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Train community sports coaches in mental health to support young people, study suggests

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The wellbeing of some of Britain’s most disadvantaged young people could be significantly improved by training their community sports coaches in mental health awareness, a new study shows.

Researchers from Brunel University London, working alongside the charity StreetGames, found that positive mental health was enhanced by participating in doorstep sports programmes – informal sports clubs aimed at 14 to 25-year olds living in areas of high deprivation – particularly when coaching and support staff had received mental health awareness training. 

It’s hoped the study, Safe, Fit and Well: Case Study Research, led by Prof Louise Mansfield and Alistair John PhD of Brunel’s Welfare, Health and Wellbeing research theme, will help provide a deeper understanding of the role community sports have in supporting good mental health.

“We found that doorstep sport, particularly when tailored to the needs of young people with mental health issues, had a positive impact on self-reported mental health,” said Dr John.

“Many of the doorstep sport projects also had peer-to-peer support embedded – which we discovered was particularly beneficial for improving self-esteem, confidence, a sense of belonging and de-stigmatizing mental health.”


StreetGames' network offers a wide variety of sports, from football and golf, to pilates and rugby

Between February 2017 and May 2018, the researchers tracked the mental wellbeing of 184 people taking part in doorstep sports projects in Salford, Brentwood, Leeds, Birmingham, The Wirral, Warrington and Newcastle.  

The projects – which offer a variety of sports ranging from football and golf, to boxing and pilates – were all drawn from Streetgames’ 1000-strong network and had recently taken part in the charity’s pilot Safe, Fit & Well mental health awareness training programme.

The researchers found that the number of participants reporting a level of ‘high wellbeing’, as measured by the Warwick-Edinburgh Mental Wellbeing Scale (WEMWBS), increased in all cases after coaches had taken the training. One club reported a jump of 63% in the number of their members reporting a level of high wellbeing – from 11% of the participants at the beginning of the study, to 74% at the end.

Meanwhile, the number of participants with a level of ‘low wellbeing’ dropped, with the same club reporting that by the end of the study, all the members taking part had either medium or high levels of wellbeing.

StreetGames Chart

Members of five clubs completed a baseline survey and a follow-up survey, which were scored using the 14-point Warwick-Edinburgh Mental Wellbeing Scale (WEMWBS).

Scores can range from 14 to 70 – a score below 42 is regarded as low wellbeing, 42-58 as moderate wellbeing, and above 58 as high wellbeing. The national average is 51 to 53.

Every club reported an increase in the number of people reporting a high level of wellbeing

The bespoke training programme included Mental Health First Aid training, a four-day Young Health Champions residential in the Lake District, a webinar on how to evidence wellbeing, and on-hand or on-call support from a specialist StreetGames Doorstep Sport Advisor.

The researchers said that the training allowed front line staff – including sports coaches, sports development officers, leisure service managers, community leaders, education specialists, young peer mentors, and StreetGames advisors – to better identify mental health or wellbeing concerns amongst the young people and, if necessary, provide support.

“We already know that levels of poor mental health are exacerbated by poverty,” said Paul Jarvis-Beesley, Head of Sport & Health at StreetGames, “and we are starting to understand the effect of Adverse Childhood Experiences on the emotional and behavioural difficulties of young people in disadvantaged areas.

“We also recognise that low wellbeing and depressive conditions are barriers to participation, so if we can find a way to support young people with their mental health and wellbeing, we would also be helping them to participate more.”

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Sarah Ruane, Sport England’s Strategic Lead for Health, said: “We very much welcome this research as it helps to shed further light on how sport and physical activity can improve mental wellbeing.

“We know that taking part in physical activity can have significant, often life-changing, benefits to a young person’s mental wellbeing and can be hugely beneficial to people with mental health problems.

“Research such as this helps by providing more evidence for the role physical activity plays in improving mental wellbeing and also provides insight into how sport and physical activity should be delivered so more young people can benefit.”


Reported by:

Tim Pilgrim, Media Relations
+44 (0)1895 268965