A role for sport in men’s mental health

Sport can play a crucial role in challenging stereotypes and promoting positive mental health for boys and young men, new research has concluded.

“Suicide is the leading cause of death for people aged 15-25 and the majority are male, so it’s vital we find a way to support young men’s mental health especially during the transition period between adolescence ad adulthood,” says lead author Professor Murray Drummond, Director of the Flinders University’s SHAPE Research Centre and a member of the Flinders Institute for Mental Health and Wellbeing (Órama).

“For many boys, sport is a significant part of their life and often the only ‘safe space’ where they can receive positive socialisation and engagement, so it’s logical it can play a substantial role in protective mental health.

“Our research set out to provide insights into how we can create safe spaces for males and influence positive forms of masculinities that can enhance mental health promotion.”

Professor Murray Drummond

The study, published in the journal BMC Public Health, surveyed young males playing either cricket or Australian Rules Football. The participants were then interviewed to gain a deeper understanding of the responses received in the survey and to examine the role of sport in their lives and their mental wellbeing.

The results showed that players, parents and key stakeholders within the sporting club viewed the environment as being an important place to shape young men’s positive mental health attitudes.

“We identified a number of positive elements to playing for a sporting club, including having like-minded friends, as a release from the stressors of school, and the ability to engage with other males irrespective of age or demographic,” says Professor Drummond.

“As clubs bring together different ages they are able to provide positive role models for the younger players, with strategic leadership and mentoring key to developing respectful relationships and positively shaping the young men’s identities. Our study found greater club support was significantly associated with more egalitarian views.”

Communication was also seen as a crucial to the young men’s path through sport, with open and honest discussions critical to stave off issues associated with poor self-esteem and potentially dropping out of the sport.

While only representative of two sports, the authors say the research shows that sporting clubs can be important support networks for young men and provide for both physical and mental health.

“Sport offers the ideal space in which to create a nurturing environment while challenging stereotypical norms, important when most of the popular sports in Australia, including Aussie rules, cricket and rugby, have previously been seen to be sites of hyper masculinity,” says Professor Drummond.

“Clubs are crucial to changing young males’ attitudes and behaviours for positive mental health outcomes, with the benefits of socialisation for mental health also not to be underestimated.

“We know so many young men will likely pass through a sporting club at some point in their life – we need to be engaging sporting clubs to ensure they can become an important vehicle for change under the right conditions.”

‘Level playing field: young males, masculinity and mental wellbeing through sport’ by Murray Drummond, Ben Wadham, Ivanka Prichard, Sam Elliott, Claire Drummond & Sarah Crossman is published in the journal BMC Public Health. DOI: 10.1186/s12889-022-13200-1.

The research was funded by a Breakthrough Mental Health Research Foundation Grant and Flinders Foundation Research grant. A larger-scale study is now underway thanks to funding from the Freemasons Centre for Male Health and Wellbeing.

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College of Education, Psychology and Social Work Flinders University Institute for Mental Health and Wellbeing Sport, Health, Activity, Performance and Exercise Research Centre