Brooke Hepburn, Project Officer, Junior Sports Program
Racing heart rate, sweating, butterflies in the stomach, tightness in the shoulders, nervous energy coursing through the body – these are all too familiar sensations to a former athlete.
In my case however, these sensations are no longer my body priming me to play competitive sport, instead they are signaling the nervous excitement I feel leading up to the unveiling of the brand new SPEAK UP! Stay ChatTY Junior Sports Program (JSP).
The program has been a labor of love for the past 10 months. Researching, reading, conversations, podcasts, documentaries – my mission has been to better understand how sport and sporting clubs can champion positive mental health environments. Spaces where our young people can go to feel a sense of connection and belonging.
This journey has also been a personal one. A cathartic experience of unpacking my own relationship with sport. I retired from semi-professional sport in early 2021. In all honesty, I left the game I loved with an underlying feeling of mental and physical burnout. I had spent the last few months of my playing days questioning what it was I had enjoyed about sport. Why did I invest so much time and effort into training my body to be able to bowl a rock-hard ball at three wooden stumps in the ground?
The answer I have happily settled on– because working hard with a team of people, with a common purpose in mind, filled me with joy and gave me a wonderful feeling of connection. Sport provided me a place to feel valued. A place to express myself. To test my body and mind.
Put simply, I played sport to have fun!
In the last few years of my own sporting experience, I lost sight of this reason and the toll this took on my physical and mental health was apparent. I now appreciate there is a need for increased awareness and conversations in our sporting environments around the importance of introducing tools and strategies to help young people navigate the ups and downs that come with playing sport.
Fun – our kids start playing sport for this reason. It’s important we create environments where fun, exploration and play are the central drivers to training and game experiences.
The joys that come with playing sport are derived from spending time with friends, being part of a team, learning new skills, forming relationships, overcoming challenges. I reflect on my sporting journey, and the moments that stand out the most… are not the on-field moments – the wins and losses, the personal achievements – they are the celebrations and antics that happened off the field and during training with my peers.
We know sport can have wonderfully positive impacts on our mental health. For young people, regular participation in sport is linked with improved self-esteem, mood, sleep, and reduced levels of stress, anxiety and depression.1,2 When we get sporting environments right – they are great places to foster positive mental health and build resilience in our young people.
The aim of the JSP is to bring this element of fun and excitement to the way we approach mental health messaging and conversations with our young people. The JSP will focus on normalising mental health conversations and aim to build confidence in young people to express how they are feeling. There is a need to make the topic of mental health more approachable.
The Program will provide a whole of club approach, offering presentations and information to not only athletes, but inviting junior parents, coaches and club members to join in the conversation. To learn together, share stories together, look after our wellbeing together. Moving forward as a collective.
I feel a great sense of pride and privilege to have been involved in developing this special program. There is a real excitement bubbling inside me to go back to my sporting roots and reconnect with community sport. I look forward to the many conversations and personal learnings that are to come on this journey.
Panza MJ, Graupensperger S, Agans JP, Doré I, Vella SA, Evans MB. Adolescent Sport Participation and Symptoms of Anxiety and Depression: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. J Sport Exerc Psychol. 2020 May 21:1-18. doi: 10.1123/jsep.2019-0235. Epub ahead of print. PMID: 32438339; PMCID: PMC7679280.
Graupensperger S, Sutcliffe J, Vella SA. Prospective Associations between Sport Participation and Indices of Mental Health across Adolescence. J Youth Adolesc. 2021 Jul;50(7):1450-1463. doi: 10.1007/s10964-021-01416-0. Epub 2021 Mar 10. PMID: 33689103; PMCID: PMC8222072.
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