ORF Blog Post: Uniting the Pros in Sport and Mental Health to Support Forcibly Displaced Youth

ORF Blog Post: Uniting the Pros in Sport and Mental Health to Support Forcibly Displaced Youth

If you work in sport for youth development or run programs for youth in forced displacement situations and humanitarian contexts, chances are your program comes with a dose of mental health and psychosocial support (MHPSS). Coaches or group facilitators might be providing important mental health support without realizing it. According to the Olympic Refuge Foundation (ORF), “The role of safe sport as a tool to support young people affected by displacement to belong and thrive is not widely understood or sufficiently utilized,” ORF Annual Report, 2021.

There is an abundance of innovative sports programs to address factors impacting mental health and well-being. Programs use interventions that include individual and team sports (such as football/soccer, volleyball, skateboarding, climbing, boxing), and other forms of physical activity (games, dance, circus arts, martial arts, etc.). Nevertheless, good practices in this field are not often documented or actively promoted, so that others can use the learnings. As a result, many coaches or facilitators do not deliberately utilize sports activities to support the mental health needs of their participants. Likewise, mental health professionals may not be aware of evidence or methods for using sport to promote positive mental health and strengthen social bonds. Due to these knowledge and awareness gaps, we risk missing powerful opportunities to improve mental health and psychosocial well-being for millions of young people experiencing forced displacement due to climate, war, economic migration or other security challenges. 

Figure: Intervention pyramid for mental health and psychosocial support in emergencies (IASC, 2021, p.6).

Children are disproportionately affected by forced displacement. UNHCR’s Global Trends Report 2021 revealed that “Children account for 30 per cent of the world’s population, but 41 per cent of all forcibly displaced people.” To help meet this need, the Olympic Refuge Foundation has a goal of giving access to safe sport to one million young people affected by displacement by 2024. The organization supports the protection, inclusion and empowerment of young people affected by displacement (this includes displaced people and their host communities).

Early in 2022, the Olympic Refuge Foundation Think Tank mapped high quality tools and good practices in sport and MHPSS aiming to make these more accessible to program designers, coaches, counselors, monitoring and evaluation specialists and community members. Quality approaches using sport and physical activity range from specialized and clinical interventions to community-based activities (see pyramid). With the assumption that this wealth of knowledge exists but is perhaps siloed and not widely shared, the group set out to track down helpful tools and good practices. By the end of the research project the ORF had categorized over 130 tools and good practice guidelines, and created a roadmap to make these widely accessible, especially for young people affected by displacement and those living and working in the Global South. 

The group discovered a number of barriers to accessing these resources: 

  • most are in English
  • many are in a long-form PDF
  • most are not localized for specific contexts 
  • they may be buried in online archives and hard to find 
  • some resources use a variety of terms such as peacebuilding, belonging, or wellness that some practitioners might not associate with mental health
  • intimidating length and academic language of some tools 

The Olympic Refuge Foundation is addressing some of these barriers by sharing the resources in an accessible database (to be made public on November 3rd), and supporting the use of these resources in the field for coaches and program designers. The hope is to discuss approaches and share promising practices more widely across the fields of sport and MHPSS for young people affected by displacement. “We hope that by setting up these knowledge sharing spaces we can help address gaps in understanding for both of these fields and improve the quality of programs all around,” says Kathleen Latimer, Impact Manager for the Olympic Refuge Foundation.

Edwin Wasonga, Programs Director with the Mathare Youth Sports Association, Kenya, one of the first football for development organizations, was interviewed for the mapping project. Mathare is a community in Nairobi that historically has received many displaced and disenfranchised persons, especially from rural areas. Edwin envisions a platform where people can share experiences through video calls, “rather than just sharing documents that people might not read.” He says this should be a place where coaches from different organizations and nationalities can share experiences and put them into practice right away. He believes this would make it easier to connect and relate. “The context might be different but issues might be similar,” he says.

View the Database of Resources & Tools:

To build on this vision, you are invited to a public online event on November 3rd at 1pm UTC to learn more about tools for combining sport and MHPSS and how these good practices can be used to improve the lives of  young people affected by displacement. Watch the recording of the webinar here.


The Olympic Refuge Foundation was founded by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in 2017. The vision of the ORF is a society where everyone belongs, through sport.

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