How sports psychology is used to help young homeless people in Birmingham

Vulnerable young people in Birmingham are training through a pioneering course inspired by the work of footballers and cricketers. The team behind it told The Big Issue why focusing on strengths makes all the difference

Athletes are taught to recognise their own strengths and use them to perform well under pressure. But not everyone benefiting from sports psychology is gearing up for a medal – the same methods are being used to help the homeless young people of Birmingham get back on their feet.

Academics have combined forces with frontline workers to create the unique programme My Strengths Training for Life (MST4Life). It all started in 2013, when the university’s sports psychologists began working with academy players at a local football club. “It just so happened that one of the parents worked for St Basil’s,” says team lead Dr Jennifer Cumming on how the youth homelessness charity and Birmingham’s School of Sport, Exercise and Rehabilitation crossed paths. That parent thought these techniques could go some way to helping young homeless people build self-confidence and work towards their goals. Some discussion and a consultation project later, both bodies decided to team up to target hard-to-reach 16 to 24 year olds, often classed as NEET (not in education, employment or training).

MST4Life

Fully rolled out in 2014, MST4Life has since changed the game for nearly 600 young people. The hands-on programme brings in young people for ten sessions through the housing service or within the local community. It’s all about identifying their mental skills and applying them to solve problems – something many people don’t have confidence in their ability to do.

“One session involves going to the library in Birmingham to do a scavenger hunt, solving clues and having to work together in small groups,” Cumming tells The Big Issue. “It encourages them to communicate between themselves, to ask for help from strangers, and to manage their frustration when things get difficult.” The programme gradually ups the ante over the sessions until phase two of MST4Life when the group go on a four-day outdoor residential course in the Lake District.

“They get to use all their mental skills in a new situation on very real-life activities,” says Cumming. “Like raft building. If you don’t put your raft together you’re going to end up in the water! If we go to the outdoor excursion centre, a four-hour walk up to the second-highest peak in the lake district, what mental skills will help you get up there and down again?”

She adds: “It’s a transformational opportunity for them. You can see the confidence boost they get from it.”

The programme is built on a strengths-based ethos, meaning it focuses less on a person’s faults and more on what they have to offer and where they want to be further down the line. The evidence suggests that this approach helps young people navigate everything from new social situations to writing job applications more effectively than they might have been able to before completing MST4Life. It’s not an easy thing to pull off, Cumming says. “Our natural instinct is to go ‘I’ll help this person, give them advice’ and so on. It so quickly becomes you doing something for a person. Here we’re trying to equip them with the skills to do it themselves.”

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All they learn is then applied to the background support the young people receive from St Basil’s, help spanning from education to employment.

There are, unsurprisingly, a few differences between MST4Life and the football, rugby union and cricket environments the programme was originally designed to work for. Sport activities as the main focus was dismissed early on after young people said they didn’t think it would engage everyone regardless of background. (“It makes sense,” Cumming says. “We even have babies crawling around some sessions because we work with young mums. It wouldn’t work!”)

But there are similarities too. Sporting analogies still make an appearance, with participants encouraged to decide who is the ‘team manager’ or ‘supporter’ in their lives in a bid to identify their support network.

And athletes do make an appearance. “Young people getting help from St Basil’s have done sessions with cricket academy players, for example,” Cumming explains. “No matter who you are, it’s about helping you to maximise your potential. There’s a really positive message around that.”

MST4Life

Now, the MST4Life team is launching a toolkit based on six years of learning from the programme. Together with dozens of people from across the sector, they set out to design a toolkit which enables other organisations to use the sports psychology tools in a way that fits their needs. It makes the programme sustainable, Cumming says – many had said they wanted to implement MST4Life for the young people in their area but resources and opportunities vary wildly place to place, making it difficult for Cumming and the team to carry out for them.

The evidence speaks for itself. Studies into the programme showed it increased the likelihood a young person would move into work or training, and out of homelessness into independent accommodation, by as much as 30 per cent.

“So many young people have told us that in the past they’ve experienced different kinds of programmes they failed at, that it often wasn’t right for them, but there’s something really different about this one,” Cumming says. “It has allowed some people to really flourish – not just in terms of high outcomes like moving into education, work and training, but actually making substantial changes in their lives. Whether it’s just deciding to exercise more, eating differently, having more of a routine, being able to reach out to people when they have difficulty. These things might seem quite small but they’ve actually had quite a major impact on lots of young people.”

The MST4Life toolkit is available for free online now.