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Caution: content with strong expert advice. Not from us, a cobbler sticks to what he knows. We called in sports psychologist and former top athlete Eline Berings. With the support of New Balance, we are talking about the effect of sports on mental well-being.

From elite athlete to sports psychologist

Eline Berings has a fantastic record as a former hurdler. In 2009 she raced to the European title in the 60m hurdles, in 2012 she fought her way into the semifinals of the Olympics and until 2020 she strung together national titles. Meanwhile, Eline said goodbye to top sports and is focusing on her professional career as a sports psychologist. New Balance asked us to talk to her about the effect of sports on mental well-being. Eline immediately started the conversation as follows when we broached this topic:

“You can say that sports require energy. That’s true, but you get much more in return. There are so many factors about sports that make you need it AND get something out of it in different ways. Since my life no longer revolves entirely around sports, I notice that even more. Just what you get out of it can be different for everyone. For me it was taking on challenges, the feeling of being fit, discovering beautiful surroundings while exercising, or really suffering. Suffering can be intrinsically motivating. There is nothing like suffering incredibly hard and then afterwards having the feeling of ‘I did it anyway’.”

It is more than suffering

I imagine that not everyone is equally excited by the idea of suffering? Can those individuals also get that greater purpose out of sports?

“Of course. It is a misconception that sports must always equate to suffering. There are many sports that revolve around experiencing something together without the components of suffering or competition. I think everyone can find something in sports that energizes them, even those who are less athletic. For example, sports have a binding effect. You can make a connection through sport in a very accessible way. Also in individual sports. You can easily go cycling or running together. But what prevails is that everyone finds something that he or she gets satisfaction from and enjoys. Whether that’s sports or something else, doesn’t matter in that case.”

Evidence behind the Runners’ high

So why is it that when we exercise alone or take that boring tour again while running, we still feel good afterwards? There is then no question of the social factor, suffering or the beautiful surroundings?

“Playing sports is going to activate numerous reactions in your body that release hormonal substances. It has been scientifically proven that challenging yourself physically brings with it many positive emotions and has a positive effect on (mental) health. People who suffer from or are battling burnout gain a lot from being active. And as indicated earlier, exercise really doesn’t always have to be difficult. Just being ‘physically’ busy already sets a lot in motion.”

Impact on performance

That sports have a positive effect on mental well-being is well established. Can we also turn this statement around? Does our well-being affect sports?

“Certainly. This has been demonstrated several times recently with the testimonies of several top athletes. An athlete who feels good will always perform better. I’m not saying you can’t perform well if the fundamentals of feeling good are not there, but it’s much harder. Especially in the long run. I experienced it myself in my final years as an elite athlete. I am someone who thrives on competitions with a lot of ambiance. So for me, running without an audience was terrible. Everything in my body and head told me that the new situation was not fun. I kind of missed the fire, the drive, and everything that was important to me. My performance was down because of that, even though I was very good physically.”

Moving away from success or failure

Despite all the benefits, it is quite difficult for many to start exercising. Then keeping it up is yet another difficulty. What tips can you give for this?

“That’s an interesting question. Usually they advise to set goals so you can work toward something. Actually, goals are very often overrated. It rarely provides long term motivation. It’s an art to not just be concerned with what you want to achieve, but more importantly to focus on how you want to achieve it. You have to seek out that experience more. As a result, you are going to enjoy being involved in it much more instead of just looking forward to the result. Because when you set a goal, there are only two options: succeed or fail. If you fail, you are unhappy. If you do succeed, you are happy. Although that is usually only short-lived.”

Can you give an example of that?

“With goals you link everything to one moment. For example, losing 5 kg or running a marathon in a specific time. You often experience the road to it as suffering. Try to create a lifelong goal and determine for yourself who you want to be or become. Instead of wanting to lose x-number of kilograms, you can say you want to become a fit, healthy person. You can also say you want to become a marathon runner of a certain level, or an upbeat person…. You can incorporate this way of life into your daily life. Everything should actually become a habit. If you can do that, then it is not hard at all to keep it up. But for it to become a habit, you have to know why you are doing it.”

Thank you Eline for your time and thank you New Balance for raising awareness of mental wellness.