There are great benefits for kids participating on a youth athletic team. When coaches receive training in trauma support, they can be part of the mental health recovery everyone needs.

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An illustration of a group athletes together.
Credit: Yeji Kim.

Romeo Bonilla, a goalie and captain for the Harlem Lacrosse–Boston team at Joseph Lee K-8 School in Dorchester, Massachusetts, came home from practice on March 5, 2020, and did not return to play a formal season for a year and a half.

During COVID-19, the 13-year-old felt stuck at home without friends or teammates. But his coaches remained present in his life. "The coaches kept in touch and made sure the boys were on time for their Google Hangout meetings," says Romeo's mom, Lillian Bonilla, whose younger son Dangelo also plays lacrosse with the organization. Senior Program Director and coach Josiah Bramble started a group chat with the team, held mandatory virtual study hall hours after school, and even played online video games with the kids. He also individually connected with each student. When Romeo and Dangelo had WiFi issues, Bramble would text and offer help or make sure they knew what they were missing. "They felt supported. I felt supported," says Bonilla. "Knowing that they had that extra support from someone outside of the family, it was a great feeling."

We've all seen the footage of high school football coaches turning purple in the face from screaming on the sidelines or slapping a player across the helmet for a poor play. They chalk it up to a tough love coaching style, but we only see the toughness—the moments of abuse and defeat. Research shows it's actually the love that makes a coach effective. For a team to be successful, relationships between a coach and their players have to be at the core of the program, explains Megan Bartlett, the founder of The Center for Healing and Justice Through Sport (CHJS), an organization that consults with youth athletic programs to ensure kids have access to sport experiences that are healing, inclusive, and address issues of systemic injustice. "We never see the thousands of moments where a coach is building up a player or driving him to his brother's funeral," says Bartlett. "Sometimes we get those feel-good stories, but that's not what is overwhelmingly reinforced by the media so people go out on the field and think that [the screaming] is the behavior that makes them a coach."

Maryanna Leonard, senior program director for Harlem Lacrosse-Boston, meets with members of her fifth-grade girls' team on Zoom.
Maryanna Leonard, senior program director for Harlem Lacrosse-Boston, meets with members of her fifth-grade girls' team on Zoom.
| Credit: Courtesy of Harlem Lacrosse-Boston

TV characters like Ted Lasso, the Kansas football coach recruited to coach a professional English soccer team on Apple TV Plus, and Gordon Bombay, who returns to the ice with the Mighty Ducks in the reboot on Disney Plus, offer a view into the alternative. It's the positive reactions between adults running the programs and the young players on a team that allow kids to get the true benefits of athletics: supportive relationships, physical activity, and patterned stress that builds resilience. 

Studies show that about 70 percent of kids drop out of sports by the age of 13. Enrollment in sports as pandemic regulations lift is also shown to be down. The main reason? It's not fun anymore. Around this age sports get specialized and competitive—if you're not winning, why play? And kids who were barely holding on to interest when the pandemic hit did not rejoin their teams when they were allowed to.

We know most young players will never play professionally and only 6 percent of high school athletes even compete in National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) sports after graduation. But there is so much more to lose from exiting the game early than a potential professional career. After nearly two years of disruption and turbulence in most kids' lives, youth sports programs could be a huge part of the recovery for their physical and mental health. Training coaches to be understanding, supportive, and aware of our kids' needs—like real-life Ted Lassos—has to be the priority. 

How Sports Impact Behavior and Resilience Development in Kids

"When we are worried about all the things that have gone on over the last 18 months, sports can be pushed to the side as this thing that's nice to have, but we need to scream that it's a need for kids," says Bartlett. "Sport is uniquely suited to help us deal with trauma and adversity more so than any other tool. We need to really recognize the power that sport can have as a healing tool." 

According to a 2019 study from Brigham Young University researchers, kids who participate in sports have significantly higher levels of parent-reported resilience than kids who don't play sports. This resilience is credited to young athletes' ability to self-regulate and practice empathy and social competence in a way that non-participants can't. Within sports, kids can "get hurt, lose the game, get a bad call against you," but they have to find a way to stay positive and move forward from these bad experiences, reads the study. However, not all youth athletic environments are safe spaces that develop resilience in kids. We know abuses have occurred in an athletic system—look to USA Gymnastics as an example. Proper training and resources for coaching on the youth level, as well as administrative bodies that put the children's safety first, can make all of the difference.

Harlem Lacrosse-Boston East Boston team.
Harlem Lacrosse-Boston East Boston team.
| Credit: Courtesy of Harlem Lacrosse-Boston

"[Soccer has taught] me how to cope, how to manage," says Angela Hucles Mangano, vice president of player development and operations for the Angel City FC, a two-time Olympic gold medalist in Women's Soccer, and a mom of two. "Life gives us challenges and when we are in that safe sporting environment, we can figure out how to navigate them. In an environment outside of sport, dealing with people and relationships, sports has taught me how to cope or react. Sports has given me that. It's powerful, it's how we navigate life."

For kids and teens who were isolated from their friends and cut off from activities they love because of the pandemic, this return to sport can be especially healing. Even the kids who thrived in remote learning and loved spending the extra time at home around family experienced trauma due to change. "Everyone is dysregulated, everyone is stressed out, and a dysregulated adult cannot regulate a dysregulated child," explains Bartlett.

Coaching Is at the Heart of the Healing

When Romeo and Dangelo received text messages from Bramble months after the team paused practices, it reminded them that even though there was no lacrosse to be played, their coach still cared. "Coach made us feel like family even though we had to stay apart," says Bonilla. These relationships are what Bramble credits for his team's post-COVID retention. Eighteen students from the original roster of 24 continue to play—14 of them were part of his virtual or hybrid programming last year.

This ability to maintain presence in a child's life even off the field in the most intense of circumstances comes down to coach training. "Once you understand the science and biology behind stress and trauma, it's easy to see how sports can create an environment that heals trauma," says Pat Cronin, managing director at Harlem Lacrosse-Boston.

Cronin and the other 50+ program directors and managers of Harlem Lacrosse train with Bartlett and CHJS a few times a year. That training acts as Trauma 101 for the coaching staff. They learn to be mindful of praise and how to talk about failure. They also learn that there are different types of successes in sports: "Winning is a goal, but playing as hard as we can is also a goal, sportsmanship is a goal," says Cronin. "I want the defense and goalie to come together and fist-bump every time we get scored on. We can lose as a team but still be successful. We lose in points, but we succeed in what we deemed as team strategy."

It's those successful games, those successful seasons, that matter the most for kids and keep them benefitting from the sport.

At the end of practice, each kid recognizes something in another player that has nothing to do with what is traditionally celebrated in sports. "It says, 'I see you,'" explains Cronin. "We're finding ways to not just recognize each kid as their coach, but to teach kids what they should recognize in each other. That's the cornerstone for team culture." 

Harlem Lacrosse-Boston winter practice.
Harlem Lacrosse-Boston winter practice.
| Credit: Courtesy of Harlem Lacrosse-Boston

Where to Go From Here

In the United States, there is no governing agency on the federal level that oversees athletics. While, in theory, this means all children have equal access to work hard and become Olympians without the government selecting who's worthy to compete, it actually means that most urban neighborhoods do not have budgets for free organized sports. Public parks awaiting upgrades instead close from disrepair and physical education classes are among the first to be cut from schools when money is limited, even after the pandemic kept most kids indoors occupied only by screens. 

Angela Ruggeiro, the CEO and co-founder at Sports Innovation Lab, a former USA Women's Hockey player, and mom of two, says that adding a sports minister could be a strong first step. "I was lucky I got to play hockey, I had family discounts. We should ensure that once [kids] enter grade school they can play in school or in private organizations. [Instead], we outsource everything to our parents and expect them to figure out how to get kids there and pay for it. Sure we win more medals at the Olympics, but the rest of the world is providing resources."

During the pandemic, youth athletic organizations like CHJS worked with local programs to become a hub for families and kids—they pivoted to meal distribution, child care, and hosting virtual activities and athletic training for kids. The first day the programs were allowed to meet back in person felt like a celebration. 

"At the end of practice when you all put your hands in and do a cheer, we break it down on family almost every time—our first time back, that cheer was so loud," says Cronin. "Everyone was so happy to be out there. No one is required to be there, it's not like school that you have to go to. On some level, if the kid is showing up, even if they act like they don't want to be there, there is some reason they showed up. It's often that they know they are wanted there and that is powerful as a coach—this kid wants to be here."