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Mentoring At-Risk Youth Through the Power of Sports

MAY 26, 2016

Mentors like Dru Joyce (Lebron James’ high school basketball coach), Phil Jackson (who steered Michael Jordan to success), and numerous other mentors who have guided iconic athletes have illustrated how powerful mentoring through sport can be. In Lebron James’ foreword that he wrote for Joyce's book, Beyond Championships: A Playbook for Winning at Life, he acknowledges that Joyce taught him about life in addition to basketball. The legendary Boston Celtic Bill Russell once said, “If you ask any NBA player, executive, or coach about their path to success, on and off the court, you’ll quickly see the same pattern emerge. None of us made it on our own.” Russell himself benefited from mentoring; if it were not for Russell’s junior high basketball coach he would not have even continued on with the sport. Likely, you are not mentoring a professional athlete, but you may be able to harness the power of sport to impact a child’s life.

Sport can be especially influential with youth mentees who struggle to be successful through traditional approaches. At Doc Wayne Youth Services we believe and have seen the power that sports and mentoring has had on our youth. Our youth struggle with a variety of mental illness largely caused from exposure to trauma.

 Mentoring through Sports

In order to achieve our mission of fusing sport and therapy to heal and strengthen at risk youth we have adopted important concepts for trauma-informed sport. We have a trained staff of mental health clinicians and coaches that come from a variety of backgrounds, but all desire to make a difference in the lives of youth. While all mentors and mentees are unique, we hope the tips below will assist you in improving the physical and mental well-being of your youth mentee.

1. Wear Your "Trauma Glasses"

A significant number of youth are exposed to traumatic events each year. Traumatic events include abuse, neglect, domestic violence, community and school violence, medical trauma, motor vehicle accidents, acts of terrorism, natural disasters, suicides, and other traumatic losses. The American Psychological Association estimates that more than two thirds of children report experiencing a traumatic event by age 16i. As a mentor being aware of the history your mentee brings into the relationship is helpful, as well as “seeing” behaviors as information and your mentee’s way of communicating with you. Youth are amazing at learning how to survive! Often what looks like a negative behavior (stealing, aggression, acceptance followed by rejection of a mentor, etc) is how they've adapted to their environment and it has served them well in some capacity. See them as the incredible survivors that they are! On the sports field, these "survival" instincts, if channeled in the right direction, can be what makes them a star power forward, fearless goalkeeper, or agile quarterback. By recognizing their strengths you will gain special permission to "coach" or mentor them in sport and in life.

2. Create a Routine

Life can be unpredictable and even chaotic for youth trauma survivors. A mentoring relationship that is consistent, reliable, and follows a routine can help to provide a feeling of safety and security for your mentee. Just as athletes have pre-game routines and rituals, build established patterns into your mentoring relationship.

3. Pick Your Moments

Mentoring through SportsGames are the time when players get to truly test their development. We want to promote critical decision- making and adaptability, by “praising the field and instructing the bench.” Although contrary to the coaching techniques one may see when watching professional sports, youth athletes benefit from mild praise and support while they are on the field, leaving the instruction, coaching, and mentoring to times when they are eager to receive it. Your mentee will be more receptive to a mentor’s “coaching” when substituted out or driving home from the game. When the moment is right, making yourself available to either provide specific praise or be an active listener can be valuable. Telling your mentee you saw their incredible play in the first half is far more meaningful than a general “good job”.

4. Reverse Roles

Youth with trauma histories often feel as though they have little control over their life and environment. Mentoring relationships can often run into trouble when the youth feels the power dynamic that is often present between an adult and a child. Finding moments to let your mentee “coach” you, teach you their best move, or make choices about how you spend your time together can be beneficial. Reversing roles can also be a helpful activity in helping youth learn important skills such as perspective-taking and empathy.

5. Build Your Support Team

Youth mentees who have been dealt a difficult hand in life are strong, resilient, and incredible individuals. While keeping their strengths and assets in mind, be aware that due to the hardships they have endured, building a mentoring relationship may bring about unique challenges. Mentors themselves may benefit from mentoring that provides an outlet to discuss the “ups and downs” of their youth mentoring relationship and to gain support.

Mentors are game changers. They are often the factor that levels the playing field for youth who have experienced trauma or survived other difficult situations in childhood. While we can all take tips from Dru Joyce and Phil Jackson, consistently showing up for your mentee, being a constant in their life, and believing in them can make the difference.

Rebekah RoulierRebekah Roulier, LMHC, is the associate director of Doc Wayne Youth Services and a licensed mental health counselor with a diverse background of sport psychology, psychotherapy and nonprofit management. Doc Wayne was recently recognized as an Influential Leader and Model for Others Making Communities Healthier Through Sport by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.


i American Psychological Association, Children and Trauma Update for Health Professionals, 2008:

Comments (1)

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Someone please share success stories of mentoring through sports!

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