Sport Mirrors Life

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By Malcolm Rae, Former Joint Lead of the National Institute of Mental Health England (NIMHE)

Sport mirrors life and its dramas and also mental health – its unpredictable outcomes, the plummeting of emotions and morale, and its uplifting experiences. Sport offers important messages for those involved in health and social care, on how we motivate, organise and conduct ourselves, and those who look to us for leadership, inspiration and support.

We can learn from sport how best to cope with pressures and get the best out of ourselves and others who may have tired minds, or may be stale, feel flat or lack confidence. We can appraise and emulate the way coaches apply psychology and different motivational techniques to support and encourage their protégés or teams, to create enthusiasm, stimulate internal drivers, and achieve goals and ambitions. We can learn from sportsmen and women how they handle failure and disappointment and use it as a spur for achievement. We can also learn from them the crucial difference between obsession and focus.

Sport also offers many ideas and approaches for us to adapt for therapeutic purposes, motivation and social inclusion opportunities for service users.

Positive association with sport can also help with health promotion initiatives, exercise, diet and nutrition, esteem and lifestyle, thus reducing stigma and overcoming adversity barriers. Nelson Mandela said, ‘Sport speaks many languages.

We can follow the example of Owen Luck, a young staff nurse from Oxleas Trust, who, together with service users wrote to a number of football clubs requesting football shirts and autographs to adorn and brighten up the ward.

We can also learn from sport by adapting techniques of visualisation and scenario planning, to prepare individuals for situations, or explore possible uncertainties or ambiguities, and improve an individual’s thinking style, skills, and management.

Successful working with patients requires shared decision-making, team learning and leadership, which correlate with the approaches of enlightened coaches from the world of sport.

Star Wards not only challenges us as individuals and service providers to raise the bar and perform better, but provides us with a coaching manual with a range of ideas, examples and suggestions to think about and action, which can be a springboard for improvement and positive results.

The Star Wards publications provide us with a range of initiatives and a menu of choices, which in itself provides a sense of optimism and hope at what can be achieved. Success in any sphere can lead to the raising of spirits, feelings of well-being, and can prompt pride.

If we cannot be world champions we should aim to be best in our field or league in our own region or area. ‘Successful people don’t always have the best of everything, but make the best of what they have.’

Star Wards must be owned and acted upon at all levels locally. As a start, the 75 Ideas should be discussed at ward meetings and in one-to-one discussion between service users and their key worker. Principles of good practice require service users to set the agenda.

Managers should take the lead and have therapeutic engagement on their radar screens and leadership dashboards, and avoid acceptance of mediocrity. ‘If better is possible, good is not enough.’ Managers must lead, drive, support, monitor, evaluate and deliver positive engagement activities. Managers and leaders must empower front line staff to work, learn and think differently, and give them the space, time and opportunity to put into practice the ideas in the Star Wards project, and help staff to deliver what matters to service users.

Managers therefore, should examine, perhaps by audit, the present position, taking account of incidents and complaints arising from boredom or frustration. In addition, hard-pressed frontline staff should receive support from experienced clinicians and academic staff, who should be expected to undertake sessional work in a range of creative ways, and role-model good practice in helping frontline staff in meeting both the basic and complex needs of individuals. Senior clinicians and educators should be expected to help to innovate, see new possibilities, and assist staff in shaking loose from traditional approaches.

Jean Claude Killy the former world champion skier said, ‘The best and fastest way to learn a sport is to watch and imitate a champion’. In recent times, Acute Services have often been the target of criticism, despite the commitment of many outstanding mental health professionals to improve the experiences of service users. Service users and staff alike have often been let down by the absence of appropriate resources and systems. It seems to me that any spectator can criticise the players, however, it takes skill and dedication to play the game.

‘A word or demonstration of encouragement can make the difference between giving up and going on.’

Star Wards substantially adds to the guidance and support available to ward staff and enables them to make better use of existing resources and the latent skills and talents of ward teams.


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