Finding community through sports


By Jai Boyal

For Adis Kucukovic, it took walking away from boxing to realize everything it had done for him. Kucukovic, 21, began mixed martial arts training in Muay Thai when he was 12. Widely known as the “art of eight limbs,” Muay Thai requires fighters to use a combination of their fists, elbows, knees and shins. Four years later, suffering from chronic knee pain, he switched to boxing. Then, at 19, the Mississauga, Ont., resident fought his first amateur boxing match. He won that match but faced a tough decision following the bout. “I had to quit,” he says. “I started getting a lot of headaches and I got a few concussions, so I decided it would be best to just stop it and heal up my brain.”

With an abundance of free time, Kucukovic spent the following months searching for something he found as fulfilling as boxing. “I kind of didn’t know what to do, who I was at that point,” he says. “I started to look more at my religion with my family, spend more time at my mosque to try to occupy my time.” He also started seeing the woman he is still with today. Having suffered three concussions in a little over a year, Kucukovic didn’t think it would be too difficult to walk away from the sport he loved. He was spending more time with people he loved, his headaches were gone and he’d found a “once-in-a-lifetime girl,” he says. Still, something was missing. Kucukovic felt out of sorts and found he was struggling within himself. “I was becoming anxious and aggravated at the smallest things in life,” he recalls. “It was like I had no way to get over that.”

Boxing, Kucuovic soon realized, was his release in life. No matter what was going on elsewhere, when he stepped in the ring he had one focus, a goal he was working toward with his trainers and fellow fighters. Nothing else in the world mattered. “I realized that I needed to stop fighting against the thing that gave me so much joy in life,” he says. Less than three months after quitting, he was back in the ring.

In a society consumed by technology and where face-to-face interactions are so easy to avoid, playing organized sports can help children and young adults, like Kucukovic, experience a higher level of social connection. Not only does it increase the number and strength of their connections, it can foster community engagement and improve their mental health as well. Canadian parents seem to have figured this out. Seventy-seven per cent of youth ages five to 19 took part in organized physical activities and sports in 2015, according to the most recent statistics available from Participaction, a non-profit organization whose mandate is to make Canadians more active and introduce physical activity as an essential part of everyday life.

Children who play house league hockey or sign up for gymnastics at the local community centre gain much more than physical skill and strength. To begin, they expand their social networks, something researchers have found can lower their levels of stress. According to a University of Missouri study published in the journal Social Neuroscience, stress levels in children vary with the quality and size of children’s social networks. Researchers measured the level of cortisol and alpha-amylase (biomarkers the body produces under stress) in children’s saliva. They discovered that children who circulated within larger social networks and were more aware of who others considered friends produced relatively little cortisol and alpha-amylase. Meanwhile, kids with smaller social networks and less awareness about their peers’ friends produced higher amounts.

Perhaps the most obvious benefit of youth participation in sports is the strong bonds many athletes build. At 13, Boris Bek’s family had moved across the country from Edmonton to Mississauga. On his first day of school, in a new city, in a new province, he worried about making friends. After bonding over their shared love for soccer while eating lunch, a classmate invited Bek to join him and some friends for a skate at the local outdoor rink.

“When I first got to the rink, I didn’t know any of them,” says Bek. “They all seemed to be great friends, and I was the lone new guy. I remember worrying about my skating, trying not to make a fool out of myself in front of these guys.” Two hours later, Bek had found his five best friends for the next eight years and counting. “I don’t know if it was the hundred races we had between each other that day or laughing at one another every time someone wiped out, but we built a connection that day.” Bek played street hockey with them the next day and many more days for years afterwards. He still plays with some of them every Sunday.

And for parents who think enrolling their kids in sports will keep them out of trouble, they’re right. According to research by University of Toronto scholars Peter Donnelly and Bruce Kidd, self-discipline and social development learned through sport leads to athletes being less involved in deviant social behaviour. Male athletes specifically, have significantly fewer encounters with police.

Sports psychologist Judy Goss credits this to the exposure young athletes get to certain types of people, “to adults and people who are all driven in the same direction.” Child athletes have lots of encounters with high achievers, which can motivate them to do the same. They are more likely to spend time pursuing their goals than, say, to hang around at the mall.

Breton Pyke-Day, 21, played soccer, hockey and tennis growing up in Port Colborne, Ont., and still competes in hockey and tennis today. He says all that activity kept him out of trouble. “My average high school day, I’d have tennis practice in the morning before school, then classes all day,” he says. After school, he’d grab some dinner at home and then take off again to either hockey or soccer practice, finding time in between or after for homework. “When you’re that locked in, you’re not thinking of the dumb stuff other kids might be doing in their free time.”

Goss, who has worked as the mental performance lead at Canadian Sport Institute Ontario, says that focusing on performance enhancement through psychological techniques points to other benefits. For one thing, she observes, athletes on a team are working together to achieve something greater than themselves. As a result, they may grow out of their childish self-centeredness more quickly than others. And, having a good coach can also help kids get through tough times. Rolf Wagschal, game plan adviser at the Canadian Sport Institute Ontario, believes the coach-athlete relationship is unique. A coach is a trusted third party, he says. “So, it is easy for athletes to go and talk about problems they might be having at school or home with them because with coaches they are building that trusting relationship.”

Gagan Kang was eight when he began playing competitive hockey in Mississauga for the Lorne Park Ojibwa. Now 21, he looks back on the support his coaches offered him. “Growing up, if you have a serious issue, it’s probably not the best thing to talk about it with your fellow teammates,” he says. “But the coaching staff was always available if you had questions about life or anything. They always cared about us as more than just hockey players.”

And then there is the good that comes from just playing the sport. “The physical release, being able to get out and exercise is key,” says Wagschal. “The connection between mental health and exercise has long been established within research.”

Bek, who still plays soccer and ball hockey, agrees. “Sports are really great in terms of cutting away from the normal patterns of life and letting yourself go in one direction. Usually with stress and anxiety you are pulled in different directions and don’t know what is what. But sport can re-centre and focus you.”

For those who focus too intensely, however, sports can have the opposite effect. Athletes competing at high levels often spend five to seven days a week on their sport and risk becoming socially isolated. “The more elite an athlete is, the more limited their social circles are,” says Wagschal. That’s because higher performance sport “doesn’t leave a whole lot of room to socialize, so more and more their social circle and sport circle become one.” Highly competitive sports can also impede a child’s ability to take part in age-appropriate activities, says Goss. Excessive time spent training limits their opportunities to have other sorts of experiences, like going to school dances or join in on school field trips.

While young elite athletes may not get involved in their community through traditional avenues, sometimes sports teams provide other avenues of civic engagement. Community sports leagues and organizations will often hold fundraisers with a portion of proceeds going towards team functions and the rest to a charitable organization, or they will organize clinics for older players to help new, younger players learn the game. For Johnny Davanzo, who has played select and ‘A’ level hockey for 16 years in Mississauga, that different avenue of involvement is exactly what he needed to complete his volunteer hours for high school. He began coaching younger teams and helping out at instructional clinics to meet the required hours. But it soon became more than just that. After meeting his 40-hour quota to graduate high school, he kept on volunteering. “I continued with it because it was fun, had lots of interactions with new people and it was a new learning experience,” says Davanzo. The time he spent playing hockey ultimately led him to his passion for helping others. And in doing so, he’s making it possible for a new generation of kids to build the sort of strong bonds and positive attitudes that can help keep loneliness and stress at bay.