Alex Paske on instilling confidence in young people

The Mintridge Founder and winner of last years Sportswomen of the Year award has been sharing her story with The Times.

How it feels to… give kids hope through sport

Something happens to girls when they become teenagers: their sports attendance goes off a cliff edge. Suddenly they don’t want to get hot and sweaty. They worry about how they look, rather than how many goals they’re scoring. They become scared of failure, or of looking “silly”. And they worry about bulking up and not looking like the thin women they see on social media.

I run a charity, Mintridge, that sends professional athletes into schools to mentor young people aged between four and 18. They give pupils someone they can look up to, who can tell them it’s fine to look blotchy when they’re running, that failure is a part of success and that, if they are struggling, things can get better.

One of the most emotional responses we’ve had was from a parent of a teenage girl. Her daughter was so concerned about being thin that she was eating only soup — her mum just didn’t know what to do. Then the girl had a mentoring session with the England netball player Eboni Usoro-Brown. Afterwards she got in the car and said to her mum: “I want to be strong and I want to have thighs like Eboni’s.”

I started Mintridge four years ago because I needed help myself as a teenager. I was a committed hockey player, but missed out on getting into the England team at the final stage. I had a huge crash of confidence and felt my identity was under threat. I really struggled with what I perceived as failure. All I needed was someone to tell me that I deserved to be there.

Voting is open for The Sunday Times Sportswomen of the Year Awards 2019 in association with Vitality; sportswomenoftheyear.co.uk/vote. Find out how you can support Mintridge at mintridgefoundation.org.uk

Mintridge provides different packages — we’re able to tailor the ambassador to the school’s needs. If a school is in a less-privileged area, there is often a problem with aspiration. We’ll send in an athlete who says, I’m from the same area, I had the same opportunities, same background, same hardships, and look where I am. And it works.

The most effective package we offer is one-on-one mentoring. A sports star will visit the school for a coaching session and, with the help of the teachers, choose two students to mentor. They might pick a pupil who struggles with confidence, who finds it difficult to engage with schoolwork or who has a unique sporting talent that deserves nurturing.

For the next six months, the student speaks to their mentor on Skype every other week. The session lasts about half an hour and covers everything from self-esteem in the classroom to difficult friendships to attending new sports clubs. It is a very unusual relationship. The kids can see the athletes on the telly, which makes them feel special — someone important is giving up their time for them. They are also not a teacher or a parent, but they are an adult, like a sort of “older cousin” figure. Advice from them sinks in in a different way. Kids really respect them and listen.

We were asked to go into a primary school where two sisters had been left paralysed after a car crash. They were seven and 10 years old. The school couldn’t afford equipment to deliver parasports and the teachers didn’t have the training. The girls were able to join in sports sessions, but they had to have one-on-one support, so they felt left out — their confidence took a huge knock.

We got funding to provide wheelchair basketball for all the kids in the school, and for the first time everyone was on a level playing field. The younger sister was especially loving it. She was racing around, hot, sweaty, working really hard. The teacher turned to me and said: “That’s the first time we’ve seen her smile in two years.”

The girls then had one-on-one Skype mentoring with Jordan Jarrett-Bryan, a wheelchair basketball champion. He was delivering the same messages as teachers and parents, but this was an athlete taking time out of his day to talk to them — he might Skype them from the side of a training court. It resulted in a huge boost to their confidence.

We had another seven-year-old girl who was really shy. She was selected by Lizzie Simmonds, a Team GB Olympic swimmer, and was completely bewildered by it. She couldn’t get her head around the fact she had been picked. For the first few Skype calls, she couldn’t even look at Lizzie. She had to look at her mum and her mum had to ask the questions.

By the end of the course, she came prepared to each call with lots of questions and her mum was just in the background. She had the confidence to say what she thought, rather than being frightened of looking foolish.

What I love more than anything is the athletes’ honesty. They share their anxieties, insecurities and failures, and it reassures young people. Seeing the athletes in their classroom, on Skype calls and then on TV makes the whole thing so much more human.

They also tell students that it’s OK not to look perfect. We are noticing the huge influence of social media in the classroom. Young people are completely tied to Instagram and Snapchat — looking at it, filming with it, making sure there are filters on photos before they are posted, checking the results, deleting them, taking another one.

It is even affecting the way they are communicating with the mentors. On a couple of occasions we’ve been into a school and had only a few questions at the end of the session. But afterwards the ambassador will get loads of private messages via social media, which they can’t respond to for safeguarding reasons. That’s how young people feel confident to communicate. It’s so sad — they have this Olympian standing in front of them, and they can only talk to them through Instagram.

The way our athletes present themselves on social media is important. We are very particular about who we choose — they must have an authentic Instagram page, rather than lots of “influencer” type photos. We want them to be real human beings — athletes first, who are known for their sporting achievements, rather than as models.

Winning The Sunday Times Sportswoman of the Year Grassroots Award has changed everything for us, and we are so excited to be a new media partner. We are a small organisation, with just two of us in the office, and so it has given us much more weight. People know we are making a difference.

Mentoring is a sort of therapy for young people who are lacking in confidence, who might feel a bit invisible at school, who are unused to being heard by a grown-up who is not their parent. The sports sessions that work the best for us are the niche ones, like archery, wheelchair basketball, canoeing, the sports not usually provided in schools. It means the kids who are not typically “sporty” can succeed.

Professional footballers are brilliant figures to look up to, but we need to see a wider range of athletes on billboards, on television and in classrooms. In a world of Kardashian culture, diet teas and perfect make-up, young people need sporting role models more than ever.

Sunday Times Article by Megan Agnew