How do we address boys’ mental health and shape futures through sport?

Jimmy McGinn is a Partnership Manager for Liverpool School Sports Partnership. He has been working closely with Archbishop Beck College and the YST to pioneer a new approach giving boys strategies to support their wellbeing for life. Read his blog on Place2Be’s Children’s Mental Health Week.

I’ve worked in Liverpool for many years and always wanted to develop a project targeting boys in Liverpool who, for one reason or another, do not really engage with school and suffer from underlying mental health challenges. One year on and using the Youth Sport Trust’s Boys Move programme as a catalyst for work across the city we are seeing real successes through our I Am project and it has got me thinking, why?

Through working with young people, particularly on this project, I have a keen understanding that without expressing them, all young people have hopes, desires, dreams and needs. Needs, which if met, can create an environment in which young people can flourish and reach for their dreams.

Looking back at the comments from the initial consultation with the boys identified for this project - those causing the most disruption in school and known to the police for anti-social behaviour in the wider community they were often heard saying “what’s the point of this?” - “are you grasses?” [sic] - “nothing changes anyway” and “no-one ever listens”. It is clear that these boys’ needs were not being met and their comments could also suggest a feeling of powerlessness due to being excluded from the decision-making processes affecting their lives.

Listening to the young people I was reminded of the thought provoking video, I Sued the School System (Prince Ea, 2016) that concisely displays that despite a myriad of policy initiatives, education has changed very little since the days of Queen Victoria. Young people today may be ‘allowed’ to express more feelings of dissatisfaction, but does the education system see and hear young people any differently than the Victorians? And does it create some of the stress and anxiety we see in young people today?

To break down the barriers and build trust with the boys involved in the I Am project, we utilised William Glasser’s (1998) Choice Theory as a framework to get the boys to focus on and discuss what was important to them; a question I have since reframed and posed to school staff – ‘when and how do the pupils feel important to school?’

The needs the boys identified as important to them were:

• Friendships
• Happiness
• Family
• Having fun

On the flip side, they identified feelings of frustration, depression, were worried about bullying and ‘straighteners’, stress, body image and money. However, the one issue that came up over and over was anger. Feelings of anger and not being able to control it, especially when feeling frustrated in school and the perceived austere teaching methods.

Although the anger and frustration the boys were feeling may be the symptom of any number of issues, does it manifest more in school as a way of gaining a semblance of power over their lives?

Physical Education or educating through the physical has the potential and flexibility to teach young people, and boys in particular, more than sport-based skills. Done well, it can develop a wide range of pro-social character traits – empathy, integrity, teamwork, collaboration, perseverance. It also provides opportunities to reflect on, identify and control strong emotions. Above all, it is perhaps the only subject where pupil voice can truly be heard. The I Am project was built around pupil voice. The original focus group described a safe, non-judgemental place that provided an opportunity to be physical, with combat sport type activities, allowing them the time and space to gain control of their emotions.

The aims of this project were to:

• Equip the participants with a sense of self-worth and the importance of the need to conduct themselves with integrity and respect
• To understand the consequences anti-social behaviour can have on them, as individuals and within the wider society. The ethos being to build positive relationships by modelling and discussing pro-social behaviour we could obtain positive outcomes.

Schools are amazing places, I am proud to play a small part in helping students develop, but I feel the supposition that ‘good’ behaviour enables academic performance maybe slightly skewed. What does good behaviour mean? Ofsted has its definition in its inspection handbook. However, I question if that definition is more about the absence of anti-social or disruptive behaviour. This does not necessarily mean pupils are engaged in learning which leads to the question of should students be taught pro-social positive behaviour?

William Glasser states: “We are far too concerned with discipline, with how to ‘make’ students follow rules, and not enough concerned with providing the satisfying education that would make our over-concern with discipline unnecessary. To focus on discipline is to ignore-the real problem: We will never be able to get students (or anyone else) to be in good order if, day after day, we try to force them to do what they do not find satisfying”.

The I Am project as a targeted intervention tries to take this approach – provide satisfying, needs-led sessions with the objective of asking young people what they want their lives to look like and how to focus on the steps, the skills, the qualifications they may need to realise this life and hopefully engender an enthusiasm to obtain these skills and qualifications by fully engaging in the joy that is education.

James has almost 20 years’ experience successfully managing and co-ordinating sport and community development programmes in Liverpool.

Published on 9 February 2022