Brenda McHughIn this guest blog, consultant psychotherapist Brenda McHugh talks about the benefits that playing sport can have on the mental health of children and young people. 

The physical benefits of sport are well documented and widely understood, but the mental health benefits are less so. Sport is central to managing anger, boosting confidence and improving core skills such as problem-solving ability to accelerate the progress of all children and young people. A similar mind-set has been adopted by the Heads Together campaign, spearheaded by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry, which has put sport firmly on the agenda as a means of making it – and its wellbeing benefits – accessible to all.

We all have mental health, just as we have physical health. The two are interconnected, but being in peak physical health doesn’t always mean that your mental health is in the same state. Some of our biggest sports stars agree. Dame Kelly Holmes, Vicky Pendleton, Rio Ferdinand and others all talked about their own mental health struggles, and the role that their sport played in helping them through tough times. Sport, as well as the support networks that we have, can play a crucial role in helping everyone – not just professional athletes – build resilience.

Children can benefit from this resilience building as well. One in ten children are likely to have emotional and mental health problems such as anxiety, depression, and ADHD. Less than 30% of pupils who need mental health support receive it. These are alarming statistics, but there are also solutions in development. One way that the figures could be dramatically improved is with SmartGym, an innovative technology-enabled sports model.

Developed by Brenda McHugh and Neil Dawson, experts from the Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families, SmartGym is being evaluated across three trial school sites in South Westminster. It is a whole-class programme that teaches the skills of attention, communication and resilience through a range of games and physical activities. SmartGym aims to address the gap in support and promote peer achievement by empowering those least able to cope.

To date, 36 teachers and staff have overseen students involved in a weekly SmartGym plan that combines a cardio wall, fitlights and neurotracker to allow users to monitor their fitness development and set goals. More laterally, researchers from the Anna Freud Centre and UCL are considering the perceived and anecdotal impact of this model while teachers help translate these active skills into the classroom setting.

Initial feedback includes reports of less disruption, improved motivation and stronger relationships. A teacher from St Clement Danes C of E Primary School noted the improvement in students’ focus and attitude following a SmartGym session: “[The children appear to be] more mature, calmer, focused.”

The young people involved in the programme have shown and vocalised engagement and excitement for the programme, with one student saying: “[SmartGym is] fun, it’s educational and I hope that other people can experience what I experienced and learn from it.” 

The Centre will continue to roll out and evaluate the impact of SmartGym on pupil’s mental wellbeing and attendance in 6 schools over 2 years, and hope to forge new tools for a mentally well and active youth.

The intertwined nature of our physical and mental health have long been clear to researchers, and we are beginning to build evidence-based solutions to help children in need with their mental health. 

It is fantastic that the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry understand the benefits arising from physical activity for everyone’s mental health. As we exhale from the excitement of the Euros and ready ourselves for the Olympics, let’s remember this summer that sport is not just for professional athletes – it is for everyone to enjoy. The benefits are clear for all.

About the author

Brenda McHugh is a consultant psychotherapist, co-founder of The Family School London and co-director of mental health in schools at the Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families.