Using sport to promote children’s mental health and wellbeing

Sport in Mind children ()

This week (5-11 February) is Children’s Mental Health Week, and the Alliance is keen to highlight the instrumental role that sport and recreation plays in promoting mental wellbeing among children and young people.

Enabling and encouraging children to participate in physical activity equips them with the tools to build resilience, enhance self-esteem, and develop vital social skills, setting them up for their teenage years and later adulthood. We spoke to Alliance members, Sport in Mind, who talked us through the work they do to help children and young people through the power of sport and physical activity:

What is Children’s Mental Health Week and why is it important?

Children’s Mental Health Week provides a fantastic opportunity to raise awareness of the brilliant work organisations like Sport in Mind are doing to help address mental health issues by getting children and young people active more often.

This year, the theme is #myvoicematters and at Sport in Mind, the UK’s leading mental health sports charity, their innovative Youth Programme works to ensure that all children and young people who take part feel empowered to find their voice, understand their feelings, and make the vital connection between sport and positive mental health.

Less than 50% of children and young people aged 5-16 are reaching the government’s minimum recommendation of 60 minutes of exercise per day and children in the same age range experiencing challenges with their mental health has risen to one in six.

It is vital that we take action to address the issues we are experiencing today, and work to prevent future generations suffering poor mental health through lack of access to exercise. For Sport in Mind, this means supporting children and young people in recognising how they feel, understanding what they are experiencing, and ensuring they feel empowered to make a change.

How does sport have the power to change lives and what is the positive impact it can have on mental health?

Over the last decade, Sport in Mind has spoken to thousands of people who have benefited from the charity’s work, and everyone tells us how sport and recreation has transformed their lives and mental health. Sport means so many things to so many people, but the most important thing about sport is it’s inclusive, it can benefit people from all walks of life, regardless of age, fitness levels or ability.

Sport can help people overcome barriers in their lives by giving them a positive focus, inspiring and empowering them to do things they never thought possible. Sport in Mind has worked with thousands of people who struggle with their mental health, who often attribute sport as the key reason for their recovery.

There are many well-known reasons for playing sport, the most common being the physical health benefits. These benefits are widely acknowledged and it’s whilst it is important to remember that playing sport can improve your physical health, the key role it plays in improving mental health cannot be understated.

Amongst other things. when we exercise our body releases endorphins which are natural mood-enhancing chemicals. Being active regularly is an excellent tool to combat isolation, build resilience and help manage mental health, improve mood and reduce stress and anxiety levels.

Who are Sport in Mind and what do they do?

As a charity, Sport in Mind’s aim is to transform the lives and mental health of young people through sport and physical activity. This is done through educational workshops, accessible weekly sports sessions, resources like the Sport in Mind youth journal and PSHE curriculum, and ongoing development through their young volunteer NCS (National Citizen Service) accreditation.

Their core services are free community sports sessions, at which they provide free support through sport to children and young people suffering mental health challenges. Sport in Mind prides itself on all front-line services being co-designed by people with lived experience of mental health challenges, while the voices of the young people involved in the sessions are also vital in making them successful.

Their coaches work with young people in a person-centered manner, providing opportunities for them to engage at their own level, with no added pressure of competition. Every young person also has the opportunity to explore the Sport in Mind Journal, which helps keep up healthy habits between sessions.

Further to this, the Sport in Mind workshops and assemblies are designed to act as a preventative tool to help young people understand what good mental health looks like and the links between physical activity and positive mental health.

Here, the session leaders engage the children in fun games and activities focusing on wellbeing using four key themes; heart rate, breathing, focus and communication. They deliver age and stage appropriate tools to empower them to make healthy, sustainable choices in their own lives and self-regulate using these tools.

What have people said about the impact of your work?

"My son absolutely loves his time with Sport in Mind. He can be true to himself, engage with the nature of play and be involved in decision making. Sometimes sports in school rely on the elite to drive the games in PE, but here the kids are all included, and the competition is healthy. It's about having fun, which for him ends in a sweaty face, a huge smile, and a perfect end to the week" – a parent of a child engaging with Sport in Mind.

“I wait for every Friday to join the Sport in Mind programmes where I can meet new friends and play different kinds of sports. It is fun and relaxing. The coaches are very nice and patient and willing to share and listen to me. I want to keep on and participate in this wonderful activity.

"I remember the first day when I joined this club, and I was very reluctant and didn’t want to join it. Now I am always looking forward to Friday afternoons because this club gives me such a good feeling and I feel a lot calmer and fitter. You and the rest of the team make me feel very confident and relaxed at the same time. I hope you get to help more children feel comfortable about sports” – a participant at our sessions. 

If you have been inspired by Children’s Mental Health Week and would like to find out more about Sport in Mind, please contact