Mental health and sport: ‘My confidence grows every time I take part’
Whether it’s getting out into nature or getting down and dirty in the scrum, taking part in group activity and sport can be an excellent way of getting fit and meeting new people. But it can also have benefits on mental health.
As teenagers, LGBTQ people can feel excluded from sporting activities. Mostly because of the lingering memories of PE sessions in school. But many LGBTQ people are now getting out of the pub and back onto the pitch.
Need more convincing? We caught up with three guys who have found family, support and strength in various sporting groups across the UK. Here’s how they got involved, and the difference it’s made to them.
Alex: When its been darkest I’ve always had the support from my rugby family
“I grew up in the outdoor capital of the UK. I was fairly active in several sports until I moved away and put on the freshman 15,” says Alex Mcgarry. Alex is a writer and filmmaker who lives in Bristol.
“When I was 18 I joined my first inclusive rugby team after stumbling across it on the web. I was looking at ways to make queer friends. I thought it would fit well with this lumberjack, masc person I thought I wanted to be.”
“But I quickly learned that I wasn’t that person, and it turned out that I bloody loved rugby.”
Alex plays for Bristol Bisons RFC, the South West’s only inclusive rugby team.
Bristol Bisons have been supporting players of all backgrounds and abilities since 2005. The club plays rugby both on a friendly and competitive basis.
“I first went to the Bisons when I moved to Bristol for uni. I was lucky enough to be accepted straight away and quickly became a part of the team.”
Alex attributes his active social life to being part of the team: “Aside from being my main form of proper exercise – that one time at the gym doesn’t count, unfortunately – it’s allowed me to meet some really amazing people, who have become my family.”
He also credits playing rugby with getting him through some tough times: “It’s one of the reasons I’m still here. I’ve been struggling with a fair few mental health issues for a few years now and when its been darkest I’ve always had the support from my rugby family to get on the road to recovery.”
Felix: I feel like my confidence grows with every class I take part in
“When I was a kid I was into lots of sports, karate, gymnastics and swimming,” says Felix McLean, a Crossfit fanatic from Leeds.
“I stuck with the swimming long enough to get into the top squad locally but puberty came along and I decided I’d rather start smoking and hanging out with the older girls acting tough,” he says.
“Interacting with my body was becoming more and more of an issue.”
Like lots of trans men, Felix turned to sport as a means to an end after being told to lose weight before he would be able to access surgery: “I spent a year working out and trying to sort out my nutrition with the help of a trainer and somewhere along the process I ended up falling back in love with it.”
“I got into Crossfit after a friend told me about it and finally joined a proper Crossfit gym late last year and it’s honestly changed my life,” he says. “The feeling of community there is so unlike any other gym and it’s really great to be surrounded by people of all levels cheering each other on.”
“People know I’m gay there but I don’t really talk about being trans. It’s something I mention from time to time on social media so some gym friends must know but it just isn’t something that comes up.”
“I feel like my confidence grows with every class”
Rules against transgender people competing in the gender they identify with have held him back from pursuing other sports.
“I’ve thought about going to a rugby practice with Leeds Hunters. But unfortunately due to England Rugby Union rules I wouldn’t be able to compete yet, only practice. This is something that the team themselves have no say over unfortunately. I’m sure they would love for that to change as they are always encouraging me to get involved!”
Felix hopes that sport and fitness will become more inclusive, so that more transgender people will benefit from taking part in the way that he has.
“Crossfit and fitness in general has had a massive effect on my mental health and general well being,” he says. “I feel like my confidence grows with every class I take part in and it’s just awesome to feel part of a community of people who are working on their own goals and full of positivity.”
Mat: I’m so exhausted I don’t have time to be anxious
“I’ve always loved sport,” says Mathew Wilkie, a PhD student from Glasgow. “I used to run and swim and climb a lot as a kid. Then I got really into mountaineering as a teenager and have just kept it up.”
As well as climbing and mountaineering, Mat plays football. “The football team I’m part of isn’t explicitly LGBTQ. It started out as a women’s team and has morphed over the years,” he says. “My friend introduced me to the group because I just fancied playing. They were so welcoming that I’ve just stuck around. It’s fun and helps keep me fit, and it’s nice to see the other people every week.”
Last year, Mat took up rugby when a friend persuaded him to take part in a bootcamp for beginners with inclusive rugby team, Glasgow Alphas.
“I’d never played before but one of the people who set up the group had been badgering me for a while. Another friend wanted to go along too so we started going together,” he says.
“One of the main draws to rugby was that I knew training with others and doing a very intense sport would make me get a lot fitter than I was.”
Like Felix, Mat has struggled with playing competitively: “The rules for trans players are archaic. Recently I’ve been trying to get to play matches, and the team have been really supportive and helpful. Even though I’ve only been there a few months, I really feel like they have my back and would support me if I needed anything.”
“As a trans person your bodily autonomy is denied”
Chris Mosier has a rundown of current international competition rules – as well as an excellent collection of resources for trans athletes and teams who want to be more inclusive – on his website, Trans Athlete.
Mat also says being involved in sport has been beneficial to his mental health. “After an intense training session I’m so exhausted I don’t have time to be anxious. I just fall asleep and wake up in the morning feeling great.”
“Physically, sport is good for me too. I like feeling fit and like I can use my body to do things. So often as a trans person your bodily autonomy is denied. Using my body how I want and training it to get stronger and fitter is really empowering. I like how building certain muscles makes me feel more masculine or feminine, depending on what I want. I like that that is something I can do all on my own.”