Onboard Skatepark: Using extreme sports as a tool for positive mental health

Onboard Skatepark in Sheffield is an award-winning, not-for-profit organisation and a member of StreetGames’ Yorkshire & Humber network. Established in 2012 by Amy Cooper and Jan Hulley as a legacy to Amy’s father and Jan’s husband Mick, it was designed as a safe and challenging environment for young people to practice extreme sports. Since then, it has grown into a thriving multi-sport activity hub offering a range of activities including BMX, scooter, skate and parkour.

At the core of Onboard’s offer is an unwavering dedication to improving young lives through extreme sport. In addition to offering evening and weekend sessions and scooter, BMX and skate lessons, the Onboard team have developed an extensive education programme, working with some of the most vulnerable and underserved young people in Sheffield and surrounding areas. This includes alternative education provision, using extreme sports to build young people’s emotional resilience and regulation whilst also embedding core maths and English skills, and a one-to-one befriending programme providing bespoke emotional and physical support for the most vulnerable young people, who are often facing lengthy delays for mental health treatment.

Onboard’s approach to supporting young people with their mental health is multi-faceted; participants in their alternative education provision take part in structured PSHE activities to develop coping strategies and are encouraged to take openly about their feelings and any challenges with their learning mentors, but also benefit significantly from simply participating in the physical activity on offer – as Joey, learning mentor and senior leadership team member, explains: “Sometimes what we’re providing here is more of a mindfulness activity and giving them something to anchor themselves to, like, ‘I can focus on this, I’m focusing on riding a bike, I’m not thinking about what’s troubling me right now, I can just be present and I can just work on this and I can feel like I’ve achieved something’. If they want to talk to us about their stuff, they have the space for that, they’ve got the room to do so, and some of them will, but as much as anything, if they come down, and they just have a good few hours in their day, that has significant value.”

Storm, 18, is a former participant at Onboard who now volunteers with the organisation once a week, supporting and mentoring young people. He is also now a sponsored BMX rider and a role model for many of the current cohort of participants. Storm agrees that the sport on offer at Onboard is a value mental health support tool in itself: “BMX frees my mind, allows me to be at one with my mind – it’s an amazing feeling.” Onboard has had a clear impact on Storm’s future aspirations; having built a series of ramps in his own garden, he is now keen to be a landscape gardener specialising in creating ramps and pump tracks for others to enjoy at home.

In addition to the sports offer at Onboard, staff and participants alike credit the community feel as another protective factor for young people’s mental health. Kyle, 15, attends the education provision at Onboard once a week and is currently working on his level 2 BMX skills. Describing himself as someone who “can’t sit still”, it was the extreme sports activities and opportunity to let off steam that initially appealed about the programme – but he has since come to appreciate the social aspect of Onboard’s offer as equally valuable for his mental wellbeing: “I can be myself. It’s caring. It’s basically like a family here.” Co-founder Amy agrees: “We’re so fortunate in the sense that the young people love being here – they love the staff, the connections are amazing, they feel comfortable to share.”

StreetGames are proud to work with Onboard to provide support and funding for their invaluable work, with Yorkshire & Humber fieldworker Kendle Hardisty full of praise for their programmes: “We see time and time again the incredible impact that sport and physical activity can have on young people’s mental wellbeing, and Onboard’s approach is really maximising that potential for underserved young people in Sheffield. They are definitely more than just a skatepark, they are a sanctuary for young people and a beacon of light in the community.”

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