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  • Writer's pictureJosh Vaisman

Soccer, Happiness, and 2 Ways to Make Your Brain Bigger

Our author's soccer his dreams :)

I love playing soccer. Indoor soccer, specifically. There’s something about the “beautiful game” that gets me jazzed every time. Seeing my team move the ball down the field and scoring a goal can feel like watching a perfectly executed dance. Maybe that’s why I also love watching the show, “World of Dance.” (It’s true, I can run around a soccer field one day and “couch potato” with the best of them the next!)

But here’s the thing – I’m not a particularly talented soccer player. Of course, I didn’t believe that at first.

Indoor soccer became a passion a bit later in life for me. I discovered it when I was 30. The game hooked my passion and all I wanted to do was get better. I joined as many teams as I could, took up running, began hitting the gym – all in an effort to become the greatest player the world had ever seen. Of course, as the years went by and I approached 40 my competition seemed to stand still at the tender age of 22 – and all of them had played since they were 3! I just couldn’t accept that I couldn’t dribble around every kid on the pitch.

Then, one day, I found self-acceptance.

When I turned 39 I looked at my wife and said, “next year I’ll be 40. You know what that means? Over 40 leagues!” Finally playing in an over-40 league made me realize my athletic strengths….and shortcomings. I’ve learned to accept who I am on the soccer field.

Researchers in psychology define self-acceptance as, “…an individual’s acceptance of all of his/her attributes, positive or negative.” Research shows accepting one’s self “as is” is a powerful component in human happiness.

Researchers in psychology define self-acceptance as, “…an individual’s acceptance of all of his/her attributes, positive or negative.”

What’s really fascinating is the impact it has on our brain. It turns out, people with higher levels of self-acceptance also have more grey matter in areas of the brain associated with emotion and stress regulation. That is, accepting who we are can actually build the parts of our brain that allow us to better cope with high-stress emotional situations.

Of course, in our world of impossibly high standards, accepting who we are can be tough. How can we hope to accept our flaws when those around us expect us to be perfect? Not to mention, conventional thinking suggests it’s a sign of weakness or apathy to compassionately accept where we “fall short.” Research by Kristin Neff, PhD strongly suggests the opposite – that is, accepting who we are gives us strength to leverage our strengths and grow from our weaknesses.

Accepting who we are gives us strength to leverage our strengths and grow from our weaknesses.

So, how can we build our self-acceptance muscles? Here are two ways:

1) Mindfulness: Research suggests self-acceptance is the mediator between mindfulness and a reduction in stress. Practicing intentional mindfulness may lead to a higher level of self-acceptance.

Now, before you get too worried about me sending you off to some temple high in the mountains for 48 hours of nothing but murmuring and becoming one with the universe, I’m not suggesting you become a monk. One simple way everyone can practice mindfulness is taking a couple 2-minute breaks every day to just breathe. Sit in a quiet space with minimal distractions, close your eyes, place one hand on your belly and one on your chest and spend two full minutes paying attention to your breathing. Don’t control it, just notice it. How do your hands move against your body? How does the chair feel? Your feet? If you find your mind wandering, don’t judge it, just notice it and return to paying attention to your breath. Sure, it’ll be awkward at first but over time you’ll get more and more focused. You’ll grow the ability to be mindful.

2) Re-Framing Your Thoughts: You can create a new way of looking at yourself by changing the habits of your thoughts. One way to do this is by reframing the dialogue in your head about your behaviors and actions to be more self-accepting. How? When you hear your inner voice judging your actions or behaviors, positive or negative, reframe the perspective. Here are some examples:

  • "I am not a bad person when I play soccer poorly. I am a person who hasn’t played soccer well."

  • "I am not a good person when I write a good blog post. I am a person who has written a good blog post."

It’s subtle, I know, and it takes work to build this new habit. But here’s the thing, we are not (and should not be) defined by singular actions, behaviors, or qualities. Building this habit opens psychological doors that lead to greater happiness.

As a soccer player, I’m not super quick but I am pretty fast. That’s a skill that stands out on long runs across the pitch. I have no skill at all with my left foot and can’t do any fancy tricks. But, I read the game action really well. I find when I utilize that ability I’m able to make some high quality passes. Accepting these realities, without pretense or judgement, has changed my game. I’m scoring goals, I’m making assists, and more often than not I’m an asset to my teams. I’m 41 and playing the game better than I ever did before.

I accept I’m never going to be the best player on the field. However, accepting both my strengths and shortcomings has allowed me to hone my game and grow as a player. Now I’m happy to have fun and contribute. And science tells me that acceptance might be making my brain bigger. For a thick-headed guy like me, that’s a good thing.

What are you learning to accept about yourself?

- written by Josh Vaisman

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