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Updated: Oct 24, 2022


Organised and team sports are the growing trend in young people in Australia in today’s society. Organised sports provide young people with more advantages than simply being physically active. Young people who participate in organised sports learn many life skills that can positively affect their lives. Active young people benefit physically, psychologically, and socially (Mitchell, 2012). Research validates that young people who participate in organised sports during their school years are more successful academically, socially, emotionally, and professionally. Furthermore, research also suggests positive role modelling or mentoring other than parenting such as sports coaches have a greater impact than parenting alone. This paper will use media campaigns and relevant academic research to discuss the prevalence surrounding youth mental health and demonstrate the importance of early intervention together with testimony concerning the psychological benefits of organised sport for young people and coach mentoring.

Adolescence is a stage of life when the rate of growth is equivalent to the first two years of life. It is a time of immense physical, emotional, and social change. It is the stage when young people assess their position or place in society. It is also a time when life brings adult-like challenges and associated stresses (Hungerford, 2017). The manner in which a young person reacts to stress and adversity affects their ability to cope with adult life. With this in mind, it is imperative those working with young people develop support structures and programs to develop personal coping skills. While in some cases, stress can have a positive effect on young people, impelling them into action, it can also have a negative effect, leaving the vulnerable feeling anxious, isolated, and insecure. As a consequence, this may lead to an escalation in mental health disorders for a young person. Research demonstrates mental health in young Australians is of great concern.

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC, 2019), reported 24.2% of young people to experience psychological distress. These statistics are 18.7% greater than in 2012. Supporting these statistics, Mission Australia’s latest Youth Survey found, 1 in 5 young people living in Australia are likely to be experiencing mental health problems, with less than 40% of these young people feeling embarrassed in seeking professional support (Hungerford, 2017). A national survey of child and adolescent mental health and wellbeing (AIHW, 2015), found virtually 14% of young people aged 4-17 had a mental health disorder. Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) was the highest percentage of just over 7%, followed by anxiety disorders of just under 7%, with the major depressive disorder at 3% and conduct disorder at 2%. Of those with a mental health disorder, almost 30 % or 4% of all young people aged to 17 years, had experienced 2 or more disorders at some time in the 12 months (AIHW, 2016 and Hungerford, 2017).

Although the occurrence of mental health disorders in young people is relatively high, there is also a low use of specialised services. 15% of young people with mental health disorders will consult with a General practitioner, followed by 10% will consult with a psychologist, however, young people with AOD background will not seek help. The main reason 85% of young people do not use relevant service is they do not believe they need to seek help (Headspace, 2016). Headspace (2016), states, the current mental health system is not adequately resourced to deal with young people who have mild to moderate mental health disorders, therefore as a consequence, causing barriers to access services for specific needs.

It is relatively alarming the role “stigma” plays in inhibiting young Australians from seeking help for mental health disorders. Research performed by Headspace (2016), revealed, more than half of young people between 12-25 years old, would not report mental health disorders because they were too embarrassed to discuss it with anyone, and were concerned with judgment. Young people who experience mental health problems are more likely to experience issues with their physical wellbeing and educational, psychological, and social development. As a consequence, young people will resort to self-copying mechanisms which in a majority of cases, causing further harm to their well-being. For this reason, a prerequisite for professionals working with young people across relevant disciplines such as teaching staff, medical and health professionals, and organised sports coaches to become familiar with and distinctive signs and symptoms of mental health disorders, plus know what services are available and how they can be accessed, especially in remote or regional locations, or young people from marginalised or disadvantaged families.

These alarming statistics motivate early intervention but preferably, prevention. Research suggests, when the early signs of mental health issues are acknowledged and attended to, outcomes for the young people are improved. The comparison of early intervention and prevention is not entirely transparent. Prevention and early intervention activities can transpire early in the development of mental health difficulties. Prevention refers to interventions that occur before the initial onset of a condition to prevent its development (Hungerford, 2017). The overall message that runs throughout research and studies indicates prevention is better than intervention. Furthermore, it doesn’t necessarily take a lot to promote resilience, attachment, and a sense of belonging in young people (Fuller, 1998), however, it does take a conscious decision to embark on a specific project. When looking through a critical lens, it is more than schooling or family, it is associated with creating a community and a sense of belongingness for the young people. In order to assist young people to build resilience and either stay or become mentally well, it is essential they are socially connected.

Fuller (1998) suggests, belonging is not concerned with governed, it is concerned with “feeling part of a place”, or “somewhere you feel recognised for who you are”, plus, where a young person can maintain sustainable relationships, with peers, and mentors and provided with opportunities to reflect on life’s highs and lows with others. Fuller (1998) further states the earlier provisions are put in place for young people to belong, the less likely they are to conform into a problem or risk-taking behaviours. Therefore, when working with young people, the focus of programs must include engagement, especially if it is a case of early intervention.

Whilst schools and families endeavour to create a sense of belonging and purpose for young people, this paper will specifically discuss the principles of organised sport supports and their positive influence on mental health for young people. Several studies suggest that sports participation is beneficial for psychosocial health. Research has shown that exercise and physical activity is constantly impacting the health and wellness of individuals with mental health disorders (Guarin, 2018). Guarin’s (2018), comparative research article exposed participation in physical activities outside of the school and home setting assisted with the release of any form of anger, frustration, depression or anxiety young people might have or don’t know how to cope with. Through other teammates, peer support, plus coaching staff teaching them the “right way” to play the game, young people can acquire valuable information that derives from being part of a team.

Fortunately, national organisations such as The Black Dog Institute and Beyond blue support the above evidence, and recommend young people engage in organised sport outside of school settings. These organisations recognise the physical benefits of organised sport such as strong muscle and bone development, weight management, respiratory fitness, and reduction in blood pressure, cholesterol, and heart disease, they have further recognised the benefits of the following.

  • Socialisation: referred to as fast-tracking friendships (Beyond Blue, 2020) and human connection as an important factor in maintaining good mental health and establishing a support network that young people would not otherwise have. • Stress Relief: obligates young people to apply to the task at hand, allowing themselves to alleviate worries and negative thoughts, stimulating chemical release (endorphins) (Beyond Blue, 2020) often referred to as happy chemicals.

  • Sense of belonging- organized sport educates young people on the value of being a team player and teamwork, as opposed to being lectured, they put it into practice. Additionally, promotes leadership and the development of leadership skills.

  • Resilience and self-determination – to educate young people on how to deal with setbacks as teams do not always win games. Coping with a loss or a poor performance, learning from it, and trying again are all part of the journey. Resilience is carried over into everyday life, assisting with navigation during adversity (Beyond Blue, 2020 and Black Dog Institute, 2018).

  • Improved sleep patterns – Young people with mental health concerns may suffer from sleep disturbances. Not only does physical activity cause fatigue, as previously stated sport increases endorphins, further promoting serotonin and melatonin. Balancing these natural chemicals improves a good night’s rest (Beyond Blue, 2020).

Further research suggests it is well and good to promote organised sport as prevention or for early intervention for youth mental health, however, leadership and mentoring is also a contributing factor. As previously stated, young people are reluctant in seeking help from specialised professionals for their mental health concerns. Fuller (1998) and Ferguson, Swann, Liddle & Vella (2019), affirm, young people developing through middle and late adolescence are more peer-focused and looking for their niche. They will be more inclined to look for a peer or a person of trust to share their troubles than a professional. As previously mentioned, this is closely associated with the stigma surrounding mental disorders. Ferguson et al (2019), discuss the role of sports coaches as mentors. Their research exposed sports coaches to adopt several roles.

The authors recorded coaches play a detrimental role in the lives of young people in sport and can have a great impact on their mental health (Ferguson et al, 2019). The research suggested, “coaches perceive their role to be diverse and inclusive of the promotion of mental health”. At times, young people will not console peers, teachers or family when struggling, however, due to a mutual interest in sport, they will confide in their coach. Due to their frequent contact with young people, coaches are in a unique position to identify if a young person is experiencing difficulties and act as advocates for professional mental health services (Ferguson et al, 2010). Ferguson et al (2010), further noted, coaches believed they have a role in facilitating professional help-seeking but were not adequately trained in the area of mental health. The diverse forms of literature used for this paper support the attitude of the author in that, coaches (or any persons) working with young people ought to have tailored training in some form of mental health literacy for young people.

Ferguson et al (2010) suggest the implementation of Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) training for coaches. When provided to coaches, MHFA training increased their capacity to recognize mental illness and improves their confidence to respond (Ferguson et al, 2010). Furthermore, coaches testified that MHFA training was effective because it built upon their existing skills and allowed them to fulfil their perceived social responsibilities. Further exploration exposed there are preconceived notions, that those who do play sport are mentally tough. However, organisations across the nation are campaigning to break that stigma and advocate the importance of mental health literacy for coaches. The ABC (2019) reported more young people are turning to sports coaches more than now than ever before. Basketball Australia Coaches (2019), supports the ABC’s findings, also affirming Mental Health specifically in sport is now far more openly discussed – behind closed doors and in public. Play By The Rules (PBTR) (2020) is a national sport social network organisation, which have further addressed the need for coaches to become mental health literate. ‘Adaptability, resilience, the capacity for problem-solving — these are all skill sets that can be taught.’ (PBTR, 2020). Soaring Eagles Youth LTD is developing a pilot program to work in partnership with Sporting Associations for 2020 and 2021. The goal of the Soaring Eagles Youth LTD ‘Healthy Young Minds’ program will be to implement a proactive preventative approach to Mental Health issues for young adults in today’s society. Soaring Eagles Youth LTD is a NEW Youth Service in Sydney’s North Western Suburbs, Riverstone. Sessions will be run off the field after training sessions. The program is designed for young people to recognise their challenges and build resilience and skills to overcome them, supporting the finding in the literature mentioned in this paper.

In Conclusion, this paper has highlighted statistics in regard to mental health disorders in young people and possible barriers including stigma in seeking help. This paper has further noted mental health disorders can be escalated due to normal adolescent developmental stages, especially if experiencing adversity at the same time. Factual evidence has verified, the benefits of young people connecting themselves with social, physical and organised sporting activities, as a means of staying mentally well. And finally, this paper used tangible examples in recommending existing positive role models such as coaches to help recognise and implement specific programs and support in partnership with specialised services in order to reach out to the most vulnerable.

Josie Lizzio

Managing Director Soaring Eagles Youth LTD

P: 0473 245 367

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