How can sport help youth well-being?
by Iva Glibo
At the beginning of 2020, school gyms, playgrounds, ski slopes, pitches, ice rinks, sport fields and arenas closed their doors. Sport and youth go hand in hand; however, the sport activities were put to a stop, leaving many young people without their social environment, much-needed physical activity and, for some, without their reason to get up in the morning. The irony is that it seems like sport can help mitigate the severe consequences of Covid-19 infection. It can help youth workers and coaches in building more resilient and inclusive societies by serving as an adaptable educational tool with many possible positive outcomes.
More physical activity – less serious Covid-19 symptoms?
Although the pandemic is yet relatively unexplored territory, the research slowly reveals its effects on youth. Quarantine and isolation, in particular, caused many to adopt unhealthy lifestyles. Young people moved less and ate unhealthy diets and they became more anxious, more angry and depressed (Savage et al. 2020). This, in turn, negatively correlated with their cardiovascular health and increased the risk for obesity (López-Valenciano et al. 2021; Mattioli et al. 2020a; 2020b).
Those who had to isolate, willingly or not embraced couch potato lifestyles. Besides the negative health consequences of such a lifestyle, there is a missed preventive potential when it comes to Covid-19 infection. New research has shown that physically stronger, and more active young people may have a massive advantage if they face the virus later in life – they have protection from their increased fitness and strength (af Geijerstam et al. 2021).
Sport can make youth happier
Besides physical benefits, known even to most unsporting laypersons, such as skeletal and cardiorespiratory health improvements, sport participation can result in multiple mental health benefits. Being sporty can do so much for youths’ mental well-being during the pandemic. It can be a protective factor against poor mental health (Engels et al. 2021) because it can reduce depressive symptoms and anxiety and stress levels. In short, sport participation can make youth happier (Zhang and Chen 2019). Exactly how this happens is yet to be fully explained, but so far, there are several explanations offered (Rowland 1990):
- With participation, youth gain some time off from the source of stress. They immerse themselves in the activity and forget about their troubles and cares for a moment. If they are lucky, they experience a flow state in which they are in harmony with the activity, deeply immersed in what they are doing, with a sense that everything clicks into place (Csikszentmihalyi 2002).
- Participation in sport activities can foster a sense of pride, achievement and competence with what they have accomplished in training or competition. That can, in turn, increase their confidence.
- Looks aren’t everything, but body image improvements due to taking part in sport matter for youth. Confidence in their physiques seems to play a role in their mental health (Lubans et al. 2016).
- Youth can control their progress and effort. If they put in an effort as a reward, their activities usually result in improvements for a “reap what you sow” learning moment. Or simply put, practice makes progress!
- The body reacts to physical activity resulting in hormonal changes with mood-improving effects. The chemical substances in the brain controlling the mood and cognition called serotonin increase by being physically active. Runners know this feeling as the “runner’s high”.
- Lastly, maybe most importantly, as sport is usually a social activity, it can foster a sense of belonging to a group and social connectedness. Sport is used in communities to create social bonds, improve social inclusion, spur civic participation and challenge social norms.
Quality of provision and environment is the key
It is tempting to assume that increasing sport participation is a panacea solution to so many youth issues in the pandemic. However, all of the above is conditional: sport can, rather than sport will. It is essential to highlight that these benefits do not come automatically from participation. The mere sport provision is not enough. Tossing a football to a group of young people is not enough. Environment, interactions and relations are the key to profiting from sport participation. Quality of activities, not activities per se, are more likely to lead to positive outcomes (Bailey et al. 2013). If not designed and managed correctly, with youth’s well-being set as the priority, youth sport can result in physical injury, present a source of severe mental distress, and negatively impact self-worth and confidence. It can even destroy social relationships with significant others. Coaches, parents, physical education teachers, youth workers, peers and all others involved in youth sport hold the key to the success of the sport participation. All involved have to realise that their number one job is to create a positive, nurturing and safe environment for youth growth.
Sport is a highly flexible and adaptable education tool
Sport has an apparent competitive aspect that is reflected in the aim to develop athletes’ sporting prowess. More than that, sport is used as a setting for non-formal education. Youth workers and sport coaches use sport as an educational tool for acquiring a plethora of soft skills and values outside the traditional educational system. Reasons for that stem from the benefits sport can bring to youth but also, importantly, one of the reasons for its wide use is also purely pragmatic. Sport has proven to be a flexible activity that youth workers and coaches adapt to many contexts and various envisioned goals. For instance, it has been used in post-disaster settings as a means of psychological recovery, in refugee camps as a reconciliation activity, in inclusion projects to connect non-disabled and people with disabilities, and recently to stay connected during the pandemic.
There are ways youth workers and coaches can organise sport activities to fit the current and ever-changing responses to the pandemic seen throughout Europe. One of them is the STEP tool developed initially to facilitate inclusion through sporting activities (more information available at The Inclusion Club). STEP tool provides a thinking framework to modify and change activities along four elements: Space, Task, Equipment and People. Space can be adjusted to current regulations as activities can be performed indoors or outdoors, online or in-person. The online environment became an important setting for social activities, and with little innovative thinking, sporting activities can be easily adapted to fit the screen. Similarly, tasks can also be adjusted to ensure meaningful participation corresponding to the current conditions. A basketball game might not be viable if the activity is performed individually and online, but walk-and-talk group work might be. If the equipment is needed, it must be considered whether it is safe to share it or whether each participant should handle their equipment. If participants are at home, they can use some items that households usually have, for example, books, water bottles or chairs. No equipment is also an option. Depending on the number of participants, there are various individual, paired or group activities to choose from depending on the current social distancing measures.
For youth, the pandemic changed everything. Consequently, people working with youth must also respond to provide relief from the situation as best as possible. In addition to that challenge, they also must adapt how they work and embrace flexibility and innovativeness as their modus operandi. This is where sport can provide a valuable resource. Not only can it be of value as a means of recovery in the sense of possible outcomes, but with endless possibilities of delivery, it can be a valuable resource for youth workers to help youth deal with the pandemic. All that is needed is some knowledge, adaptability and innovative thinking to slam dunk youth work by using sport during a pandemic.
ENGSO Youth (2020), Sport for active citizenship toolkit, available at: https://b2edbaa4-f3ed-4569-9d16-de917ed9777c.filesusr.com/ugd/6acfa9_68f0d4d26f7c4c8ea5d4e8ea32b17f4a.pdf.
International Sport and Culture Association (2013), Move and learn: training manual for non-formal education through sport and physical activities with young people, available at: www.moveandlearn.org/files/Move&Learn.pdf.
SK4YS consortium (2019), Skills for You(th) through Sport handbook, available at: https://6acfa966-ac30-414b-a089-414885f68b74.usrfiles.com/ugd/6acfa9_90b3e283013f45b69c62284d1300c79d.pdf
UK Coaching (9 April 2020), Coaching people online, available at: https://www.ukcoaching.org/resources/topics/diagram-infographic/coaching-people-online?LoginRedir=true
The Inclusion Club: http://theinclusionclub.com/
Bailey R., Hillman C., Arent S. and Petitpas A. (2013), “Physical activity: an underestimated investment in human capital?”, Journal of Physical Activity and Health Vol. 10, No. 3, pp. 289-308, https://doi.org/10.1123/jpah.10.3.289.
Csikszentmihalyi M. (2002), Flow: the psychology of optimal experience (2nd edn), Harper & Row, New York.
Engels E. S., Mutz M., Demetriou Y. and Reimers A. K. (2021), “Levels of physical activity in four domains and affective wellbeing before and during the Covid-19 pandemic”, Archives of Public Health, 79(1), pp.1-9, https://doi.org/10.1186/s13690-021-00651-y.
Geijerstam A. (af) et al. (2021), “Fitness, strength and severity of COVID-19: a prospective register study of 1 559 187 Swedish conscripts”, BMJ Open Vol. 11, No. 7, e051316, pp.1-8, https://doi.org/10.1136/bmjopen-2021-051316.
López-Valenciano A., Suárez-Iglesias D., Sanchez-Lastra M. A. and Ayán C. (2021), “Impact of COVID-19 pandemic on university students’ physical activity levels: an early systematic review”, Frontiers in Psychology Vol. 11, No. 624567, pp. 1-10, https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2020.624567.
Lubans D. et al. (2016), “Physical activity for cognitive and mental health in youth: a systematic review of mechanisms”, Pediatrics Vol. 138, No. 3, e20161642, https://doi.org/10.1542/peds.2016-1642.
Mattioli A. V. et al. (2020a), “Obesity risk during collective quarantine for the COVID-19 epidemic”, Obesity Medicine Vol. 20, No. 100263, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.obmed.2020.100263.
Mattioli A. V. et al. (2020b), “Quarantine during COVID-19 outbreak: changes in diet and physical activity increase the risk of cardiovascular disease”, Nutrition, Metabolism & Cardiovascular Diseases: NMCD Vol. 30, No. 9, pp. 1409-17, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.numecd.2020.05.020.
Rowland T. W. (1990), Exercise and children’s health, Human Kinetics, Champaign, IL.
Savage, M. J., James, R., Magistro, D., Donaldson, J., Healy, L. C., Nevill, M., and Hennis, P. J. (2020). Mental health and movement behaviour during the COVID-19 pandemic in UK university students: Prospective cohort study. Mental Health and Physical Activity, 19, 100357, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.mhpa.2020.100357
Zhang Z. and Chen W. A. (2019), “Systematic review of the relationship between physical activity and happiness”, Journal of Happiness Studies Vol. 20, pp. 1305-22, https://doi.org/10.1007/s10902-018-9976-0.