Using sports psychology to prevent and cope with homelessness

Elite athletes use psychological techniques to prepare themselves mentally for great physical challenges. Researchers at the University have adapted these mental skills to help young people find the strength to work their way out of homelessness and aims to prevent those most at risk.

From the pitch to those in urgent need

Professor Jennifer Cumming and a team of researchers at the School of Sport, Exercise and Rehabilitation Sciences originally adapted the sports psychology techniques and mental skills training used by top athletes when a parent at a local football club, who worked for youth homelessness charity St Basils, spotted the potential. The University and St Basils teamed up to co-create a dedicated programme, My Strengths Training for Life (MST4Life™), to help young people facing the enormous difficulties of homelessness.

Jean Templeton, Chief Executive of St Basils, recognises how being homeless can create a sense of hopelessness: 'The stereotypes of homelessness can all too quickly attach themselves to young people and trap them. A focus only on need, risks and problems can overshadow young people's talents, strengths and ambition.' Young adults are among those affected, and the fallout of the pandemic means the numbers are on the rise.

Watch Birmingham researchers Dr Mary Quinton and Ben Parry explain how MST4Life™ is making a positive change to youth homelessness.

How mental skills training for homelessness works

Helping young people identify their strengths, rather than focusing on what they lack, can break down negative self-perceptions and help build up self-esteem, perseverance and resilience.

The MST4Life™ toolkit, the first of its kind, is designed to rebuild confidence and self-belief through six mental skills:

  1. Strengths profile: what am I good at? What extra skills do I need to get where I want to go?
  2. Goal-setting: what SMART goals can I set for my habits, education, employment and relationships and how can I get there?
  3. If/Then: how can I use my strengths to be resilient in the face of setbacks? 'If X happens, then I will do Y'.
  4. Emotional awareness grid: how can I manage my emotions healthily during such a difficult time?
  5. What coping strategies will help me manage problems both practically and emotionally?
  6. Dream team: who can I reach out to as a role model, supporter or advisor?

Participants on the four day residential trip at Coniston Water in the Lake District

Project participants on the four-day residential trip at Coniston Water in the Lake District. Photo credit: Dr Mark Holland.

Can psychology really help people out of homelessness?

I've noticed that I've been controlling my emotions by encouraging myself more and thinking positively instead of being negative. I can face challenges now that I didn't think I could face before.

An MST4Life™ participant

MST4Life™ is designed for those already working with young people, such as St Basils. The charity has used it to support over 600 homeless young people alongside their core services and employability programmes.

The programme has contributed to a 27% reduction in Birmingham's youth homelessness and has saved over £800,000 that would otherwise have been needed to support these young people.

Preventing those most at risk from becoming homeless

The pandemic has put additional strain on fractured family relationships, leaving many more young people experiencing homelessness, with national youth homelessness helplines reporting a doubling in calls during lockdowns. The Cook and Wolstenholme Charitable Trust has stepped in with a donation of £74,000 to help more charities use MST4Life™ to prevent homelessness. A trustee said: 'We wanted to make a positive impact on the lives of young people across the city. We were inspired by the work the University's youth mental health researchers are doing in collaboration with charities like St Basils, helping the most vulnerable not only cope with homelessness but reduce their risk of becoming homeless.'

Professor Jennifer Cumming, leader of the Birmingham team who co-created the programme, says: 'MST4Life™ is very scalable – the more funding it receives, the more people charities can reach. This gift will help us continue supporting St Basils, and help the growing number of similar charities who want our help to adopt the MST4Life™ toolkit, whose aims are to prevent youth homelessness; equipping vulnerable young people with key skills to be independent.'

You can help support MST4Life™ and improve the lives of more young people at risk of homelessness. The programme involves ten sessions, including an outdoor residential trip, and £1,500 could fund one young person to attend. Find out more by getting in touch or visit our website to find out more about our work around youth mental health.