraderie, fun and social opportunities and even fairly solitary sports like running have a community and a shared identity. Mindfulness, connection, endorphins, achievement, enjoyment, breathing correctly, these are all the ingredients for good mental wellbeing.
To develop a habit you have to do something regularly and commit for a time. But you have to see it as adding value to your life and your wellbeing. This is how I have developed my yoga and tai chi on top of playing badminton. I think when you can feel the benefit, then you will stay motivated.