Updated: Nov 17
With the country being gripped by World Cup fever, we thought it would be a great time to showcase how the beautiful game can be used to develop young people's mental well-being.
If a traditional skills based model is not working for you, why not try some of these strategies to help engage your young people through football and transform their mental well-being by incorporating polyvagel theory and releasing their happiness chemicals.
When our young people are fully engaged in a football match and breathing deeply this stabilises their mood by increasing the window of tolerance. It helps them feel calmer and more relaxed as their amygdala is being soothed.
Many schools offer a wide range of football fixtures so that their young people can benefit. Sprowston Academy and Bohunt Worthing are just 2 examples of hero PE departments up and down the country that create fantastic opportunities for their young people to develop their mental wellbeing through a comprehensive programme of football fixtures.
Sprowston’s inspirational Head of PE and ex-Premier League footballer, James Panayi explains their approach. “We have created a 3 tier system to try and engage as many students as possible. We want to give as many young people the social benefits of being part of a team and the pride of representing our school.
We have had more students play competitive football in the Autumn half term this year than ever before. This is often the first time they will be playing competitive sport. The third tier festivals have been great with a low stress format including self refereeing and a reduced focus on the outcome.
It also provides a good opportunity for PE staff to mix, share experiences and network with teachers from other schools in a relaxed environment.”
When young people work together and feel included as a member of a team their body releases oxytocin which makes them feel loved and connected. This is a great antidote to help young people who we teach who are heavily using social media and are perhaps struggling with loneliness and anxiety as a result.
Back in spring this year our founder Neil Moggan was teaching a group of year eight girls who were beginner footballers, but also struggling with friendship issues amongst the class. There was significant social media usage amongst the group with some girls reporting being on their phone up to 11 hours a day. That is some effort when mobile phones are not permitted within the school during the school day.
Rather than follow a traditional skills base model of delivery that would have disengaged the girls, he used a sport education approach to reward students who helped create an inclusive environment for all to flourish.
As the lessons progressed Neil would add opportunities for the children to play fun games that would develop their skills such as queen of the ring to develop dribbling but the main emphasis was helping the girls understand how football could develop their mental well-being and then being able to apply it.
This triggered the play system outlined by Jaak Panksepp and helped balance the 7 systems that underpin mental health.
Helping children release their anger and tension in a safe and controlled way is fantastic for supporting them to self regulate and keep them within their window of tolerance.
When we push against a resistance we relieve stress and tension by releasing endorphins and increase our confidence through the release of serotonin. Smashing a football at a goal or a wall can help us achieve this.
Giving football crazy children an opportunity to have a kick around, take some shots and relieve stress in a PE lesson or as part of active play can be a great way to help young people self regulate.
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This method worked well one year in our founder’s school, where the year 11 group was particularly boy heavy. We used football as a vehicle to give the boys a regular break from revision, self regulate and boost their motivation so they would give their all in their revision sessions.
The outcomes were stunning with the boys performing half a grade higher than predicted on average in their GCSEs that summer.
Giving children the opportunity to play football matches boosts their confidence and motivation by releasing dopamine and serotonin. This helps them feel energised and happier and increases their confidence.
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Neil was recently speaking to a parent of a child who had enrolled in the Improtech Football Academy programme at his school. As part of the programme, each young person receives 10 hours of football coaching at school per week from an expert coach.
The parent said her son was incredibly happy each day and loved coming into school. This was a marked contrast to his primary school experience where every day was a challenge to get him out of the door and in to school.
Mum said ‘Owen knows that he has got football every day to look forward to and the exercise energises him so that he feels calmer and more confident within his lessons in the wider school.’
The World Cup provides fantastic opportunities to connect and build our relationships with our young people to help them feel psychologically safe.
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Score predictions for big matches or friendly sweepstakes are a great way to get everyone involved and create a shared interest so that everyone feels connected and part of one big team within your lesson. We have seen this particularly within form groups or exam classes.
Over to you
These are a number of ways football can be used to transform our young people's mental well-being. Why not give them a go and let us know how you get on. We would love to hear your success stories. Come on England! Bring it home like the Lionesses!
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Here at Future Action, we have partnered with over 100 schools across the world in a range of settings from Primary to Secondary, International Schools to Special Schools this academic year to embed these transformational strategies.
We are now taking bookings for in person CPD from January so do get in touch if we can support you and your colleagues.
Taking the first step
If you would like to join this movement of inspirational teachers but are not sure where to start, then why not complete the 3 minute scorecard to find out your school's wellbeing score and receive a personalised report on how you can progress your provision.