The Benefits of a Mental Health Integrated Sports Program for Young Men

A community rugby league program has been found to improve mental health and behavioural outcomes in young men, according to new research supported by Australian Rotary Health (ARH).

Professor Allison Waters and a team of youth mental health experts at Griffith University developed a mental health and wellbeing system called ‘Life-Fit-Learning’, which was integrated into the RISE program – a National Rugby League (NRL) development program for boys aged between 12 and 15.

Professor Waters received a grant from ARH to test whether participating in the integrated RISE Rugby League Development Program is more effective in enhancing mental health resilience outcomes, compared to when participating in regular grassroots rugby league.

“An integrated youth development program incorporating sport skills, physical fitness, and mental health is a positive way to influence youth mental health and wellbeing,” Prof. Waters said.

“We can reach large numbers of young Australians through integrated sports programs.”

In a study of 251 rugby league players, young men who were in the RISE program were found to express more gratitude compared to the regular rugby league group. Self-satisfaction also remained stable for the RISE group players but decreased significantly in comparison group players.

When examining players who had a higher risk of developing mental health problems, anxiety symptoms were found to significantly improve at the end of the program for participants in both groups. Depression and behavioural problems were also found to improve significantly for the RISE group, but not the comparison group.

Additionally, in participants who were in a healthy mental health range, the RISE program appeared to prevent increases in behavioural problems.

“These results underscore the value of integrating strengths-based interventions and targeting youth mental health problems within the context of junior sports development programs,” Prof Waters said.

“Our program is the first to our knowledge to implement a tailored model of care whereby all young people receive the wellbeing program, and youth at risk for mental health problems receive additional tailored care and support.”

This year the RISE program was upscaled and delivered in more than 42 metropolitan areas and regional locations across Australia. Prof Waters and her team are in the process of analysing the data of more than 3,100 players.

“Overall, the initial funding from Australian Rotary Health has led to significant and large-scale upscaling and growth of the program,” she said.

“It will now be maintained within the NRL youth development framework for 12-15 year olds, has expanded to female players, and will be upscaled to 16-18 year olds in 2023. We thank ARH for the support which has made this incredible achievement possible.”

These findings were recently published in the journal Behaviour Research & Therapy. Read the full article here.

Media contact: Jessica Cooper –

Photo credit: Play Rugby League website

First published 28th November, 2022

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