Charlie* was just 15 when a crunching rugby tackle put him out of the game and off his feet for almost two months with several broken bones in his foot. After years of training six times a week, Charlie found himself at home on the sofa, unable to move, alone with his thoughts.
When we spoke, Charlie was insightful about the injury’s impact on his mental health. He described his frustration at his loss of independence, his loneliness after being separated from his friends and teammates, and his worries about losing his place on the team. Rugby, he said, was a huge part of his life – and he missed it.
Charlie was one of many young people who I listened to as part of a recent research collaboration with Centre for Mental Health (CMH). Together, Podium and CMH investigated the psychological and social impacts of sports injury, the support young people need to guide them back to participation and health, and the changes in sport culture they want to see. Some of their stories were inspiring – and some were shocking. All are relevant as we mark Children’s Mental Health Week 2024, which this year highlights the importance of giving young people a voice.
For every account I heard like Mila’s*, whose coach checked in with her nearly every week of the eight months she was out of karate with a back injury, I heard a story like Tom’s*, whose rugby coach told him he was over-reacting and letting the side down by taking seven weeks off with a knee injury. Mila, 16, told me she felt understood and supported by her instructor, who let her come back to training at a pace that accounted for her fear of re-injury. Meanwhile, Tom, 15, described worrying that his coach and teammates were annoyed with him, how he relied on a parent to ask for time off training and match play, and how he returned to his club feeling afraid and anxious.
Sport can offer fantastic opportunities for making friends, learning skills, helping others and simply being active.
As I listened to Charlie, Mila and Tom, I reflected on my own sons’ (mostly) happy times in football and karate and felt grateful to the parent-coaches who gave their time freely to teach them.
But my conversation with Tom showed how, in the rush to win medals and professional contracts, the quality of young people’s experiences in community and talent pathway sport can be too easily discounted by the adults around them. Young voices are too often silenced or ignored, as the recent abuse scandals in gymnastics, swimming and dance have shown. Their perspectives are still drastically under-represented in sport governance, even as organisations such as Sport England and UK Coaching are highlighting the importance of child-centred coaching for long-term participation through the Play Their Way campaign.
The young people I heard from said that if coaches, families and teammates could be given a clear plan for supporting the social and emotional consequences of time off sport through injury, others could be helped in the future. They wanted sport environments where their feelings and opinions are respected, not cultures that expect them to ‘be a man and suck up the pain’ after injury, as one young person put it.
What’s more, there is strong public support for the principle that physical and mental health problems should have equal priority in sport. Podium’s 2023 Perceptions of Safety in Sport Survey found that 71% of 16- and 17-year-olds think coaches should consider physical and mental health problems equally important among sportspeople of all ages.
With colleagues at Podium, I’ve been exploring how we can collectively start making the changes that young people would like to see. We’ve been talking with experts in sport and adolescent mental health at the UK Sports Institute, Sport Wales, and the University of Oxford, as well as representatives from the FA, the LTA and other National Governing Bodies of sport.
We want to develop resources that highlight young people’s real experiences of sports injury, to help others like Charlie feel less alone, and to give coaches and families some insight into the psychosocial and emotional challenges that children encounter when side-lined for long periods. We see a strong case for co-developing, with stakeholders, a framework that identifies common injury-related psychosocial problems, allows young people to speak up about their experiences, and provides education and training for adults and peers to support them.
Our collective ambition is that a more supportive approach to injury and timeout is a lever for shifting sport culture towards one that prioritises positive experiences and supports long-term, healthy participation. Young people like Charlie, Mila and Tom are tomorrow’s coaches: their voices matter.
Listening to them now will pay change forward to future generations.
If you are (or you know) a young person who would like to hear more about participating in Podium’s new project on peer resources, you can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. (If you are under 16, please ask permission from a parent/carer.)