The benefits of sport participation and physical activity in schools

Executive Summary

Prior research documents that sport participation among secondary school children is associated with various benefits, including enhanced physical, cognitive, behavioural, social, and educational performance. However, only a relatively small number of studies have directly examined the relationship between sport participation and wellbeing in schools. Noting this, and previous academic work on participation in physical activity and sport, mental toughness, and wellbeing, the present project investigated relationships between these factors and allied psycho-social benefits (i.e., sense of school belonging, identity). These variables were selected because they were mutually beneficial, that is, they potentially strengthen relationships between pupils, school, and educational motivation/potential success. The project focused on a critically important year group: Year 9 (13 to 14 years, Key Stage 3) and Year 10 (14 to 15 years, Key Stage 4). The project objectives were to assess the impact of participation in sports upon belonging and wellbeing among Year 9 and 10 secondary school students (factoring in gender), and to scrutinise the role of hypothetically important factors to this relationship, namely mental toughness, and self-efficacy/self-belief. A total of 5481 pupils (2578 girls, 2727 boys, 83 preferred to self-describe, 93 preferred not to say) from 80 schools (61 private/independent, 19 state) took part. There were 2957 Year 9, and 2524 Year 10 pupils. Pupils completed a range of online questionnaires, focusing on sports participation and physical activity, mental toughness, self-efficacy, and wellbeing indicators (social identity, belonging, life satisfaction, and self-rated happiness). For analysis purposes, a sports index was created as a composite of sports participation, involvement, and perceived importance. Analysis progressed through several stages. Initially, mean differences were investigated relating to the sports index as a function of year group and gender (boys vs. girls). Subsequently, mean differences concerning wellbeing indicators relative to year group and gender were examined. The next stage of analysis tested a statistical model, which assessed whether the sports index predicted wellbeing and the degree to which non-cognitive skills (mental toughness and self efficacy) were important variables in this relationship. Scrutiny of non-cognitive skills focused on indirect associations to reveal if the presence of these increased the sports index – wellbeing relationship. Findings demonstrated that sports participation was lower in Year 10 than in Year 9, with girls participating less than boys in Year 10. Wellbeing was also lower in Year 10 (vs. Year 9), and girls in Year 10 reported significantly lower wellbeing than boys. The statistical model indicated that the sports index was a significant predictor of mental toughness, self efficacy, and wellbeing. Mental toughness and self-efficacy were significant positive ‘mediators’ of the sports index – wellbeing relationship, and greater indirect associations occurred via mental toughness. Subsequent analysis revealed that girls reported significantly lower mental toughness and self-efficacy than boys, and mental toughness scores were meaningfully lower in Year 10 (vs. Year 9). Results overall indicated that Year 10 pupils (in comparison with Year 9) scored lower on sports participation, wellbeing, and non-cognitive skills. Effects were greater for girls (vs. boys). It is concerning that wellbeing and sports participation were lower in Year 10, and this could be a function of the increased demands at Key Stage 4. Moreover, lower participation and wellbeing for girls corroborates the research documenting these trends. However, evidence from the statistical model suggested that sports participation is predictive of greater wellbeing, which is strengthened by sports participation being related with the acquisition of a confident, mental toughness mindset, which in turn can facilitate positive mental health. Therefore, this project offers strong evidence concerning the potential benefit of sports participation in secondary school at a critical stage of students’ education, and it would be significant for schools to continue to promote sports participation among later year groups (i.e., Year 10 and 11).

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