Using what we already have: Harnessing the power of sport to provide the ‘missing’ connection

I have always been a fan of the Netflix programme ‘Last Chance U’ since it was first released in 2016. Fast forward to a few days ago and the fifth series has just been released. I’m only half way through but already it has served as a really important reminder for me on the power of sport to help young people find that elusive sense of belonging and connection.

What struck me when watching the latest series set in Oakland, California, is the real sense of belonging that the players experience by being a part of their football programme. In some ways, the lives of the players in this documentary can feel like a world away from many of the students that we encounter when working in international schools, but the difficult family dynamics, and the need to feel loved is inherently universal. 

This led me to thinking about the importance of extra-curricular programmes, in particular sports programmes. As international schools are set to re-open, it feels like the importance of school sports will move beyond (and has already done in many ways) the ‘exercising to get fit and healthy’ and ‘playing sport builds character’ rhetoric. Rather, sports can help us to meet our basic human need for social interaction and belonging. 

As we start to come out of lockdown, we are probably more aware than ever of the fact that we are ‘neurologically primed for connection’ and the struggle we have all faced in ‘social distancing’ over the last few months has illuminated that very truth. Professor Sue Roffey explains that social connection is fundamentally integral to optimal human development, not just for survival but in order for us to really flourish as human beings. It is no surprise then that being accepted within our social group is important for healthy functioning. A sense of belonging can occur in multiple domains including; the close and extended family, friendship groups, schools, and sports teams. 

According to the Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families, helping children and young people to cultivate a sense of belonging has been linked to improved mental health, a reduction in risky behaviours, and can act as a buffer against disadvantage. More specifically a systematic review of the psychological and social benefits of participating in teams sports for children and young people showed that participants in sports experience enhanced mental health benefits, greater levels of social-emotional wellbeing, and reduced feelings of social isolation. Some very timely benefits to be aware of as students return to school. 

A recent study by Oberle et al. (2019) found that children that participate in team-based extracurricular activities experience better mental health. The authors examined the impact of participation of different types of extracurricular activities in children in grade 4-7, as well as the impact of participation and non-participation in activities related to their mental health. The study found that the participation in team sports in particular provided the greatest mental health benefits, when compared to non-activities and individual activities such as music lessons, academic tutoring, and individual sports, and this was linked to the greater level of peer belonging that is experienced within a sports team.

I have seen many posts online recently emphasising the need for kindness, empathy and a focus on relationships upon school return, both within the classroom and within the culture of a school. Perhaps extracurricular programmes and team sports can help us to leverage and use what we already have in a school, especially when ‘socially distanced’ classrooms may be creating a further social divide. School sport may also help students to re-calibrate and re-discover their sense of belonging following a physical absence from school and friends. It offers a further opportunity to open sport up to all and reject more elitist and traditional notions of sport (just) for competition.

The uncertainty of the world at the moment is at times very stressful to both adults and children, and working and studying in an international school can add an additional barrier to a sense of belonging when we are physically located (and possibly enforceably separated) apart from our close and extended families and friendship groups. Whilst it may not be clear the form that school sport will be able to take in the coming months, therein lies the opportunity (not problem) to strip back school sport to its core. A place of belonging.

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