Whether hurling yourself into a last-ditch tackle on a muddy urban football pitch, sharpening mental focus taking on an opponent in a martial arts arena or pounding the miles with fellow runners, sport is the bond that can help build strong communities and boost morale whilst keeping our societies fit and healthy. In our modern world of smartphones and laptops, sports are more relevant than ever. Competitive sport may not only motivate children and adults to get outside and keep fit, but could also instill important values.

It has been long recognised that sport and physical activity can contribute to enjoyment and happiness. Increased social interaction can lead to greater life satisfaction with an enhanced sense of purpose and pride, as individuals’ self-esteem and confidence increase, while symptoms of anxiety and depression reduce.

However, many young people, in Britain and beyond, are not engaging in sufficient amounts of daily physical activity.  Childhood overweight and obesity is on the rise and decreased levels of physical activity lie at the heart of this alarming trend, whilst there are also concerns that the mental health of young people is too often compromised.

University of Birmingham sports and exercise psychologists are working hard to deploy their expertise around the globe - supporting charities, sports organisations and policy makers in giving more young people the chance to participate in sport, dance, and physical education delivered in a motivationally more empowering way. 

Their Empowering Coaching training programme for coaches, teachers, and parents is based on extensive motivation psychology and coaching (recreational through elite) research. The programme helps ‘significant others’ surrounding young people create more positive, healthy and adaptive environments; achieved through systematic and evidence-based training for those working with the young people.  The training gives coaches, parents and teachers an insight into the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of an empowering approach, but also enhances awareness of and clarifies the costs of disempowering behaviours. 

Joan Duda, Professor of Sport and Exercise Psychology in the School of Sport, Exercise & Rehabilitation Sciences, leads the team which has developed and delivered Empowering Coaching™ workshops in numerous countries including Ireland, France, Greece, Ireland, Mexico, Norway, Qatar, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, and most recently, Brazil.

“Our training for coaches and programme volunteers can deliver massive benefits to young people. Creating an empowered environment creates more self-determined or intrinsic reasons for them to play sport. It gives them more confidence and promotes more greater respect for others, whilst delivering more vitality and greater self-worth.

“Particularly for those from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, experiencing better quality participation in sport, dance and other leisure time pursuits encourages the adoption of an active and healthy lifestyles, which in turn improves their overall quality of life.

“There’s a strong conceptual foundation to and evidence-based for Empowering Coaching™ - our calling card is academic rigour; evaluation of workshops and related activity goes into significant depth about how participants have interacted with and be impacted by the programme. Creating a more optimal motivational climate in sport, education, the performing arts requires a corresponding change in participants’ understanding and philosophy.”

In this work, the researchers also have to be aware of the ‘dark side’ which can exist in sport and other settings; just as creating an empowering environment enhances people’s enjoyment of sport,  there are disempowering behaviours, such as bullying and overly critical coaching, that can contribute to depression and burnout. In the Empowering Coaching™ training, coaches, teachers, and parents have the opportunity to reflect on what they do which could be (even if inadvertent) disempowering for young people, and input into how such behaviours and attitudes can be changed for the good.

Empowering Coaching™ has also engaged young people in sport academies, including the Aspire Academy in Qatar and is complemented by results stemming from a number of international projects. From working with UEFA  on motivational factors within women and girls’ football to the European Commission-funded PAPA project examining motivation in grassroots football across England, France, Greece, Norway and Spain, the pattern of findings is remarkably consistent.

“The strongest predictor of participant engagement (and how participants feel about themselves and their sport) is the motivational climate – not facilities, or other physical aspects of the sport environment” explains Professor Duda. “If you want to create long-term, quality participation in sport, you need to work to continue to create a more empowering environment.”

Closer to home, in Birmingham, the University’s sports psychologists set about using their expertise to help tackle youth homelessness in the city.

A major social issue across Britain, homelessness costs the UK Government over £1 billion every year. It results in the large-scale deterioration of mental and physical health, as well as low life expectancy.  Young people aged 16-24 are disproportionately affected and face persistent and escalating problems in adulthood unless supported towards independent living. 

Recognising a lack of mental skills as a key factor perpetuating homelessness, the researchers worked with the St Basils youth homelessness charity to co-develop MST4Life™ (My Strengths Training For Life™) - the first sport psychology programme delivered within a housing service to young people experiencing homelessness or at risk. 

Beginning in 2014, the six-year project was directly informed by research undertaken with Scottish Rugby and Aston Villa FC Training Academy investigating the impact of mental skills training interventions for youth in sport and dance. With over 1,040 individuals attending St Basils exiting homelessness over the life of the project, MST4Life™ has certainly had an impact on the city; helping to significantly cut youth homelessness in Birmingham. An evaluation of the project by Birmingham Business School revealed that, by engaging with the young people and helping them access employment and education, the programme had saved the public purse around £26million.

Jennifer Cumming, Professor of Sport and Exercise Psychology, heads the team which co-developed the programme with staff at St Basils.

“The programme created opportunities for young homeless people to try out mental skills in different settings – for example, spending time in the Lake District gorge walking, raft-building and canoeing. Most had never left the West Midlands and the geographical separation gave them the opportunity to challenge themselves and build new skills in a very different setting.

“Taking part in MST4Life™ increased the likelihood that young people would leave supported accomodation through engagement in education, employment and training by some 30%. The programme’s success is grounded in sports psychology – applied research in rugby and football which athletes use to enhance their learning performance and well-being, but which we can apply in everyday life. Goal setting, creating strategies to cope with anxiety, making plans and devising routines really helped these young people to boost their self confidence, resilience and self-worth to achieve their aspirations and thrive.”

Adolescents require a varied set of personal and interpersonal mental qualities to be successful and the nature, development and regulation of these qualities depended on features of the surrounding social environment. As with Empowering Coaching™, the sports psychologists determined that ‘significant others’ such as support workers play an important role in the MST4Life™ programme by creating a supportive climate for the development and implementation of mental skills with meaningful opportunities for young people to reflect on activities they took part in.

“Our outcomes demonstrate that applying sports psychology techniques in a setting such as St Basils can deliver an impact over and above to the services already available to young people,” explains Professor Cumming. “Self-reflection and drawing on personal strengths are the key drivers for young people’s wellbeing and success; building stable and effective relationships with them are critically important.

“We understand what works for whom and in what settings – each programme is tailored to suit the young people taking part, whether it is young mothers with babies or those with complex mental health problems.”


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