As the Olympics draw closer, the world is abuzz as we anticipate the spectacles the world’s best athletes will offer. This is the opportunity for athletes from all sports and nations to come together to pit themselves against the best of the best. To many, this is the pinnacle of sport and competition.
Becoming an elite sportsperson takes dedication and commitment: it requires giving up many of the social opportunities that young people enjoy in deference to time at training. The payoff is the buzz of competing and performing on the world stage, but this can be a rocky ride, and it takes mental toughness, inner strength and fortitude to ride the bumps and keep going.
For most of us, we can but marvel at the achievements of our elite sports men and women. However, sport, exercise and activity has a less intense but no less important role in our lives. Regular activity, whether it is sport or exercise, is a crucial part of wellbeing, and in addition to physical fitness, there is a mass of literature expounding the massive benefits exercise has on mental health. It is a well-documented fact that exercise is the best natural anti-depressant, as it releases dopamine (the feel-good hormone) and regulates the release of the harmful stress hormone, cortisol. Exercise is an important link in maintaining mind-body balance, which plays an enormous role in keeping stress, anxiety and depression at bay.
In a world where video games seem to have become the first choice for many young people – astonishingly, even toddlers are proficient with games on phones and tablets – it is imperative that we keep our young people fit and active, and the sporting dream plays a big part in this. Whilst not everyone can or will achieve at an elite level, the goal or dream serves as a wonderful incentive to ‘do your best’, and world events such as the Olympic Games boosts enthusiasm even more. Elite athletes provide important role models for young people and their role is crucial in motivating and keeping the sporting dream alive for young people. The dividend is that this assists our youth in developing the mental toughness and resilience needed to keep persisting to achieve these goals, ultimately developing into strong, resilient and healthy members of society.
Given the facts about the importance of exercise and sport as both a community contribution and individual need, it is curious that just a few weeks out from the biggest sporting event in the world, the Western Australia Institute of Sport (WAIS) decided to announce the closure of its elite Women’s Artistic Gymnastics Program (WAG).
The obvious question is Why? What is WAIS trying to achieve? Save a few dollars?
Gymnastics is a popular sport for girls and boys, and develops both mental and physical resilience for its many enthusiastic participants. It also promotes opportunities for close supportive social networks and life-long friendships, another essential element for optimal mental and physical health. To close the elite WAG program seems senseless: why undermine the physical skills and mental resilience that these elite gymnasts have worked so hard to attain, not to mention the efforts of the coaches and everyone else involved in the program. No doubt the closure of this program will cause huge levels of distress to all who have been involved.
If this decision is about saving a few dollars, it would seem that the costs ‘saved’ have not been considered in the context of additional costs to other sectors such as health. The costs to society in both dollars and human suffering through anxiety, depression, and childhood obesity alone far outweigh the costs of this program, and prevention is always better than a cure!
If, as a nation, Australia wants to participate with pride in world sporting events, we need to provide opportunities for talented young people to hone their skills, develop tenacity and resilience and mature into elite role models to the next generation of aspiring youth. This requires the funding of programs – not cutting them. Children gain inspiration from seeing our best athletes represent our country, encouraging them to participate, become active, maintain a healthy focus, and lead a healthier lifestyle. We need to encourage this – not axe it!
Apart from the pride our sports men and women can bring to their country, state, club and family, we should remember that sport makes a huge contribution to wellbeing – both physically and mentally. Let’s keep active, be involved, and remain committed to excellence.
Keep fit and healthy – keep exercising…
Photographs by Nadia Boyce