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Playing Sports Can Help with Emotional Pain

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I don’t remember when I touched my first ball in rugby league, but when I was in the habit of playing the game I experienced a magical aspect of life – of living itself. Obviously, there was something about the nature of the whole process that turned me on – like the competition between kids my age or those above and below my age, weight, and height. It was the way you could manipulate a leather egg-shaped thing, blown up by air. Maybe ‘turned me on’ isn’t quite the right way of describing the experience and maybe ‘transcendence’ might get a bit closer to the mark. Transcendence, in the sense of feeling that my life was gloomy and this one bit of activity – rugby – gave me a sense of hope, that there was light at the end of the tunnel, and maybe, just maybe, I might experience life with a full sense of joy and celebration.

When I look back, I can see even in primary school I was struggling with feeling down and my love of rugby was an escape for me, possibly because it was the only thing I cared about. It gave me some meaning in the context of a pretty ordinary and troubled existence. Yes, I was troubled and I did feel neglected, though I didn’t know it at the time.

At about 10 years of age, a teacher asked me if I wanted to be captain of the five-and-a-half stone rugby team. Of course, I said yes, and the next thing you know we were practising at The Oval and playing games against other schools. To slip into this role of captain, I played full-back. Now I wore the solitary number one, and coincidentally, I was on my own at the back of the field.

There were two feelings running through me as I stood there, and they had nothing to do with rugby. One was the fear of failure and the other was loneliness, which plagued me for a large part of my life. But I didn’t fail as a captain of the football team – football was one bit of space I could rely on.

I have come to appreciate that my rugby story could be multiplied many times over by people who have their own story to tell, in an athletic context. The stories may not be about rugby, of course, because there are many sports, and it may not even be about sport, it may simply be about feelings of pain in childhood. This pain can lead to a breakdown of some sort, in teenage years and adulthood. This in turn may lead to counselling or a personal journey to understand what had happened to make you feel that way, and then to finally understand why these feelings are lingering in your adult self.

We must ask this question: if we suffer as children, then why did we not talk about it, in class or at home? If suffering was part of our daily experience and therefore our history, then why, for example, did we not have a subject at school or at church, called something like: ‘The Not Quite Right Class?’ Going further, what relationship does suffering have with grief? Are we suffering because we are hurting or are we suffering because we are not allowed to grieve the hurt?

Vincent Tivoli is a mental health advocate.


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