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IT’S BELIEVED THAT IN 1977, BRAZILIAN SUPERSTAR PELE was the first person to call soccer The Beautiful Game. The phrase first appeared in his autobiography, and when journalists asked him about it, Pele answered sincerely, saying that soccer was so beautiful and expressive that it shouldn’t be considered a sport anymore it should be considered art.

Four decades later, millions of soccer fans around the world still hold Pele’s words to be true and continue to call soccer by the nickname he invented. Among them is Lauren, a 24-year-old soccer-lover from rural Ontario who has been playing the beautiful game for nearly 20 years.

“Playing soccer has always been a way for me to express myself,” she says. “It allows me to release emotional tensions and create something beautiful, just like painting or dancing can do.”

Even when she was a little girl, Lauren remembers using all her pent up emotions to fuel the way she played. She remembers going into a game feeling down, and then transforming that energy into positivity as soon as a soccer ball began rolling.

“Sixteen years later, my mind still becomes focused and clear when I play and as the game goes on I begin releasing all my tensions and emotions. By the time the game is done it’s always like a weight has been lifted off my shoulders,” she says.

LAUREN REMEMBERS THE FIRST TIME SHE PLAYED SOCCER. She was eight years old and living in rural Ontario at the time, when her grandmother decided to take her to a practice with the school team.

“I immediately loved it, and going to practice became a ritual,” she says.  “I’d always go with my grandma and it was the only thing I did that was only with her, so even from the start, soccer was also about creating those important connections.”

From that day on, Lauren never stopped playing. She played on school teams, youth clubs, recreational leagues, and street soccer squads throughout Canada, and found a supportive community wherever she went.

With time, soccer became a safe space where she didn’t have to worry about the mental health challenges that she had begun experiencing. When the ball was rolling, she didn’t have to think about depression, bipolar disorder, addiction, borderline personality disorder, nor Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD). All that mattered during the 90 minutes a game lasts was to have fun and enjoy.

“Each time I got a new diagnosis I thought my world was going to shatter, like I wouldn’t be able to do anything ever again. Soccer was the one place my diagnosis didn’t matter. My teammates didn’t care if I struggled with mental health because we were all out on the field for the same purpose: to have fun,” she says.

“Living with things like C-PTSD or bipolar disorder can be like living in a tornado half of the time, but the reality is that when I’m playing soccer, everything is calm. It’s really nice to have that space where I can just not worry about those struggles.”

TO THIS DAY, whenever Lauren struggles with her mental health, she’ll play soccer to make herself feel better.

“It’s one thing that really keeps me going. Today I play on a couple of teams in Vancouver, and if I’m having a bad day, I’ll even kick my soccer ball around in my apartment. My neighbors probably don’t love it, but it immediately makes me feel more centered.”

When she isn’t playing soccer, Lauren is working hard to complete her criminology degree at Langara College. She’s also training to be an outreach support worker, and hopes to pioneer a unique intervention program for young people struggling with mental health challenges based on the use of soccer and physical activity as a road to wellness.

“Playing soccer has always been a way for me to express myself,” she says. “It allows me to release emotional tensions and create something beautiful, just like painting or dancing can do.”

“My goal is to take youth to different sporting events in the city in order to have them feel more connected to the world around them. I want to have them play and enjoy sports, and do things and meet people that they may not do otherwise,” she says.

Achieving this will allow her to transfer the lessons she learned during her mental health journey to young people who may struggling with their own challenges.

“The best thing that people told me when I was in the middle of all the chaos, was that I always had a 100% track record. That means I made it through every single day, without fail,” Lauren says. “Soccer helped make that possible, which is why I hope I can use The Beautiful Game to make other young people get through their journey with the same track record I have.”

This story is part of a series aimed at sharing the experiences of young people across BC. As part of Foundry’s goal to work alongside young people, create connections and promote mental health and wellness, we are creating a platform for young people’s stories to be heard.
Article by Peter Mothe. Photography by Connor McCracken

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