7 July 2020

Ahead of The Game

Team sport could be the key to improving the wellbeing of youngsters after lockdown.
Mental Health | Staying Connected
2 MIN READ
 

Zach Eckersley had been looking forward to pulling on his beloved ‘Cherry and White’ shirt to play the first match of the season against Bradford Bulls Under16s when the UK went into lockdown.

The 16-year-old, who had achieved his dream of winning a coveted Wigan Warriors rugby league scholarship, was hoping to be made captain when the Wednesday-night game in late March was cancelled due to mounting concerns over the coronavirus.

In the chaotic days that followed, schools were shut and all team sport was suspended, leaving over 2million youngsters who play regularly – 63 per cent of 11 to 16-year olds - unable to take part.

As well as the negative physical effects of on teenagers such as loss of fitness, weight gain and irregular sleep patterns, lack of exercise has an impact on mental health and for many has compounded the stress of being socially isolated during lockdown.

 
Lack of exercise has an impact on mental health and for many has compounded the stress of being socially isolated during lockdown.
 

"Initially, I was a bit relieved when I heard that my GCSE exams were cancelled,” admits Zach from Oldham, Lancashire. “No one really looks forward to exams, do they? But now I wish they’d gone ahead. It’s been quite hard waiting to find out what grade you’ve been assigned. There’s no sense of achievement in that.”

However, he says the hardest thing about lockdown has been the lack of structure and routine, previously provided by both school and sport.

“One day just rolls into the next – they’re all the same,” he says. “I’ve been doing my best to keep my fitness levels up by doing some sort of training five or six days a week with my dad. Wigan have been running Zoom training sessions which are good - but it isn’t the same as seeing your mates, having a bit of banter and playing a match.”

Charities, doctors and educationalists have all warned that the Covid-19 pandemic is likely to have serious consequences for young people’s mental wellbeing.

Last month, a coalition of 30 organisations including the Royal College of Psychiatrists and the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, wrote to the prime minister, urging the government to take steps to reduce the impact of the lockdown.

The lack of routine and social connection, loneliness and disruption to education, as well as the challenges of living in difficult or dangerous situations, were all cited as additional pressures for adolescents.

Experts also believe the loss of team sport could also have far-reaching implications for youngsters’ mental health.

Movember’s ‘Bridging The Distance’ report, which looked at the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on social connections, revealed that 55 per cent of young men (in the 18-24 age group) said they found not being able to take part in team sport either stressful or very stressful.

“Involvement in team sport forms a huge part of many young people’s lives,” explains Tracy Herd of Movember.

“We know that particularly for boys, it has huge benefits for mental health and emotional wellbeing. It’s where they learn how to be part of a team, improve their self-confidence and develop strong friendships. Having that suddenly taken away could have a hugely detrimental effect on these young athletes.”

 
“Involvement in team sport forms a huge part of many young people’s lives. We know that particularly for boys, it has huge benefits for mental health and emotional wellbeing."
 

Previous research has shown that taking part in organised sport during adolescence is associated with a lower risk of mental health problems compared with teens who drop out.  A large study of US high school students found that participation in team sports is associated with a 35 per cent reduction in suicidal thoughts and 39 per cent fewer suicide attempts among boys.

The question of when community sport can safely resume within social distancing guidelines is still being debated.

But when that day comes, help will be at hand for Zach and his teammates, in the form of an innovative mental fitness programme delivered by Movember and the Rugby League Cares charity.

The ‘Ahead of The Game’ programme teaches teenage athletes about mental health in the familiar surroundings of their club changing rooms.

Suicide is the leading cause of death of men aged 15 to 49 and there is growing awareness of the risks young men can face, if they cannot talk openly about mental health.

 
“The ‘Ahead of The Game’ programme teaches teenage athletes about mental health in the familiar surroundings of their club changing rooms.”
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AHEAD OF THE GAME
 

Over the next 16 months, the workshops will be delivered to 8,000 young players and their parents, rugby club coaches, match officials and volunteers as part of a ground-breaking partnership with Rugby League World Cup 2021.

Because rugby league is so deeply embedded in the northern communities it serves, it is hoped that the scheme will make a real impact in areas where poor mental health is prevalent and suicide rates are some of the highest in England.

A squad of 20 ex-professional players, including former Great Britain and England International Keith Senior, Wales International Paul Highton and New Zealand International and TV pundit Robbie Hunter-Paul – all of whom have spoken openly about their own struggles - will deliver the two hour-long workshops.

They teach the young players how to spot when a friend may be suffering and how they can support them.

“The idea is that the boys learn to apply the resilience they build up on the pitch along with the mental fitness training they get in the changing rooms and apply it more widely in their lives,” says Emma Goldsmith of Rugby League Cares.

Zach and Chris are both enthusiastic about the idea of having the lessons delivered by ex-players. “I’d be much more likely to listen to someone who knows the game and understands what it’s like when it has been taken away from you,” says Zach.

“It’s a brilliant idea,” says Chris. “It’s really helpful to be able to understand the difference between normal teenage behaviour and when it might be something more serious. It can be very hard to distinguish between the two at times.”


Movember Ahead of the Game teaches young athletes how to talk about mental health, get help when needed and overcome life’s challenges. Visit www.aheadofthegame.uk for more information.