The importance of sport in boosting the mental toughness of pupils

David ElstoneThe Youth Sport Trust’s Impact Report 2018 highlights a number of shocking statistics relating to the physical health of the nation’s young people. It is depressing to read that over 82% do not participate in 60 minutes of activity each day and that 1 in 3 of 11 year olds is overweight. The findings about their psychological health are even more distressing as 45% of 10 – 15 year olds say they feel lonely either some of the time or often, 1 in 5 girls say they lack confidence and 1 in 8 of 5 – 19 year olds suffers at least one mental health disorder.

These are truly shocking statistics and I believe they reflect our increasingly inactive society which prefers to stare at a computer screen playing Fortnite rather than playing sport. The impact of this on the physical health of young people is obvious, but I am convinced it also has a significant impact on their emotional well-being.

As I count down towards my retirement, I have begun musing and reflecting on how many things have changed in education over my 34 year career. One of the areas where I have witnessed a major change is children’s mental health. As I reflect on this desperately sad state of affairs, I cannot think of one depressed child I have come across who plays sport. That is not to say sportsmen and women do not suffer from mental health problems; there have been some very high profile cases, but I believe it is true that children who play sport have fewer mental health issues.

Much academic research seems to back up my theory. In addition to the inevitable physical health benefits of sport, which include maintaining a healthy weight, avoiding cardiovascular disease, lowering blood pressure and cholesterol, sport can be shown to have mental health benefits, including lowering anxiety and depression. An example of new research which confirms this is that undertaken by Peter Clough of Huddersfield University, commissioned by HMC, which suggests, in addition, that young people with good mental health also achieve better academic results.

Peter questioned 1,482 Year 12 students in 19 independent schools. He explored the possible links between physical activity and mental wellbeing and has found that the students who performed best academically had the highest levels of mental toughness, resilience and wellbeing. He also discovered a significant relationship between involvement in sport and mental toughness and a very strong association between mental toughness and wellbeing. Bringing the findings together, Clough concluded that involvement in sport whilst at school is distinctly advantageous as it improves character development AND psychological wellbeing. In other words, involvement in sport offers a mechanism for students to reach their full potential and enjoy their lives at school.

Headteachers in the independent sector have always known of the enormous benefits of sport. I am excited by this research because it provides solid evidence of the importance of sport and why it should be central to the school curriculum. I hope, therefore, that it might provide the impetus for political change.

When the Secretary of State launches the new School Sport Action Plan, Central Government will find the finances to ensure every young person in this country is given access to playing sport. Judging by this research, this will not only contribute to a healthier nation in future, but will also save the country money in the long run as we will see fewer people suffering from mental health issues. Indeed, there may be truth in Peter Clough’s summary of the impact of sport on mental wellbeing when he says, “if sport was a pill it would be worth millions of pounds”.