A safe place to learn that failure is OK – the power of sport

Sport doesn’t just teach us teamwork and help us stay fit; it can also boost mental health. Programmes run by the Youth Sport Trust are helping improve the wellbeing of young people through physical activity.

“The benefits of both play and sport are endless,” says Emily Reynolds, head of sport at Youth Sport Trust (YST) and a former PE teacher. “Both provide opportunities for young people to build friendships, form connections to people and places, manage conflict, take risks, create and follow rules, burn off energy, develop physically and use their imagination.”

The transformative power of sport is at the heart of YST’s work. For 24 years, the charity has been helping to improve the wellbeing of children and young people, and to ensure that every child has a fair chance to reap the benefits of physical activity. From inclusive events for people with disabilities and community cycling lessons, to intergenerational projects and peer mentoring, YST runs a huge range of programmes. It aims to share best practice and increase awareness of the life-changing potential of sport – and the benefits it brings that reach far beyond childhood.

“Sport supports young people to develop physically, mentally, socially and emotionally,” says Reynolds. “And positive experiences of play and sport in childhood contribute significantly to a young person’s attitude and relationship with physical activity later in life.”

Much of YST’s work aims to help better equip young people to deal with the challenges they face. Research suggests that, in the UK, 92% of 15- to 16-year-olds suffer exam stress, 10% of 11- to 16-year-olds have a diagnosable mental health issue, and 33% of 11- to 16-year-olds have poor body confidence. These problems become amplified by things such as social media and issues of inequality faced by those in disadvantaged groups.

“With the increased pressures in today’s society, increased prevalence of childhood mental health issues and rising obesity levels, making time for play and sport – ensuring it is inspiring, accessible and meaningful for all young people – is essential,” Reynolds says.

Key to YST’s work is collaborating with schools and education leaders, who are recognised by YST as fundamental facilitators in transforming the lives of young people. Through the membership programme for schools, individuals, businesses and multi-academy trusts, YST helps education leaders use sport to deliver core values and crucial life lessons around healthy living and social development.

“Sport helps us to know ourselves more deeply, building our resilience, discipline, teamwork and how to deal with frustration – all important skills in their own right, and essential across all other disciplines,” says Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders and former head teacher at a YST member school. “We placed sport at the heart of the school’s ethos, using it to promote young people’s physical and mental health, and to develop their leadership skills.”

By repositioning PE as central to the curriculum, schools can harness its ability to boost academic performance, improve behaviour and benefit the school as a whole. YST membership helps schools to achieve this via expert insight and resources to evaluate strengths and implement changes, including professional development tools to upskill staff.

Subsequently, membership also supports schools to meet governmental and Ofsted priorities around wellbeing. Ofsted recently published a new framework, due to come into force from September 2019, including a new “personal development” strand. This includes assessment of learners’ confidence, independence, tolerance and mutual respect, and how they keep themselves mentally and physically healthy.

One of the most exciting parts of YST membership is access to a network of world-class athletes, including Olympic, Paralympic, world championship and Commonwealth medallists. The athlete mentors visit schools to share their inspirational life stories, exploring values of determination and self-esteem. Full- or half-day sessions come as part of premium YST membership, but are also available to book as bespoke assemblies or workshops for non-members. Sessions aim to raise aspirations, improve behaviour and attitudes to learning and, in turn, help develop life skills and employability.

“I think the most important lesson we learn from sport is about change, and the power we have to make changes for ourselves and become who we want to be – if I practise jumping, I get better at jumping,” says Rachael Mackenzie, a former world champion Thai boxer and YST athlete mentor. “Sport also offers a safe place to learn that failure is OK – that we can go again or go a different way.”

Mackenzie works with a huge variety of young people in her role as a mentor, including young offenders, using sport to provide purpose and aspiration: “The power of physical change through activity is that it helps us to understand possibility,” she says. “Sport is also a place to develop tools to support positive behaviour and mindset. And it helps young people develop emotional regulation – keeping calm when they’ve had a goal scored against them, for example, teaches them to stay calm when someone says something they don’t like.”

She runs cross-curricular sessions with a focus on learning through action and reflection, mindfulness, goal-setting and challenging self-limiting beliefs. She also works with children with disabilities, including a young boy with Down’s syndrome who has gone from disinterested and badly behaved to taking part in trials for the Special Olympics. Another at-risk looked-after girl she worked with had low self-esteem and behavioural issues, but is now a leader, delivering the same project to younger groups; she’s also following in Mackenzie’s footsteps by joining a boxing gym, with the aim of competing.

“The change in her is palpable as she enters the room. Gone is the grumpy, fiery, mad-at-the-world teen, replaced with an empathetic and driven girl, looking to better both herself and others,” Mackenzie says.

Athletes know what it’s like to perform under pressure and learn coping mechanisms, says athlete mentor and former world champion inline skater, Jenna Downing. “Athlete mentors have the unique ability to relate to young people from a wide range of backgrounds, sharing their experiences in sport, including the successes and failures,” she says. “I have been lucky enough to deliver a wide range of programmes that have not only changed the lives of young people, but have enabled me to develop and grow as an individual – thereby changing my life.”

Feedback on the impact from children and parents is equally moving. One parent described the profound effect of Paralympian runner Tim Prendergast’s mentor visit on her child: “[She] told me that it was the most inspiring day of her life to date, and how she was touched by his disappointment but then his sheer determination, self-motivation and strong-willed character.”

Mackenzie says the work of YST provides a powerful, reciprocal reward. “Knowing you’ve inspired a young person enough for them to make a change is better than any title belt I’ve ever won.”

Words by Antonia Wilson, reporter for the Guardian