The link between sport / physical activity and mental health has been proven many times, more recently by Sport England’s latest Active Lives Children and Young People Survey.
The survey shows that levels of physical activity among children and young people have returned to pre-pandemic levels, which is great, but unfortunately this isn’t the case for everybody.
Many global majority children and those from less affluent communities are still behind in this area – a problem we keep working to tackle.
The holistic approach we take to developing young people makes it easier for us to interact with them and allow them to feel comfortable in the environments we create.
These young people are mainly between five and 18, and sport is a big factor in breaking down any initial communication and familiarity barriers they may have.
From my experience, every young person is different, but many deal with issues they’re rarely comfortable to share.
Many of the young people we encounter are from underserved communities, single-parent households or have learning difficulties / mental health problems. In most cases, all of the above.
As they get older and begin to understand their disadvantages more, they build up emotional walls that can hinder their development if left untreated.
What’s important is that when we do see these barriers, we don’t force the issue of breaking them down.
Engaging through sport
I’ve found teenagers are more likely to be comfortable with talking about their problems if you show genuine interest in all the small things in their lives; a recent exam, their favourite artist, or just how their weekend was.
So, I always make sure I do just that at the beginning and end of every session I run individually or with a group.
Our age also plays a role in this.
A big problem is that a lot of the adults in their lives are seen solely as authority figures. Not as people they think they can relate to, so it’s common for us to hear parents, teachers and even social workers say that their child / student listens to us more than them.
So as leaders, we make young people understand that we aren’t here to judge or put any pressure on them. That allows us - after a few weeks or months of getting to know each other- to start to understand the real issues they’re dealing with, and that for the most part they just need guidance.
The sporting environment we do this in makes our jobs a whole lot easier. We are coaches and we do have to make sure that our sports sessions are fun and engaging.
Naturally, team sport begins to break down communication and comfort barriers. When you pair this with our approach of developing the ‘whole child’, the results and development we aim to see with our young people come much quicker.
We all want to be the best we can be for the people close to us, but that constant weight can really affect children and young people.
So I never ask “what’s wrong” or begin any conversation from a negative perspective but from a general one.
For us, it is not about being the best all the time. It’s about coming together to be active and have fun. To be there for our young people so they know that if they want to talk, we’ll be there for them.