The Role of Sport in Youth Mental Wellbeing

In recognition of Mental Health Awareness Month Wil Snape-Rogers, Executive Director, and Danielle Hundt, Chief Program Officer, of Play Rugby USA join Vito Sperduto to discuss how they are using the power of sport to help young people flourish—both mentally and physically.

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By Vito Sperduto, Danielle Hundt & Wil Snape-Rogers
Published June 4, 2024 | 26 min read

Key Points

  • Play Rugby wants to have a deep impact on every young person they interact with and provide them with tools and resources to reach their potential, whatever that may be.
  • At the core of everything Play Rugby does is a connection between a young person and a trusted adult, particularly one that is outside of their family unit.
  • Play Rugby looks at rugby as the tool and the hook to teach the young people in the program the skills that they need to be successful at home, at school, in the community, and in their future jobs.
  • They work to create a safe space on the field where young people can bring everything that they’re experiencing with them.

In response to the increasing significance of youth mental wellbeing and the COVID-19 pandemic, how have youth-focused nonprofits such as Play Rugby modified their programming to tackle the challenges faced by young individuals today?

Wil Snape-Rogers: Play Rugby was a 15-year-old sports-based youth development organization that worked primarily with public and the charter schools across the country. We introduced over 20,000 young people to the sport and then we had the pandemic. When isolation was a real issue, we gave the young people in our program a reason to come together. And I think during that time, we really saw that impact of both the connection with peers and the connection with our coaches on mental health.

“The philosophical shift for us was to make sure that we have a deep impact on every young person we interact with and provide them with tools and resources to reach their potential, whatever that may be.”

Wil Snape-Rogers, Executive Director, Play Rugby USA

What is the focus for Play Rugby’s programming today in terms of supporting overall health and wellbeing?

Danielle Hundt: We are really focusing on and shifting toward what we call direct service. What that means in the programming world is that our Play Rugby coaches, who we call youth development mentors, deliver the bulk of our programming. At the core of everything we do is a connection between a young person and a trusted adult, particularly one that is outside of their family unit. But that vital connection is one of the greatest indicators of future thriving.

We look at rugby as the tool and the hook to teach the young people in our program the skills that they need to be successful at home, at school, in the community, and in their future jobs. Skills such as confidence, teamwork, academic attainment, and the belief in oneself to achieve. Everything we do on the field is really driving toward making sure our mentors always keep that connection and that focus on success at the core of their work.

How does Play Rugby support its coaches and provide them with the necessary tools to effectively help young people?

Snape-Rogers: The training and support that we give our coaches and youth development mentors is pretty intensive. Everyone that comes onto the team goes through training around positive youth development. We have external partners that support some of that training and continual internal training.

It's also really important for us to be culturally responsive to the needs of our students. So, we have a lot of feedback loops that let us be responsive to what the students need and we then apply training and resources to help our coaches meet them.

In what ways is Play Rugby addressing the stigma surrounding youth mental health to promote a safe environment for students to seek help and talk about it?

Hundt: Everything we’re doing is working towards creating a safe space on the field where the young people in our program can bring everything that they’re experiencing with them. This isn’t a check your emotions and your life at the door, because we’re only focused on rugby. We encourage the young people in our program to bring their whole selves with them every day and create a space where that’s accepted.

“Everything we’re doing is working towards creating a safe space on the field where the young people in our program can bring everything that they’re experiencing with them.”

Danielle Hundt, Chief Program Officer, Play Rugby USA

How does physical health and activity positively impact young people’s mental states?

Snape-Rogers: We all know that when we do any kind of exercise, there is an endorphin that we get from that. I think there’s a direct correlation between mental health and feeling good about oneself and physical activity. I would say particularly in team sports, it’s also about your peers, the community, and the connections you have around you. It’s hard to feel alone when you’re on a team. That’s a really important part of our program. The fact that you have a network of peers and coaches that supports you that has a direct impact on your mental health.

How has Play Rugby’s emphasis on youth development affected the mental wellbeing outcomes for the young people you assist?

Hundt: I think young people are facing levels of anxiety and depression at a rate that we haven’t seen, at least as long as I’ve been on this earth. Sport has been proven time and time again to help combat that, particularly sports with a focus on youth development where it’s not a win at all cost mentality.

We’re focusing on the development of each individual young person and the kids in our program experience better mental health. Not only are they off their screens and have teammates and people who care about them, they’re also being put in an environment where they’re given the space and the freedom to express themselves, to achieve, to fail, and to try again and again.

The potential is inside each and every person. When we look at the young people we serve, in the Bronx and in Harlem, the systemic challenges that they’re facing are getting in the way of that potential coming out. So, we’re trying to create an environment where they can shine and where they can thrive.

About Play Rugby USA

Play Rugby USA is a nonprofit organization dedicated to using the power of rugby to inspire and empower young people. Its mission is to create a lasting impact on the lives of underserved youth by promoting physical fitness, teamwork, and personal development through rugby. By providing after-school programs, training, and support, Play Rugby USA aims to foster a sense of community, resilience, and leadership among participants, helping them achieve success both on and off the field.

Learn more about Play Rugby

Our Expert

Vito Sperduto
Vito Sperduto
Head, RBC Capital Markets U.S

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