It was one of the most heinous crimes. Leon, at only the age of 16, had brutally murdered and raped two 13-year-old girls in his apartment complex. How could such a horrible crime be committed by this young boy? It was an important question Leon’s defense team sought to understand after he was convicted of murder and was facing the death penalty.
The defense team brought in Dr. Bruce Perry, one of the world’s leading child trauma psychiatrists, to testify during the sentencing process of the trial. The court needed to determine if there were factors such as mental health or abuse in Leon’s history, as this would influence whether he got life in prison or the death penalty.
After Dr. Perry met with Leon, his family, and the people who knew them best, he came to an important realization. Leon had an older brother, Frank, who had a steady job, wife, and children. He was doing just fine in life. Leon and Frank shared at least 50% of their genes, so it was improbable that genetics alone could account for their drastically diverse personalities and directions in life.
Now, both boys grew up with the same mother and father, but their early experiences were vastly different. Frank’s first years were spent when the parents lived in a city, surrounded by extended family and caring neighbors. The community around them helped his mother care for Frank while his father worked. But shortly before Leon’s birth, the family moved to a city where they knew nobody.
When Leon was born, his mother started struggling to care for her child without the support of her family and community. At only four weeks of age, she would take her son Frank for walks, to run errands, and to visit friends—all while Leon lay in his crib at home in the dark.
As Leon lay in the dark all those early years, he was robbed of the necessary love and care that his brother had received. The abandonment of her newborn son was so traumatic that later in life, Leon was unable to build healthy relationships due to a lack of brain development in areas that connect human interaction with pleasure. As Dr. Perry concluded, Leon was a sociopath as a result of a traumatic environment, not his genetics.
Can We Actually Help?
As coaches, we want to create a positive and life-changing experience for every athlete. Yet, the world can be horrible. There is a growing number of young people dealing with traumatic life events. I’ve coached players who’ve endured sexual abuse, physical torture, have fled their home country, or even witnessed their own parent get shot.
We’re unsure how we can help, and we feel completely underqualified. But we don’t want to give up on these kids. Coaches often call me for guidance on how to help players who are living in a violent home, are homeless, have just found out they are pregnant, or are ignored and unloved by their parents. For some time, I had no suggestion other than telling them that they were not qualified, so they should seek professional help for this athlete.
But we can help. Based on my own experiences as a coach who has worked successfully with victims of trauma, I know we can help.
In The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog, Dr. Bruce Perry asserts, “We learned that some of the most therapeutic experiences do not take place in ‘therapy’, but in naturally occurring, healthy relationships. […] In fact, the research on the most effective treatments to help child trauma victims might be accurately summed up this way: What works best is anything that increases the quality and number of relationships in the child’s life.”
We as coaches can be the source of not just one healthy relationship, but many healthy relationships by creating a team culture founded on love for each other.
I’ve come to realize over the last few years that children need something more from sports than life lessons; they need an environment where they know they will be loved.
How to Support Players Suffering from Trauma
“What helps is consistent, patient, repetitive, loving care. And I should add, what doesn’t work is well-intended but poorly trained mental health ‘professionals’ rushing in after a traumatic event or coercing children to ‘open up’ or ‘get out their anger’.”
—Dr. Bruce Perry
- Be on the Lookout: Don’t just label kids as “bad kids” or “troubled” but look for behaviors in which their reaction doesn’t fit the circumstance. Every coach needs to get to know their kids as people, not just athletes.
- Try This: Give every kid in your program a notecard after practice and ask them to complete the following sentence: “One thing I wish my coach knew about me is…”. It’s a powerful way to get to know your players, and it gives kids who may be going through something really hard an opportunity to be open about it.
- Regulate Your Response: “A dysregulated adult will never regulate another person” was a powerful principle that Megan Bartlett of WeAllCoach.Com shared in Coaching Culture Episode 116. She gave listeners some practical ways to identify and help athletes who are struggling to regulate their stress response.
- Try This: Stop using anger, shame, or fear to motivate or get through to your athletes. In this article, I will give you four steps to help you make this change in your coaching. Our response is one of the most critical parts of the experience; it must be predictable and consistent, and it cannot be disproportionate to the circumstance.
- Create a Safe Community: As Dr. Perry says, “What maltreated and traumatized children most need is a healthy community to buffer the pain, distress, and loss caused by their earlier trauma.” Coaches have a responsibility to create a culture in which people feel safe and respected.
- Try This: Ask your players, “What do you want playing in our program to feel like?” After they each give you a response, follow up with the power question: “How can you create that feeling for your teammates?” Use the behaviors they identify to create a set of “Team Standards”. Simply put, one of the best ways to help a kid who is struggling is to continue building a culture and a community in which they know that every day they walk on the field, they will be loved.
- Important Note: If you have a player who is suffering from a traumatic event, it is important that they have professional help. This article is not to suggest that we can be the professional caregivers for these people, but to offer suggestions for how we can be part of the healing process.
- Perry, Bruce D.. The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog. Basic Books. Kindle Edition.
- Coaching Culture Episode 116 Helping Players in the Stressful and Emotional Moments