Athletes for Hope

Kids, Trauma and Sports: How Athletes Can Make a Difference

active schools

By: Suzanne Potts, LMSW, MPH, Robin Kuik, MSSW, MPH

When a professional, Olympic or student athlete comes to visit a school, the impact on the kids is immediate and long term. One teacher reported that having an athlete visit was, “…Inspiring the kids to lead healthy lives. Seeing someone in person rather than on TV or online makes it seem so much more attainable.” We often hear from kids how much they love meeting an athlete in real life and hearing their personal stories is a powerful way to connect. However, many of the kids in programs that we support have experienced trauma in their young lives and we know that of the 6,000 athletes in our growing network, many of them have experienced trauma themselves.

The link between childhood trauma and sports has become a crucial topic in recent years as many sports such as football or soccer have sought to understand the long term effects of physiological trauma on athletes’ bodies. But what if those traumas happened earlier in their lives? What kind of childhood traumas play out on fields and courts across the world and why is it important for athletes to understand that long term impact?

What is Considered Trauma?

Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) description and research are most well know from the CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences Study in the early 1990’s which was one of the largest investigations of childhood abuse and neglect and household challenges and later-life health and well-being.  ACEs is the term used to describe all types of abuse, neglect, and other potentially traumatic experiences that occur to people under the age of 18. ACEs are common across all populations and almost two-thirds of study participants reported at least one ACE, and more than one in five reported three or more ACEs. Some populations are more vulnerable to experiencing ACEs because of the social and economic conditions in which they live, learn, work and play.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, or NIMH, a traumatic event “is a shocking, scary, or dangerous experience that affects someone emotionally” (2017). While trauma is often associated with physical injuries, there is also psychological trauma. The NIMH defines psychological trauma as “an emotionally painful, shocking, stressful, and sometimes life-threatening experience” (2015).

Research by Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), indicates that more than two thirds of children reported at least one traumatic event by the age of 16 (2015). One in every four high school students has been in at least one physical altercation and one in every five students is bullied in school (SAMHSA, 2015). Research has also shown that children who had traumatic experiences are more likely to experience learning problems such as lower grades and more suspensions and expulsions, increased use of health and mental health services, increased involvement with juvenile justice and child welfare systems, and long-term chronic health problems (2015).

So how can we see the effects of trauma show up in sports?

Some immediate reactions to traumatic events include shock and denial, while longer term reactions may include (but are not limited to) “unpredictable emotions, flashbacks, strained relationships, …headaches or nausea” (APA, n.d.).

You may see trauma presenting in sports by:

  • fouls turning into fights,
  • if they’re anxious or avoiding trying something new,
  • if they become frustrated easily and quit,
  • if they’re having trouble focusing or staying on track,
  • if they’re avoiding other people and isolating themselves,
  • if they’re constantly or repetitively talking about something bad that happened to them,
  • if they’re acting impulsively (Bergholz, Stafford & D’Andrea, 2016).

This does not mean that every child that does one of these things has gone through a traumatic experience, but it does mean that they might have. Also, a child may not display any symptoms of trauma but may be going through things. Therefore, it is always best practice to treat every child with the same compassion. When athletes go out and do school visits, they have no idea of knowing what kids in the program may have experienced trauma in their lives so it’s best to learn practical tools to model positive coaching skills and serve as caring, compassionate role models through sports.

Protective factors may lessen the likelihood of children being abused or neglected. Protective factors have not been studied as extensively or rigorously as risk factors. Identifying and understanding protective factors are equally as important as researching risk factors. We still have a long way to go in identifying and understanding how these factors impact early childhood trauma. Protective factors include such things as a supportive family environment, basic needs being met, stable family relationships, access to medical care, physical fitness and caring adults outside of the family who can serve as role models. This is where our work intersects through athlete connections. By providing athletes as role models, we support programs with compassionate, caring adults who encourage and support kids to be healthy and active.

What is AFH Doing to Help?

Recently the Athletes for Hope team participated in an in-house training about Trauma-Informed Care. Staff have attended multiple sessions on Trauma-Informed Care and how fitness plays a crucial role in building positive healthy experiences, especially for those who have experienced trauma. We have identified ways in which our work can become more trauma-informed, and how we can bridge the gap for athletes who want a more trauma-informed education session when working with children. We are looking at how we can model trauma-informed best practices in our own work, framing our language, activities and communication in a positive way.  We are committed to ongoing education and learning from the best in this space to help us grow and understand trauma.

By educating ourselves about trauma and changing our trauma reactions, we hope to educate athletes to be more trauma-informed and supportive while out in communities. Our hope is by offering a strengths-based approach to workshops and education through a parallel process with athletes, they in turn will learn and share those best practices to be compassionate role models using positive coaching skills with kids who may have experienced trauma. When trauma-informed language and skills are utilized, everyone can benefit. We plan to expand our workshop series to include a trauma-informed physical fitness session for athletes to learn positive teaching strategies while maintaining an inclusive, compassionate set of skills to manage groups of kids.

Our next steps include seeking feedback about this workshop content with athletes and community partners, reviewing a workshop manual that is a trauma-informed fitness session training, holding a short research pilot of the workshop with a small group of athletes and trainers and identifying ways we can incorporate trauma-informed care language and strategies into our overall work at AFH. For more information about trauma and sports, please check out this informative report by our friends at WeCoach on “Why Trauma-Informed Sport is Vital” and contact AFH directly if you’d like to learn more about this work.