The benefits of physical activity and playing sport are far-reaching. For participants, research shows that sport is a form of recreation that makes us remain active, and be happier, healthier people. At a community level, we know sport is a great connector.
Playing sport encourages us to feel included and supported; we often play sport because it gives us a sense of belonging, helps us to feel proud of our community, improves our mental health, and facilitates many different areas of personal development. In fact, the benefits of community sport, and physical activity in general, are hard to overstate.
For the committed armies of volunteer administrators, managers, coaches, and helpers within our school sports programmes, sporting clubs, and youth sport organisations — the people who serve and support community sport and recreation at every level — these factors are super important. And, in these uncertain times, it is worth pausing to recognise, respect, and value their contribution.
Tony Philp, New Zealand Rugby’s High Performance Sevens Manager, puts it well: “Playing sport helps our communities come together to connect, communicate, and care.”
And these benefits are not limited to those who play sport; adults often volunteer to help organise and deliver community sport for the personal fulfilment and the enrichment they gain from being part of a community — a collective of athletes, parents, coaches, and other stakeholders — beyond their homes and workplaces. Indeed, the sense of inclusion and cohesion that’s intrinsic to so many community sport programmes and institutions is arguably their greatest success. Ultimately, the benefits of sport far exceed the (still incredibly important) benefits most commonly associated with physical activity.
In difficult times, volunteering within sporting clubs and community sport organisations becomes a source of well-being akin to other forms of recreation, especially if volunteers have lost jobs, are dealing with personal losses, or are struggling with the challenges of a changing environment. The benefits of sport are not limited to playing sport; volunteering in community sports programmes can help individuals to remain active, engage in personal development and the learning of valuable life skills, build their self-esteem and self-confidence, and feel a sense of social inclusion within the communities in which they participate.
Participation in community sports gives volunteers contact with the outside world while, on a micro level, enabling them to serve their local society. They become part of the team. It may not be their initial aim, but, by helping to sustain invaluable forms of school and community sport, physical activity, and recreation, these committed volunteers don’t just support local children and young athletes; they also support themselves.
While children benefit greatly from playing sport, and other forms of physical activity, it also produces huge benefits for our network of community teams, clubs, organisations, and volunteers — the people who support these crucial programmes so that young people have the opportunity to play sport and experience the considerable benefits of sport. “Connecting to our community is critical to the mental health and well-being of our society, especially in times of uncertainty,” says Tony. “Connecting through sport provides all people — athletes, coaches, administrators, and volunteers of all ages — with a sense of identity, gratitude, belonging, and even joy. People need that self-fulfilment, pride, and connection.”
Tony’s comments align with the Value of Sport study — the results of which state that being physically active creates happier, healthier people, better connected communities, and a stronger society within New Zealand. In fact, 88 per cent of respondents believe that playing sport, and other forms of physical activity, provides them with opportunities to achieve, and helps them build confidence, thereby improving their mental health; 84 per cent believe that participation in sport and physical activity brings people together and creates a sense of social inclusion and belonging; and 74 per cent say that physical activity and playing sport benefits society by helping to promote vibrant and stimulating communities.
As Tony says, the theme that keeps recurring when discussing the benefits of sport and physical activity is the importance of connection. “Connection also provides opportunities for people to help each other out, whether on a personal level, such as “how are you?”, or a professional level. It opens up connections to areas that may help with personal circumstances, such as job opportunities, and gives people the ability to have conversations with others about their challenges — which will no doubt help in the long-run.” Essentially, Tony explains, the development of social capital that community sport often fosters can benefit participants — both volunteers and athletes — in their lives well beyond the context of the playing field.
The follow-on from connection is massive if our communities are to care for each other again, he continues: “If anything, COVID-19 has reinforced to people the importance of volunteering their time within their community, in order to help with their mental health and well-being. Contributing to something like community sport helps them know that they still have value and worth.”
Sport — particularly through community sport and youth sports programmes — has a huge array of benefits. Playing sport, like other types of physical activity, is a form of recreation renowned for boosting mental health and well-being; there is the endorphin buzz from exercise, as well as that sense of pride in achieving something. Team sports in particular enable people to feel a sense of belonging and, in some cases, provide them with ‘safe’ environments to be themselves.
Many of the psychological and social skills that we learn through playing sport are also important life skills. For example, participation in sport will often help us to build resilience when times are tough — for instance, when we lose a game, don’t get picked for a team, experience injury, or need to work out how to overcome difficult challenges — in ways that many other types of recreation do not. Whether through school physical education classes, recreational grassroots programmes, or competitive sport, access to organised physical activity can provide children invaluable opportunities for personal development.
There is no doubt that community sport creates a culture that helps to grow people’s identities, senses of belonging, and connections to their communities when they participate. “It really does help people to feel like they are contributing to something bigger than themselves, and allows them to have a sense of pride and gratitude for making a difference to others and the community,” says Tony.
It’s also worth noting that, given the limited funding that many youth clubs and community organisations receive, a significant number of community sport and recreation opportunities are dependent upon the support of volunteers.
Furthermore, Netball Wellington’s Sue Geale says that, if we take community sport away, some community volunteers would also find it difficult and feel isolated. “They would be worried about their physical well-being. And, mentally, not having that contact with the group that they normally experience each week could have a real negative impact.”
According to Geal, being involved in programmes for sport and and physical activity doesn’t only help community volunteers remain active; the sense of belonging and feeling of giving support to others provides them with a real lift, and improves their overall mental health. “Community sport gives them a sense of purpose and a feeling of being valued. Being around youth sport can also help the adult feel younger and more energetic, and they can find it rewarding to see athletes grow and develop. By working with a club or team, and helping children to stay involved in sport and physically active, our volunteers can also feel as though they’re keeping them busy, off the street, and out of trouble. It’s a win-win.”
We know that there are many benefits to playing sport, especially for children: we want our young people to remain active; undergo important physical development (such as the development of coordination and fundamental movement skills) through physical activity; learn crucial life skills, like how to win, lose, and be resilient when facing adversity; and enjoy the diverse social experiences that can accompany youth sport environments; when they play sport or engage in other forms of organised physical activity, they enjoy all of these benefits and more.
But, as mentioned, the benefits of community sport extend beyond the young people who play sport. Participation as a volunteer can arguably be as beneficial to the volunteers themselves as to the sporting communities they help to support.
We believe the top six benefits for volunteers who involve themselves in community sport are:
- Building connections and networks within their community.
- Personal pride and satisfaction from making a difference in kids’ lives.
- Social inclusion, and an accompanying sense of belonging, safety, and community.
- The development of essential life skills, such as resilience.
- Volunteering in the community is energising, fun, rewarding, and challenging!
Read about Sport NZ’s Value of Sport study.