(image: Unsplash: Konstantin Ekdokimov)
It’s true what they say: the best lessons are taught outside the classroom. We’re all constantly learning and growing in the most unexpected ways and dedicating yourself to any sport or hobby is bound to teach you more than you imagined, if you’re open to it.
I’ve played football for almost 20 years and learned a thing or two about dedication and persistence, which have affected my approach towards my mental health. Sure, there have been times when I’ve felt like the cons have outweighed the pros — training in a blizzard is never fun — but when all is said and done, football has helped me weather my own personal storms.
Along the way, I’ve picked up a few practical life skills and lessons that extend beyond the football pitch, to that big game called Life.
1. A healthy routine can get you through tough times
The first lesson football taught me is to consistently show up for myself, especially on the days when I don’t feel like it. Growing up, building habits was never something I gave much thought to. Football practice was just second nature.
My football “habit” has been essential in getting me through times of low motivation and stress. Motivation is not a flat line — it’s something that fluctuates. There will be days when motivation alone will not be enough to get us to lace up and buckle down, and taking a mental health day is never something to be ashamed of. However, playing a team sport, or at least having a schedule to follow, is a great way to help yourself along on days when you need an external motivation to keep going.
2. Prioritising ‘hobbies’ can create balance
When work piles up, it’s easy to stop prioritising your own wellbeing and to lose sight of what’s important in the grand scheme of things. Playing football has forced me to consider my priorities and this has, in turn, helped me create balance.
Sometimes, playing a sport when you’re busy with other things adds pressure. It’s tempting to cut out the ‘non-essentials’ — the hobbies and things that don’t seem to contribute to your career or relationships. However, I’ve found that prioritizing football has had a net positive effect on my life. It feels counterintuitive, but letting your mind take a break allows you to clear your mind, reduce stress, and work and feel better.
3. You don’t always have to get along to produce great results
You don’t need to get along with everybody to get results. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that you don’t all need to be BFFs to win a game.
Teamwork isn’t about creating a group of like-minded individuals who see eye-to-eye on everything. It’s about identifying everyone’s individual strengths and using that aggregated power to pull in the same direction. So while you don’t have to love everyone’s company, the team — the people you surround yourself with — is incredibly important in shaping your experiences.
4. When you feel like quitting, ask yourself why
Wanting to quit something is quite natural, especially the longer you’ve spent doing something. When the urge to quit strikes, it’s good to explore where that feeling is coming from. For me, playing with strangers at university was incredibly stressful, but I eventually had to acknowledge that the problem wasn’t football, but social anxiety.
One thing that has helped me find answers has been to first recognise the feeling, and then try to drill down and understand where exactly it’s coming from. Asking myself ‘what is it that I think will happen if I don’t quit?’ helps me identify the elements of activities I dread or have negative feelings about (e.g. “I will have to keep seeing stressful person X every day”), which then means I can make conscious decisions without rushing into quitting.
5. Quitting doesn’t make you a quitter
Then there are the times when you try a few more times, and the feeling of wanting to quit still remains. While football taught me a lot about perseverance, I’ve also had a hard time knowing when quitting might actually be the best thing for me.
A common misconception is that quitting is the easiest option, or that quitting “makes” you a quitter. But think about it this way: leaving something behind involves making an active decision to change. The trouble is, if you don’t know what you’re trading it in for, it’s much easier to just keep going with the status quo.
Quitting something after careful consideration can actually be the best way to continue to show up for yourself. Ultimately, there’s a huge difference between giving up on yourself and giving up something that no longer brings you joy and comfort.
Football, to me, has always been more than just fancy footwork. From showing me how to get up after a few tackles to accepting defeats and working hard towards my goals, it has been one of my most influential teachers. As the final whistle blows, I hope some of the lessons it has taught me can be useful to you as well.
Rose Atkinson-Carter is a writer with Reedsy, a marketplace that connects authors hoping to get published with the world’s best book editors, designers, and marketers. She loves to advise authors on topics like book formatting and literary copyright — and to play football, of course!