"I am very grateful because this was a scary time, and you always go back to what is safe and familiar, home…"
During the months of lockdown, the three senior instructors at Fine Line Fight Factory conducted free online classes for our current membership. It was our first experience teaching via the online platform, experimenting with Zoom but getting hacked, going to Facebook Live, and finally to the messenger chat room, whereby we could still have a visual on all participants during the sessions. As with most ventures at the beginning, there was buzz and excitement, high numbers, and contagious energy. Even demands and excuses. The instructors devoted their time and energy; because for us, it came naturally - duty called for us to provide an option to the students. There were fun sessions, along with muscle burning and mentally taxing workouts. There were great feedback and messages of thanks and gratitude.
But the message that struck me the most was the one above. I knew that students were happy and grateful that they had the online option. But for some, those sessions were more than just a workout. It provided something of a sanctuary. The individual who sent that message indicated that the classes were a lifeline for her. She has been a member since the late 1990s but had not been training during the past few years. However, she knew the gym was and will always be home.
What prompted the online classes wasn't sympathy per se. It was empathy. Frequently the two words are used interchangeably, but their meanings are somewhat different. The online Merriam-Webster dictionary has four definitions of sympathy, and those have sub-points as well. Perhaps an easily understood description is the act or capacity of entering into or sharing the feelings or interests of another, or the act or ability to share the feelings of another person. Sympathy often suggests a tender concern.
On the other hand, in short, empathy is the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another. Being stuck at home, uncertain, unsure, worrying, perhaps putting weight, looking for an avenue, an outlet - we understood this. We felt it and knew what some of our students were experiencing.
Empathy is a significant benefit of sport that is overlooked or not often mentioned. While confidence, respect, responsible behaviour, and similar characteristics are noted, there is little reference to empathy. Or the fact that empathy improves those other traits. However, there is existing research that shows how sport contributes to the empathic development of persons.
Sevdalis & Raab (2014) wrote playing sport is an activity "that aptly employs the human body to enable performance. This engagement of the body may involve, for instance, learning movement patterns, coordinating movements in space and time, or interacting with others to accomplish concrete objectives. Such skills require individuals to predict upcoming events, recognize others' intentions, and adapt one's own to others' actions".
Therefore, the very essence of playing sports enables or teaches an individual to empathize - understand - what their teammates will do, or how an opponent may react. The review article highlighted that youth sports programs had positively impacted teenagers' levels of empathy and social responsibility.
"A relationship between personality and empathy in teenagers' school sports club participation", Kwon, S.J. (2018), helps show the dynamic relationship between sport and empathy. To curb Korean teen violence and game addiction, which contributed to an increase in suicide rates, the Korean government felt that students' personalities had to be improved. Although personality education was conducted in the country, it was based on only giving basic etiquette lessons, and the teenagers still lacked social skills, community spirit, and consideration of others. A different and more practical approach was needed; thus, the Ministry of Education implemented sports club activities into the entire secondary school curriculum.
Kwon reminds us that "as presented in previous researches, it can be found that a positive personality is cultivated through teenagers' communal activities in school life. The link to connect this with the empathy factor is considered to be the very communal activity, sports. In other words, as sports activity participation can expect physical, psychological, and social effects, personality and empathic ability improvement can also be expected (Gano-Overway et al., 2009)".
Sport is not just about the overlying results of winning; it is about having a holistic approach to developing exemplary, respectable, and good citizens. The responsibility lies heavily on coaches to influence empathy within their charges. "I coach to help boys become men of empathy and integrity who will lead, be responsible, and change the world for good" - Coach Joe Ehrmann, high school football coach (Gano-Overway, 2013).
The views expressed by Ria Ramnarine are solely her own and they don't represent any club or organisation.