Amaan Akhtar demonstrates how sports can be a therapeutic tool for anyone. This personal account highlights how his experiences with a particular sport helped him tremendously while studying at university. He encourages everyone to explore the vast range of options out there, so they can discover these benefits for themselves as well.
Throughout my childhood I detested sports. Between the ages of five to twelve, the mere thought of physical activity sickened my stomach and I only associated the general outdoors with family sports in our back garden. On countless occasions, I was forced to play football or cricket with my father and brother. Needless to say – I was not very talented in either of them. Yet, I was still prompted by others to get involved in these activities because it is was a healthy way for me to spend my childhood.
And as the years gradually went by, every summer became my worst nightmare. As I attempted to retreat to the safety of the living room to watch TV and play video games on our beloved ‘PlayStation’, I was coerced by my older sibling to kick a ball around or swing a bat and hit a ball. This especially happened during beautiful sunny days.
I was not amused.
Unfortunately, this impression lasted on me during high school as well. Physical education classes felt like a punishment – only now I sucked at a wider range of sports, and my talentless abilities were now on display in front of a larger audience. Yet we were still obligated to participate. It seemed like there was no end to this relentless idea that sports are “fun” and “good for you”. Therefore, we should do them on a regular basis. Feeling discouraged by the necessary participation in such activities and the fact that I never felt good enough; I gave up on being physically active outside of the school curriculum.
But then puberty hit. Although I had no concern about my weight and body image as a child, my ‘teenage self’ developed an unhealthy obsession with them. I was fat and I knew it – I constantly compared my body to that of other guys, and my self-esteem quickly diminished.
So, I decided to take initiative and look for other ways to keep me healthy and fit: my older brother was heavily invested in his own fitness and health at the time, and I soon adopted his workout routines to keep me in shape. I began to find solace in training either at the gym or at home. After several months, this hobby shortly became a passion of mine for the simple reason that it gave me time for introspection.
Whenever I began a training session – whether it focused on lifting weights or some form of cardio – I had an outlet to express myself. If I had a personal problem in my life or just needed time to uncage my emotions, these physical activities were the best way to channel them out. I was able to release all of my worries and concerns within that one hour of exercise.
Training became my first form of therapy.
Truthfully, I think this happened because it provided me an opportunity to push beyond my physical and mental limits. I was able to fully understand what I was capable of as an individual - I was stronger and more resilient than I gave myself credit for. And ultimately, this in turn strengthened my emotional resolve as well. For a while, I believed that this was the only therapeutic solution I had.
But it was at university when I decided to try different sports, that I also discovered an entirely new perspective on the benefits of physical activity.
As I began studying at university, I had a chance to explore a myriad of other options separate from my own personal training: hundreds of clubs and societies warmly opened their arms to eager-eyed freshers who ambitiously decided to juggle five (or six) different activities alongside academia. I’ll admit that I was one of these people. After trying gymnastics, archery, cross-county running, and Sunday league football all in my first year; I was clearly overwhelmed. And although I had several unique and wonderful experiences from this sheer range of sports, I still had not found the right one for me.
However, that was until I discovered the world of mixed martials arts (MMA).
I experienced my first impression of the MMA club during the annual sports fayre: I was approached by a girl wearing a fearsome set of rash-guards and gloves, who asked if I was interested in trying out this sport. Just from a quick glance at the bunch behind the stall, I was easily intimidated by their appearance – they were all dressed in a similar fashion, as if readying themselves for war. So, it was understandable that I was completely thrown off by their charm and friendly demeanour towards me.
Yet, I instantly felt at home when I first attended one of their sessions. From an outsiders’ perspective, the natural assumption about any combat sport is that it attracts violent and aggressive individuals. That was not the case. Instead, I found a tight-knit, friendly community and an opportunity for more self-expression. While the grappling and striking sessions seem intense to any newcomer, the session structure made you feel at ease. During every session after the warm-up, the coaches would first demonstrate any new techniques, and we then split into pairs for practise – it was during these moments of practise that I formed new friendships with other fellow members.
In this friendly environment there were numerous opportunities to talk to beginners and veterans alike. I think we could relate to one another regardless of our background, because we all shared a common goal to learn self-defence. Couple this with the lack of personal space (when practising grappling techniques), we all gradually shrugged off the ‘awkward stranger small-talk’ mentality and developed a friendly rapport amongst us.
These bonds strengthened further during club socials, as we let down our walls and had the opportunity to connect on personal levels. Our conversations would gracefully transition from ‘banter’ to more intimate ones - involving our life plans, current issues we are facing, and our individual reflections and opinions about any subject you can think of. Over the years, I would soon realise the powerful therapeutic effect this sport would have on me.
It united us in more ways than I could ever imagine.
In retrospect, this sport provided a chance to escape from the outside world. In the gym, our only obligations were MMA practise. It was a place of love, hope and freedom. It was our haven away from academic stresses and society’s pressures. As a young adult, I appreciated that we had this time to ourselves to reflect and learn in this environment.
Every day that I walked into the sessions, I was greeted by family. We were all brothers and sisters: a bunch of like-minded individuals who, like me, were cautiously navigating their way through life; during a crucial time where our experiences and achievements at university define who we choose to become in the real world. And whenever either of us were struggling, we were able to confide in each other and offer support.
In more times than I care to admit, this sport became our salvation. In hindsight, I realised that a lot of us were struggling to cope with personal issues and tragedies that occurred in our lives. We needed assurance from somewhere, to know that everything would work out in the end. And no matter what happenened next in the future, that we could handle it with confidence. Remarkably, we gained this reassurance and confidence from our MMA family. Mixed martial arts provided an outlet for us, so we could resolve our issues therapeutically – through both communication and action.
Even now that I have graduated over a year ago, and those pastimes with the MMA club are a distant memory, I still fondly cherish everything I learned from the sport. This sport gave me faith in people. It gave me the strength and resolve to act on my own problems either individually or collectively through communicating with others. It provided therapy for me, when I went through depression. And I am truly grateful for having it in my life.
Ironically, after hating the very idea of sports for so long, my involvement in MMA for several years has made me grow to love and appreciate sports. Truthfully, I think it was because I discovered this sense of community and self-expression which ultimately helped me thrive and learn as an individual. And my new-found admiration for physical activity has led me to branch out and try other things such as bouldering and dancing in the meantime. While I know many people may share the same long-held opinions I had about sports in my childhood, I urge you to explore the wide range of options out there. It may seem like there are none which suit your interest, but there is also no harm in trying out something new – you never know what you’ll end up discovering about yourself, until you have given something a shot. Maybe you’ll reconsider your opinion and realise that sports are beneficial to our physical and mental health in more ways than you can imagine.
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