Game on for Mental Wellbeing

Sport clubs in unique position to promote mental and physical health.
Oct 11, 2023
Sport has a greater role to play in promoting mental health.

Sports have a profound influence on mental wellbeing and sporting clubs have enormous potential to enhance young people’s general mental health and wellbeing.

During COVID many young people’s mental health declined and it was found that individuals involved in both team and individual sport reported significantly better general and physical health compared to those involved in individual only sports or physical activity throughout the pandemic.

Associate Professor Sam Elliott is an award-winning academic in the field of youth sport and coaching at Flinders University, he says, "Team-based sport may encourage increased time in physical activity and/or social interactions, which potentially buffers against declining health outcomes due to pandemic restrictions.

“Sporting clubs have enormous potential to positively enhance the general health of young people’s general mental health and wellbeing.

“We also know that youth sporting clubs are eager to transform into sites of mental health promotion.

“Many clubs are already embarking on initiatives such as awareness-raising activities, education and first aid training, to support their young members and wider community. But many also require tailored support, leadership, and access to contextually relevant resources.

“In South Australia, a mental fitness charter was developed last year in collaboration with the Breakthrough Mental Health Research Foundation and Sport SA to provide a holistic framework of mental health resources which has the potential to help clubs take the first step in transforming into a site for mental health promotion. Strong leadership and advocacy over a sustained period can certainly help maximise the feasibility of sporting clubs as (mental) health promoting settings."

School sport involvement during adolescence can be a statistically significant predictor of lower depressive symptoms, lower perceived stress, and higher self-rated mental health.

"Physical activity and sports participation during childhood and adolescence is linked to better mental health," says Associate Professor Shane Pill a researcher and lecturer in physical education, sport coaching and development at Flinders University.

"There is a strong and positive interconnection between physical activity and children and youth mental health outcomes. School and community sport participation can therefore play an important role in promoting mental health and wellbeing.

"These outcomes are most likely to occur in an environment where child and youth sport participants feel safe, are facilitated to reflect on behaviours, and enabled to have agency of themselves and their situation. Where this environment is established, sport is likely to lead to increased self-esteem, self-efficacy and motivation to be physically and mentally healthy (Veken et al., 2020).

"Sport settings that foster social-emotional learning are more likely to enable positive mental health and wellbeing. For this reason, at Flinders University we have developed the Big Talks for Little People in Sport mental health education program.

"The Big Talks for Little People in Sport mental health education program is based on the award winning and evidence based on the Big Talks for Little People primary school program developed through the support of Breakthrough and Little Heroes Foundations. The primary school program has been shown to enable primary school students to better understand their mental health and to enhance their wellbeing.

"The 3-session program for junior sport uses a digital platform with scenario based animations to initiate mental health education and encourage a whole of club approach to supporting mental health. Primary school age children playing sport are targeted to promote early mental health intervention and prevention as research acknowledges the positive impact of prevention through education on the mental health of young people when it enables them to understand their emotions and deal more effectively with problems that they may encounter (Membride, 2016)."

Even a single session of exercise has the potential to uplift mood and alleviate stress and including regular physical activity into our routines can lead to long-term improvements in mental health, including reductions in symptoms associated with anxiety and depression, and improvements in our sense of well-being.

"Schools are ideal settings for physical activity promotion, as they have access to students, facilities, equipment and personnel to deliver physical activity programs. Given the well-established positive influence of physical activity on mental health, well-designed school-based physical activity programs have a lot of potential to improve the mental well-being of children and adolescents,” says Dr Levi Wade from University of Newcastle.

"We design our school programs to support students’ psychological needs during physical activity, and to encourage them to want to continue to be physically active outside of school.

"We are currently looking at the effects of two of our school-based programs on child and adolescent mental and cognitive health. The programs are ‘Burn to Learn Adapted’ and ‘Learning to Lead’.

"Burn to Learn Adapted is a high-intensity interval training program focused on improving the physical, mental, and cognitive health of older adolescents living with a disability. The Learning to Lead program teaches Year 5 and 6 students leadership skills by teaching them how to deliver a fundamental movement skills program to their younger peers.

"Our hope is that the experience will improve the leadership abilities and mental health of the leaders, and the physical, mental, and cognitive health of the students they are teaching."

Image by Krivec Ales