Mental health – the effects of sport and boarding life

Phil Miller, director of sport at King Edward’s Witley, pens his thoughts on boarding schools' role in encouraging positive mental wellbeing

Regardless of your sporting allegiances, you cannot have failed to be captivated by the resilience, creativity and courage of Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur in their Champions League semi-final exploits. The school common room and boarding houses, irrespective of sporting background, continue to be abuzz discussing the extraordinary events. It brought back fond memories of last summer where, seemingly, the whole country was brought together by the World Cup and England’s progress in the tournament. Once again, I was sat there reminding myself just how much sport can unite a community.

Being fortunate enough to live within a stones-throw of the boarding houses at King Edward’s Witley, I heard the enormous roar when Lucas Moura slotted home his third and decisive winner for Spurs in the 95th minute. I could envisage how the pupils in that house would have been hugging each other, smiles aplenty (apart from the odd Arsenal fan maybe!) and even high-fiving the member of staff on duty. I knew that there would not be a single pupil in their own room at the climax of the game, they will have collected together as a united community and had a much-needed break from their studies.

It proved thought-provoking on my behalf as I had been working very hard over recent weeks in putting together a sports programme that can support all pupils in terms of providing an escape from hardcore revision and, in turn, help them with their overall welfare. It reminded me that bolstering the mental requirements of pupils lies not just in exercise and sport, but in the whole-school providing an environment where pupils feel that they ‘belong.’

However, the research and facts on mental health in the youth are unavoidable. The Telegraph this week released an article on mental health which quotes: “Four in five teachers said that they have seen a rise in pupils experiencing mental health problems over the last two years. A series of recent Sport England studies have demonstrated the mental health benefits of sport and activity, but also how girls become disproportionately inactive and disengaged in sport as they progress through school.”

At King Edward’s, our sport and boarding setup provides a magnificent bedrock for pupils to access a community where they feel that they belong, and the recent football games demonstrate perfectly how closely-knit pupils and staff are. The house sports programme highlights how pupils come together and feel part of something special. There is absolutely no difference in the level of celebrations of the players on the pitch at Anfield when compared to the celebrations seen on the upper and lower Gurdon’s football pitches during the annual inter-house football competitions.

The kudos the pupils receive from their house peers simulates the exact feeling of pride that Divock Origi would have felt when the Liverpool faithful were singing his name. The feeling of belonging, whether you are a boy or girl, senior or junior, teacher or pupil is all encompassing when performing for, or supporting, your house.

At King Edward’s, our sport and boarding setup provides a magnificent bedrock for pupils to access a community where they feel that they belong

Therefore, it is abundantly clear that boarding schools are well placed to provide strong support to encourage positive mental wellbeing. But what about exercise and sport, and where does this fit in?

“If exercise came in pill form, it would be plastered across the front page, hailed as the blockbuster drug of the century,” – Ratey and Hagerman.

Ask any sports educator and they will be able to recite verbatim the positive effects of sport on mental health. You will hear the word’s ‘release of serotonin’ or ‘controlling the production of cortisol’ in pretty much every response. So, what can we do to support our young people in this regard?

I am very proud that the sports’ department at King Edward’s faces the mental health challenge head-on. Gone is the era of Tom Brown’s School Days where sport is reserved solely for the biggest, strongest and most able at our school. Our games, activities and trips cater for everyone, all year round. Football, hockey, netball and cricket are intertwined with surfing, golf, table tennis, aqua aerobics and boxing to name but a few. And yes, all these sports are available to boys and girls in equal measure. The refurbished fitness suite is open to pupils late in the evenings, enabling those who wish to take a break from their studies access to a healthy workout.

Ultimately, mental health concerns are growing and now, more than ever before, it is important that schools, particularly boarding schools, support pupils in their all-round health.  The community of a boarding house can provide a grounded sense of belonging and with it a supportive network but if this is combined with a thorough, broad and exciting sporting programme it can lead to a more balanced and enjoyable experience for the pupils, benefiting their academic studies.

If pupils are happy then it is a good sign that they are mentally in a good place. This is backed by the findings of the Origins of Happiness report 2018, undertaken by the London School of Economics which reports: “The evidence shows that the things that matter most for our happiness and for our misery are our social relationships and our mental and physical health. Eliminating mental health issues such as depression and anxiety would increase happiness by 20%.”

Phil Miller, director of sport at King Edward’s Witley