The Positive Psychology of Helping through Sport

Helping others through sport is a powerful phenomenon which calls upon the human spirit in its most altruistic sense.

Open any weekend newspaper and you cannot ignore the one page advertisements for the myriad of organised running, cycling, walking and military style obstacle events on offer around the state.

Likewise, log into your social media account and you cannot miss the selfies of people you know – sweaty faced and beaming, clutching their medal of completion after successfully finishing one of said organised events; Aunty Sue who has never run a day in her life, having completed a half marathon in Run Melbourne, your boss, donning lycra at dawn for weeks on end has conquered Round the Bay in a Day, your wife and girlfriends from her mothers’ group teamed up to smash Tough Mudder.

The photos speak for themselves – these people have set themselves a challenge and are basking in the glow of rising to meet it head on. But why? What is it that prompts these novices to drag themselves out of bed in the wee hours, push their bodies further than they thought they could, and endure physical and mental strain by choice? What is it that lures them, that motivates them, that allows them to push through barriers they never thought they could? Have you noticed the jerseys and singlets these people are wearing? The vast array of charitable organisations’ branding emblazoned on quick-dry fabric? These people are not competing for themselves, but rather, for someone or something beyond themselves – and getting fit in the process is merely an added benefit.

bcnfAccording to social psychology, people can display what are known as ‘helping behaviours’ whereby they voluntarily help others without considering whether or not there is a personal reward. Signing up to the Melbourne Marathon in support of the JMB Foundation, or Shane Crawford cycling across Australia to raise awareness of breast cancer and to support the Breast Cancer Network Australia (BCNA) are perfect examples of people doing just that – wanting to find a way to help someone or help a cause they believe in. Shane Crawford was motivated by the women who had been affected by breast cancer. This experience was a way for him to raise the awareness of breast cancer and the work that BCNA undertake. The journey from Melbourne to Perth allowed him to connect with so many rural communities and offer hope to women with breast cancer and their families. It is intrinsic to want to act, to do something, in order to feel that we are helping others in their time of need. Organised sporting events are the perfect vehicle for this. By signing up to an event in the name of raising money for a charity, we are given a sense of purpose and the gratification of knowing that we are helping people, or organisations, beyond our own lives. Pushing yourself, and seeing what you can handle within your own physical comfort zones, can also allow individuals to show sympathy, and in their own small way, share others pain.

Likewise, the organisations people compete for, and support, benefit from this human need to act in times of crisis or hardship. They receive both money and increased awareness for their cause. The organisations themselves have often been borne as a result of individuals having faced hardship and loss. For them, it is the means by which they heal, and a means to continue to do what they can to prevent others from experiencing the circumstances they have faced, or raise funds to support those who have; again this offers a means to help.

Within St Catherine’s, the running culture that has been fostered over the last three years has created opportunities for girls to participate in such events. St Catherine’s provides information, training for the students and opportunities for parents, friends, families to be a part of such events. This year, a number of girls and their families ran in the Mother’s Day Classic. We hope in the future we are able to involve the wider St Catherine’s community in these community events.

A key foundation of positive psychology is known as PERMA. This acronym, coined by Martin Seligman refers to Positive emotions, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning and Accomplishment. Seligman’s theory behind this is that these five elements are the building blocks to wellbeing; that they form the foundation of our ability to flourish in our lives. One cannot ignore the relevance of this to the willingness of seemingly random people who sign themselves up to gruelling sporting events to raise money for a charity. Often borne out of the tragedy of someone they have never met. The positive emotions one experiences from making a commitment, setting themselves maybe seemingly unreachable goals in order to help another person; the engagement felt when having a clear direction and purpose; the relationships and deep bonds that can be formed when one works with others in realising their goals; the meaning that can be found when putting oneself out of one’s comfort zone for a cause beyond oneself; and that deep sense of accomplishment that comes when one crosses the finish line. Positive emotion. Engagement. Relationships. Meaning. Accomplishment. Helping others through sport.

This phenomenon is a powerful one – and one which calls upon the human spirit in its most altruistic sense.


Mr Chris Jones

Head of Sport

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