Charity Shares New Research on Role Sport Can Play on Boys' Mental Health

The Youth Sport Trust has published a new research report ‘What About the Boys’ which sets out the potential for sport to play a greater role in improving boys’ mental health.

It comes amid increasing worries about mental health, anti-social behaviour and lack of achievement and aspirations among boys.

Young men and boys represent the group at highest risk of mental health problems in developed countries and are less likely to seek help.

The report cites research showing that:

  • 77% of school exclusions in England were boys
  • 7% of boys have a behavioural disorder, compared with 5% of girls
  • Black boys and white boys from low socio-economic backgrounds are least likely to perform well at GCSE level

It is well established that regular physical activity enhances social, emotional and physical wellbeing. The report argues that there is a need for greater targeting of sport and physical activity to improve wellbeing and achievement among young men who are in the ‘forgotten third’.

Chris Wright, Head of Health and Wellbeing at the Youth Sport Trust, said:

We need to make sure we don’t lose empathy for boys or forget how they are motivated and develop, or how they learn. Being a boy in this ever-changing world means very different things than the previous generation, and certainly different to what their teachers, parents and coaches experienced.

The power of sport has the potential to develop boys’ skills and wellbeing from an early age to prevent issues leading to mental health disorders, school exclusions and involvement in the criminal justice system.

The Youth Sport Trust worked with 12 health and wellbeing schools to develop new approaches to better supporting boys’ wellbeing through sport-based interventions. They agreed that ‘peer led’ activities needed to be a high priority alongside urban, individual challenges and outdoor activities.

Harry Vincer-Mullender is a 15-year-old student at Herne Bay High School in Kent, one of the health and wellbeing schools. Harry has had a turbulent time at school, experiencing anger issues, which eventually led to an exclusion. Through the support of his school, joining his local rugby team and attending workshops led by the Youth Sport Trust, Harry has now learnt coping strategies for his anger, his attendance at school has improved, and he is finding schoolwork better. He said:

If I am having anger issues then I can direct this into my rugby, and it helps me to vent my frustrations and stops them building up. Without rugby and sport, I think I would find it a lot more difficult to get through things and to cope. I would have a lot more anger issues and this could have led to me doing something a lot worse or more troublesome that I would regret or be in big trouble for.

I struggle at school, particularly classroom lessons, and without sport I am not sure I would still be in school doing as well in as many subjects that I am now. I don’t know where I would be without sport, but I don’t think it would be a good place.

The report recommends greater targeting aimed at boys who are behind the curve academically when they transition from primary to secondary school, boys at risk of exclusion, those from cultural and ethnic minorities and boys with mental health conditions.

The Youth Sport Trust has committed to placing a greater focus on working to support Year 7 boys who come from poorer communities. The charity will focus on redefining the experience, content and environment for Year 7 PE, helping to place a greater focus on the wider wellbeing benefits of sport and physical activity among this group.

The report sets out six top tips for maximising sports potential to improve boys’ mental health and wellbeing:

1. Working together to understand the issues, including identifying particular male specific barriers

2. Using clear, positive language and taking an enthusiastic approach

3. Ensuring the programme has clear objectives for those involved

4. Promoting physical wellbeing as having equal status to mental wellbeing

5. Using the right setting – usually somewhere familiar like the school sports hall or playing fields

6. Using peer-to-peer support and role models. This approach has been shown to be successful when working with boys and can also reduce the perceived threat to boys’ sense of self when addressing mental health issues

Published on 21 June 2020