Sport helps school-age children kick positive mental health goals

Claire Halliday
Claire Halliday

Jackson, 9, didn’t fit in at his local primary school first, his mum says – and she describes the impact on his mental and emotional health as “devastating”.

After her own marriage breakdown saw her ex-husband move interstate with a new partner, her own relocation to a new suburb meant that her only son had to change schools.

When he started term two in Year four this year, she says, finding friends seemed hard, and although there were other children of divorce and separation in his class, Jackson felt sensitive about his father’s absence – a feeling that, his mum says, showed itself as a lack of confidence and low self-esteem.

But because her son had previously been confident on the sports field, Jackson’s mum encouraged him to join a neighbourhood soccer team that was made up of several boys from the new school.

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Away from the classroom, the friendships formed well, she says – “and those friendships came back to the playground at school and made him feel more connected”.

But, aside from the connection to local community, Jackson’s mum believes his improved mental well-being was about more than just new mates – and it seems that academic research supports her perception.

Sport impacts physical and mental health

On World Mental Health Day, experts says that, while the transformative impact of sports on physical health is widely acknowledged, its profound influence on mental wellbeing often takes a back seat.

Recent research points to the multifaceted benefits of sports and illustrates its potential to nurture and support the potential for a promising future for young minds – something that can be achieved because of the way sports enhances both physical and mental capabilities.

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At South Australia’s Flinders University, Associate Professor Sam Elliott is an award-winning academic in the field of youth sport and coaching. He says that “sporting clubs have enormous potential to positively enhance the general health of young people’s general mental health and well-being”.

“Throughout the height of the COVID-19 pandemic – where many young people’s mental health declined – 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,” he says. “In addition, male youth fared better than female youth in terms of mental health.”

Associate Professor Elliott believes 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”.

“This research tells us that sporting clubs have enormous potential to positively enhance the general health of young people’s general mental health and well-being,” he says. “We also know that youth sporting clubs are eager to transform into sites of mental health promotion.”

To support both young members and their broader community, he says that many local sporting clubs are already embarking on initiatives, such as awareness-raising activities, education and first aid training”.

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“But many also require tailored support, leadership, and access to contextually relevant resources,” he adds.

“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.”

Associate Professor Shane Pill is a researcher and lecturer in physical education, sport coaching and development at Flinders University.

School and community sport participation plays an important role

“Physical activity and sports participation during childhood and adolescence is linked to better mental health,” he says. “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.”

Such outcomes, Associate Professor Pill says, “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”.

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“Where this environment is established, sport is likely to lead to increased self-esteem, self-efficacy and motivation to be physically and mentally healthy.”

Big Talks for Little People in Sport

Recognising sport settings that foster social-emotional learning are more likely to enable positive mental health and wellbeing was a key driver for the university’s development of the Big Talks for Little People in Sport mental health education program.

“The primary school program has been shown to enable primary school students to better understand their mental health and to enhance their wellbeing,” says Associate Professor Pill. “The three-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.”

Although Jackson attends school in Victoria and has not experienced the Big Talks for Little People in Sport program that is delivered as an online mental health module for primary school-age students (seven-12 years) within South Australia and the Northern Territory – his mum believes that sport has played a significant part in his ongoing well-being.

“Mental health in children can be so fragile and when kids experience family upheaval, it can leave a huge hole in their lives,” she says. “I’m no academic but I saw the difference just getting up and out and doing things made for him – but it was also really linked to the teammates and the other male role-models who were involved with training and coaching. It just made him feel part of something and that really helped.”

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Claire Halliday has an extensive career as a full-time writer - across book publishing, copywriting, podcasting and feature journalism - for more than 25 years. She lives in Melbourne with children, two border collies and a grumpy Burmese cat. Contact: claire.halliday[at]