Can Sports Help Young People Heal From Trauma?

Apr 11, 2016, 11:00 AM, Posted by David S. Cohen

A local Boston organization is using sports to transform the lives of youth suffering from trauma and its emotional aftermath.

Sport has the power to change the world...it has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sport can create hope where once there was only despair. – Nelson Mandela

When I describe the harrowing circumstances of the youth I work with to reporters, philanthropists, family and friends, they can’t believe that I’m describing the lives of young people in America.

Many of these youth have endured deeply traumatic experiences: crime, abuse, incarceration, domestic or community violence, addiction and even sexual exploitation. Often, they don’t want to talk about the issues they’ve faced—or they don’t know how to.

Yet when you put a ball in their hands, they suddenly light up!

Last year I accepted a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Sports Award on behalf of these struggling youth who participate in programs at our Boston-based organization, Doc Wayne. I shared with the audience one of the many special moments I’ve experienced doing this work. Visiting a group of boys in South Boston playing flag football, we circled up at the end of the session when one 8-year-old earnestly said to his peers, “You’ve got to have faith in yourself because if you don’t have that, what have you got?”

This is our hope for all of these young people.

Sports-based mental health interventions are transforming lives
Sport has even greater power to heal when it’s combined with evidence-based practices that help to regulate emotions and behavior. That’s why my colleagues and I have dedicated our efforts to the game-changing impact of sport-based mental health interventions. We foster a supportive environment, where clinicians, coaches and referees trained in both clinical and youth development techniques help youth work through their problems. We’ve seen that sport can be a strong complement to traditional psychotherapy when helping young people heal from trauma, manage their mental health and learn to cope.

Fusing sport with therapy is transforming the lives of our youth who’ve had so much taken away from them too early. This approach of ours builds their confidence and improves their relationships with friends, family and teachers.

We’re also starting to see that our programs foster leadership among those who otherwise would be left behind. One Doc Wayne alum, now a high school junior, required a placement at a residential treatment facility due to behavioral and emotional difficulties. He’d had run-ins with the law and struggled with depression and family relationships. He emerged, through our programs, as a quiet leader, and now he’s our youth mentor coach. Having faced similar life circumstances he’s able to impact the lives of many young people in a way that our staff cannot. He tells us he plans to graduate high school and study social justice in college. He might not have said that just a few years ago and Doc Wayne has motivated to help him achieve his goals.

We’ve woven two therapeutic models—Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) and the Attachment, Self-Regulation, and Competency, or ARC, Framework—into our specially designed sports curriculum. We offer a seasonal Therapeutic Sports Program utilizing soccer, basketball, and flag football, in which youth from residential treatment facilities, group homes, therapeutic day schools, and other alternative schools in Massachusetts participate.

Our second, rapidly growing program, helps our young people (ages 5 to 18) deal with struggles surrounding self-esteem, self-concept, anxiety, aggression, anger management, social awareness and overall effective emotion management. The program—Chalk Talk—offers group counseling through sessions which teach and promote important life skills through sports as an alternative to traditional talk therapy.

A published 2009 evaluation of our programs, which are supported in part through Medicaid reimbursement, found that participants improved in five outcome categories: peer and adult relationships, conflict resolution, self-confidence, healthy coping and social skills.

Banding together to provide mental health services for more young people
Doc Wayne is part of a growing movement of programs that are innovating by bringing together sports, mental health and social justice. Among such groups are Boston’s Coaching4Change, which empowers teens by employing them as coaches for younger children; Grassroot Soccer, an international nonprofit that prevents HIV by involving young people in the Beautiful Game; and My Life My Choice, which serves sexually exploited youth.

In the United States, millions of low-income youth struggle daily with mental health issues. I believe those of us already committed to providing equitable mental health services can reach more of those young people if we band together.

Earlier this month, Doc Wayne launched our first conference, entitled “Leveling the Playing Field”. We highlighted the great work already happening to integrate sports and mental health and the enormous difference even small organizations like ours can make.

My dream is to see practitioners, local leaders and philanthropists working together to create a continuum of care for our youth—something like a social services version of a food court. Young people would have access to mental health services, vocational training, mentoring, tutoring and a range of other services meant to help them pass through successfully to adulthood.

And of course, every young person would have the chance to just be a kid and hold a ball in their hands.

David S. Cohen is the executive director of Doc Wayne. He manages and oversees the Doc Wayne operation while exploring ways to broaden the organization's reach to more youth on a national and global scale. Read his full bio.