Sport Psychology in schools, but not as we know it
If you’re a regular visitor to our blog, you’ll know that the work we do here at the SPRINT project takes learning from sport psychology and applies this to another setting. Through the MST4Life™ programme, mental skills training (typically used by athletes) is applied to the novel context of youth homelessness. But what about transferring sport psychology techniques into schools?
Sport psychology in schools
Often when we think of sport psychology in school, we think of part of the physical education curriculum; students learning about the principles of sport psychology and how it helps athletes perform to the best of their ability.
But ultimately it has a much wider application within education. It has potential to help students develop key mental skills, helping them thrive not only in education but in various other aspects of life outside it.
Typically, alternative education provision (how education is delivered to pupils with complex needs, or those who face challenges engaging with mainstream education) has been deficit based. This means that the focus is on what a person is lacking, or difficulties they may be facing.
But in recent years, education provision has attempted to move towards an alternative approach that is strengths-based. At the SPRINT project we take a similar approach. This means that we focus on young people’s innate potential, rather than deficits.
So, what are the specific challenges that some young people might face at school?
Challenges to overcome
Students engaged in alternative education provision (whether that be a purpose-built site or delivered within a mainstream school) often display challenging behaviour such as:
Verbal outbursts (towards students and staff)
Physical outbursts (towards students and staff)
These are often due to different reasons, such as:
Lack of skills in managing emotions
Lack of skills in managing expectations (of themselves and others)
Poor communication skills
Childhood trauma in the past or ongoing
Lack of key skills, e.g., reading, writing and maths.
So where does sport psychology fit in?
Mental skills training
Sport psychology (specifically mental skills training) is a novel, strengths-based approach in alternative education. It enables students to think about things they are good at, how to apply these strengths and develop new ones.
Mental skills training originates from sport psychology work with elite athletes, to enhance their performance and well-being.
Mental skills include but are not limited to: emotional awareness, focus, relaxation, seeking support, managing emotions and setting goals. At the SPRINT project, we have developed resources to improve these skills.
In alternative provision it is vital that students learn how to manage and understand their emotions before they can begin reintegration into mainstream education and also thinking further ahead to successful work opportunities and further education or training.
Benefits of mental skills training Mental skills training is a novel approach to working alongside students in alternative education provision. Having worked in these settings (and other projects) for around 8 years, there are a number of benefits to using this non-traditional approach:
It feels less stigmatising. Young people and students often don’t like to discuss emotions but when we relate them to sports and athletes in this strengths-based way students are more willing to explore their own mental skills and discuss how they are feeling.
Some students do not like the idea of talking to a clinical psychologist or other health professionals – again, because of stigma around mental health. This is especially prevalent in boys.
Having someone with sport psychology training deliver mental skills support in schools might mean young people have someone to look up to. This is even more so the case when those delivering the support have come from a similar background to the young people and can talk about dreams they have achieved.
What does this look like in practice?
These skills can be explored flexibly through specific sessions delivered to the group, or one-to-one work looking at how specific situations were handled. This can include listening to their perspective and validating their feelings before providing them a safe opportunity to explore the situation through questions such as:
How do they think they handled the situation?
What things were helpful for them and why in how they handled the situation?
How could they improve on handling something similar in the future?
In keeping with the strengths-based approach, when we look at these questions, we don’t ask students what they did ‘wrong’, but how can they improve. This creates a more positive approach and feels less like they are being accused, increasing the likelihood of intentions to implement new skills/approaches in the future.
Another practical way that young people can be supported is by making sure our conversations involve positive talk and body language. For example, we can make sure that we use lots of encouraging language and ask open-ended questions that facilitate further conversation. We can also make sure that we have open, friendly and welcoming body language, to build rapport and trust with students.
You can find out more about the practical ways to facilitate a psychologically-informed exploration of students’ mental skills, by checking out our Delivery Guide. This is packed full of top tips to support you to work in a strengths-based way with young people.
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Nina P & thanasornjanekankiton Reshot.