Unite Foundation

Building Communities Through Sport

Are you one of the 9 million+ people that were gripped by I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here? 12 strangers, thrust into a new environment, away from everything and everyone they know, with no creature comforts, very basic food supplies, the hope of being part of a warm and welcoming community – with some love, laughs and dramas along the way. It’s a little bit like going to university, isn’t it?

James Haskell left the jungle about half way throuh teh trial.  One of the most successful English rugby players of the last decade, he turned out 77 times for his country between 2007 and 2019. He’s a legendary team player who embraced his clubs and community; speak to anyone who has played with him or coach that has had him in their team and terms like ‘larger than life’ will never be too far away.

Taking the lead from the jungle, university societies and sports teams are a brilliant way to find community and human connection. Sylvie is one of our estranged scholars and she found rugby was to become one of her life anchors.  She came across the club whilst browsing at the Fresher’s Fair, and it’s had a hugely positive impact on her experience so far.

“Joining a sports team has been fundamental in me developing a sense of community at university. Looking back now, I realise that I was extremely fortunate in finding Rugby in an array of stalls at fresher’s fair. First year can be a daunting experience, however, joining the club gave me the feeling of safety and security – which for me was very crucial to find early on in my university experience.

Rugby has given me the opportunity to connect with people. Being part of this team has allowed me to find people who have the same interests, the same skills and the same passion as me. Rugby in itself is a ‘team’ sport, we train three times a week – rain or sun we train. This hard work and dedication has been key to me finding my sense of belonging.”

As well as sense of belonging, physical activity can give you an enormous sense of well-being. The benefits can include a sharper mind, improved confidence, better sleep, increased energy levels and stronger resilience. a recent study by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that running for 15 minutes a day or walking for an hour reduces the risk of major depression by 26%. Exercise is a natural and effective anti-anxiety treatment and, additionally, evidence suggests that by really focusing on your body and how it feels as you exercise, you can actually help your nervous system become “unstuck” and begin to move out of the immobilisation stress response that can be a feature of many mental health conditions

Sylvie found the positive effects of being part of a sports team impacted on more than her social circle and sense of belonging.

“Studying Medicine can be really intense at times, so being able to step out of the library for a couple hours and switch off has made a positive impact on my mental health and wellbeing. It’s really helped me encompass the term ‘Work Hard Play Hard’.

Overall, I think it’s been really useful for me to approach university as a blank canvas. It’s helped me find somewhere I can call home, find people that I can turn to and most importantly find a hobby that I love.”

Starting university is a perfect time to look at your own blank canvas, what that means to you and what opportunities are available to you. Of course, a blank canvas can feel like just that – a daunting expanse of nothingness – but it can be embraced and filled with creativity and possibility!

We understand it’s not always easy to join a club or take up a new hobby. In the first paper from their ‘Right to be Active’ project – developed to examine care experienced youth’s perspectives on, and experiences of, sport and physical activity – Dr Thomas Quarmby, Dr Rachel Sandford, Dr Oliver Hooper and Rebecca Duncombe found that while many respondents valued these experiences, only 40% felt they had the ‘same chances’ to participate as their non-care experienced peers; suggesting that a considerable number of care experienced young people may be facing significant challenges in accessing sport and physical activity, and therefore missing out on their right (and desire) to be active. When asked for the reasons they no longer took part in sports activity 42.1% said ‘it costs too much money’ and 10.5% said ‘it was too difficult to travel there’. While this study was related to care experienced young people, we can clearly see the parallels to estranged students.

We feel strongly that no one should have to miss out on such valuable experiences at university and we’re currently looking at how we might support our scholars to join clubs and societies early on in their studies. Watch this space…