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Study Reveals Key Moderators in Sport-Based Mental Health Programme for Adolescent Boys

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Researchers from the Universities of Wollongong, Washington, and Southern Cross University recently conducted a study to better understand the efficacy of the “Ahead of the Game” (AOTG) sport-based mental health literacy and resilience programme for adolescent boys. The study, published in the Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, examines the potential moderators and mediators of the intervention’s effects, highlighting the programme’s significant impact across different demographic groups and psychological conditions.

AOTG is a psychoeducational initiative that uses sports as a medium to promote mental health and resilience among young men. The programme includes two main components: “Help Out a Mate”, which focuses on mental health literacy and help-seeking behaviour, and “Your Path to Success in Sport”, which aims to build resilience through a series of workshops and online modules. These components are delivered within community-based sports clubs, leveraging the familiar and supportive environment of team sports to address mental health issues.

The study involved a secondary analysis of data from a randomised controlled trial conducted in 2017, which included 350 participants in the intervention group and 466 in the control group. Participants were adolescent males aged 12–18 from various sports clubs in Australia. The researchers conducted moderation analyses to examine whether age, socioeconomic status, and baseline mental health measures influenced the programme’s effectiveness. Additionally, mediation analyses were performed to explore whether changes in psychological distress and wellbeing were mediated by changes in resilience and implicit beliefs.

The study’s findings reveal several important insights. Socioeconomic status significantly moderated the effects of the AOTG programme. Athletes from lower socioeconomic backgrounds experienced greater reductions in psychological distress, highlighting the program’s potential to benefit those who are often more vulnerable to mental health issues due to economic disadvantages.

Participants with lower levels of baseline help-seeking intentions showed stronger improvements in both resilience and mental health literacy. This suggests that the programme is particularly effective for those who initially demonstrate a reluctance to seek help, addressing a critical barrier in adolescent male mental health.

The program’s impact on wellbeing was more pronounced among participants with higher levels of baseline psychological distress. This indicates that AOTG can provide significant benefits for those already experiencing considerable mental health challenges, helping them move towards flourishing by improving both their resilience and overall wellbeing.

Interestingly, the study found that age did not significantly moderate the program’s effects, suggesting that AOTG is equally effective across the 12–18 age range. This broad applicability makes the programme a versatile tool for mental health promotion among adolescent males.

The mediation analyses revealed that increases in resilience partially mediated the positive effects on psychological distress and wellbeing. Similarly, reductions in implicit beliefs about the malleability of mental health also played a role in decreasing psychological distress. These findings underscore the importance of targeting resilience and beliefs about mental health in interventions aimed at reducing distress and enhancing wellbeing.

The results of this study have significant implications for the design and implementation of mental health programmes for adolescents. By demonstrating that AOTG is particularly effective for those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds and those with higher initial levels of distress, the study suggests that such programmes can be strategically targeted to maximise their impact. Moreover, the finding that resilience and implicit beliefs are key mechanisms of change provides a clear direction for future interventions to focus on enhancing these aspects to improve mental health outcomes.

The study also highlights the potential for sport-based programmes to create a supportive environment that encourages help-seeking and reduces stigma associated with mental health issues. Given the widespread participation in sports among adolescent males, programmes like AOTG can be a valuable component of broader mental health promotion strategies.

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