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How can sport impact offenders’ psychological wellbeing?

Tennis-court-NYThe Alliance of Sport believes that every offender – and those at risk of offending – should have access to a sport-based intervention. But how can that intervention maximise its positive psychological impact?

Sport programmes such as those at HMP Lowdham Grange or HMYOI Portland have proven their potential to change behaviour and rehabilitate offenders. But no two prison sport programmes look the same and their effectiveness varies hugely across the secure estate.

Researcher Dave Woods, of Ulster University, sits on the Alliance of Sport’s Positive Action Group focusing on Research, Quality and Evidence. He has just published a review of how sport-based interventions (SBIs) impact the psychological wellbeing of people in prisons.

Dave’s study focused on the perspectives of 16 people in the UK and Europe involved in delivery, design or oversight of SBIs within prisons. He wanted to find out what worked and what didn’t in terms of having an impact on psychological welfare, then present a thematic framework to aid the future design and delivery of SBIs, linking it to current psychological theory.

DW Profile Picture June2016“From my previous research I’d found a lack of under-pinning theory in how interventions were being designed that didn’t allow for proper evaluation afterwards. My aim was to aid that process,” Dave (pictured right) tells us.

From Dave and his fellow researchers’ (Prof. David Hassan and Dr. Gavin Breslin) work, six themes for success in positively impacting psychological wellbeing emerged:

1) “Relating And Relationships” – SBIs enable prisoners to develop positive relationships with fellow inmates, external facilitators and staff, improving social ability and mobility.

2) “Sense Of Achievement” – Playing sport against teams from beyond the gate earns external recognition (proving to others they’re “not all bad”). Individual and shared achievements (trophies, certificates etc) are also important.

3) “Sporting Occasions” – The novelty of learning a new sport/activity facilitates increased listening, attention and engagement from prisoners, stretching them from their comfort zones. The sense of escapism while being active also helps their mental wellbeing.

4) “In Their Hands” – Sport gives inmates a rare sense of choice, empowerment or autonomy; for example, when trusted to organise a tournament, or given stakeholder status in choosing or suggesting activities.

5) “Facing Forward” – Vitally, the climate of longer-term sport programmes, especially those closely linked to community organisations, made prisoners more open to considering future positive life courses, equipping them with ‘life skills’, reducing transitional anxiety and making them more receptive to signposting. They can help provide an answer to the “Where now?” question on release.

6) “Creating A Life Rhythm” – Sport and activity create a structure and daily rhythm to prison life which can translate to life upon release, enabling prisoners to flourish rather than gravitate towards risk-taking behaviours.

You can download the complete review – ‘Positive collateral damage or purposeful design: how sport-based interventions impact the psychological wellbeing of people in prison” here.

P1020094This research will be a valuable addition to the Alliance’s evidence base. It will help those in the secure estate think critically about the aims, content and intended outcomes of the programmes and interventions they are designing.

“People need to understand better how opportunities made available to offenders in prison benefit the community when they’re released. It’s much better for them to be released in a positive mental state – and well-designed sporting interventions can contribute to this goal,”  Dave comments.

There is obvious crossover between Dave’s systemic review and the Alliance’s Theory of Change, which offers a framework and guidance for the Sport for Development sector, in order to achieve maximum impact in service users’ desistance from crime.

“The work of the Alliance is a very positive step in encouraging and facilitating collaborative projects to design, deliver and measure the impact of theory-based sporting interventions across the secure estate,” says Dave.

“From a research perspective, trying to establish what works, why it works and who it works best with is essential for building a robust evidence base; the energy, drive and commitment of the Alliance to making this happen is to be highly commended!”