For kids with PTSD, healing is happening in an unexpected place — a football field.

On a football field in Boston, several kids gather for an unlikely purpose: supporting each other in group therapy.

At the mention of group therapy, it’s easy to imagine it taking place across a seated circle in a quiet room. But this group therapy is no ordinary mental health program — it involves sprinting, catching footballs, and learning to run defense.

In fact, at first glance, a session might look like any other practice time for young athletes because just like any football team, they run drills, develop strategy, and work on throwing a perfect spiral.


But in these sessions, their coaches aren’t just coaches — they’re therapists. And the teams are made up of kids who have experienced child abuse, incarceration, PTSD, or other challenges.

A Doc Wayne practice session. Photo by Doc Wayne.

For struggling kids like these, traditional talk therapy — which involves a stranger’s office and opening up about issues that are difficult to discuss — often feels too intimidating.

“Many kids don’t want to talk about their issues or don’t really know how to talk about their issues,” explains David Cohen, CEO of the nonprofit Doc Wayne. “They certainly, in many cases, don’t want to sit down at a desk or in a room and talk to a clinician.”

Unfortunately, this is part of the reason why so many kids don’t get the mental health support they need. Of the 1 in 5 kids under the age of 19 who experience mental illness, only an estimated 20-25% are receiving mental health treatment.

That’s why, in order to truly help children, sometimes you need to meet them where they feel comfortable — even if it’s on a football field.

Susan Wayne, who has worked for decades with low-income youth, knows this firsthand. In fact, that’s why she founded Doc Wayne in 2002.

A coach and participant. Photo by Doc Wayne.

She had seen many young people struggle well into adulthood due to lack of proper treatment for their mental illnesses. She also knew how difficult it is to engage youth who don’t thrive in traditional talk therapy.  

But it wasn’t until the death of her brother, Dr. Eli Wayne, a pediatric surgeon and sports enthusiast, that she came up with the idea of a nonprofit named in his honor that would help these kids by combining both of his passions — health and sports.

Research shows that team sports can reduce symptoms of depression and boost kids’ ability to deal with stress, and also that young athletes also tend to have higher levels of confidence and mental wellness.

And that’s how Doc Wayne’s programs, which fuse athletics and mental health care, came to be developed.

One such program is a sports-based group therapy called Chalk Talk.

Here’s how it works: Say a kid gets frustrated after missing a shot in basketball. Instead of letting them get excessively angry or bottle up that frustration with no solution, their coach is there to help them figure out how to channel anger in a healthy way, such as learning from this mistake in preparation for the next drill.

Photo by Tamarcus Brown/Unsplash.

Rather than using clinical terms that kids can’t relate to, like “emotion regulation,” the coach uses coaching language like “step to your strengths.” While the terminology is different, the therapeutic concept behind it is exactly the same, allowing the children to engage in a way that they might not otherwise.

In other words, sports allow the kids to deal with their issues — such anger or impulsivity — without feeling like they’re being forced to.

And that’s why research on this kind of sports-based therapy shows that it is just as effective in supporting mental health as traditional psychotherapy. Participants are learning to deal with their issues using the the same strategies they’d develop through traditional therapy.

Chalk Talk also helps build trust with kids who have experienced repetitive or ongoing trauma, like much of the youth at Doc Wayne. They do this by playing team sports such as soccer, flag football, basketball, and indoor rowing, where they can learn to support each other as teammates.

Photo by Doc Wayne.

This is reinforced when the kids circle up at the end of a session to give each other shoutouts — for instance, complimenting someone’s dribbling skills.

“Everything that we do is all about the team aspect,” says Cohen. “It’s all about learning skills in life that you’ll need to carry on so you can be a contributing member to your own community.”

He continues, “They have to learn how to show up and be present and ... respectful and have empathy for others.”

Today, Doc Wayne helps about 300 children a week — and these kids are seeing a big difference in their lives.

According to research on the nonprofit, they're showing lower rates of aggression and an increased ability to integrate into their communities.

Not only that, but kids are more likely to stay in sports-based therapy because they actually enjoy it. The no-show rate among kids for traditional talk-based therapy sessions is around 40% but at Doc Wayne, it’s only around 20%, according to Cohen.

“Sometimes you’ll see kids actually loving therapy,” he adds, because at Doc Wayne, healing goes hand-in-hand with their favorite sport.

Photo by Doc Wayne.

Cohen remembers observing one boy who wasn’t interested in engaging with the group. For about 15 minutes, the boy sat on the sidelines while the other kids practiced drills with their coach. Then, for another 10 minutes, he threw a ball against a wall by himself. Finally, he quietly joined the group.

He was allowed to do so on his own terms, and Cohen says that’s what helped him discover his own willingness to engage.

For many of the kids who come to Doc Wayne for help, simply having a supportive adult to depend on is a luxury.

That’s why this organization is so helpful: It helps give these kids a reliable support system so that they can begin to trust others to help them through tough times.

“Their lives … have been disrupted in so many ways,” says Cohen. “[So] we make sure that we’re there, that we earn the trust … week in and week out.”

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Disney has come under fire for problematic portrayals of non-white and non-western cultures in many of its older movies. They aren't the only one, of course, but since their movies are an iconic part of most American kids' childhoods, Disney's messaging holds a lot of power.

Fortunately, that power can be used for good, and Disney can serve as an example to other companies if they learn from their mistakes, account for their misdeeds, and do the right thing going forward. Without getting too many hopes up, it appears that the entertainment giant may have actually done just that with the new Frozen II film.

According to NOW Toronto, the producers of Frozen II have entered into a contract with the Sámi people—the Indigenous people of the Scandinavian regions—to ensure that they portray the culture with respect.

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Though there was not a direct portrayal of the Sámi in the first Frozen movie, the choral chant that opens the film was inspired by an ancient Sámi vocal tradition. In addition, the clothing worn by Kristoff closely resembled what a Sámi reindeer herder would wear. The inclusion of these elements of Sámi culture with no context or acknowledgement sparked conversations about cultural appropriation and erasure on social media.

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Sámi leaders met with Disney producer Peter Del Vecho in September 2019.Sámediggi Sametinget/Flickr

The Sámi parliaments of Norway, Sweden and Finland, and the non-governmental Saami Council reached out to the filmmakers when they found out their culture would be highlighted in the film. They formed a Sámi expert advisory group, called Verddet, to assist filmmakers in with how to accurately and respectfully portray Sámi culture, history, and society.

In a contract signed by Walt Disney Animation Studios and Sámi leaders, the Sámi stated their position that "their collective and individual culture, including aesthetic elements, music, language, stories, histories, and other traditional cultural expressions are property that belong to the Sámi," and "that to adequately respect the rights that the Sámi have to and in their culture, it is necessary to ensure sensitivity, allow for free, prior, and informed consent, and ensure that adequate benefit sharing is employed."

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Disney agreed to work with the advisory group, to produce a version of Frozen II in one Sámi language, as well as to "pursue cross-learning opportunities" and "arrange for contributions back to the Sámi society."

Anne Lájla Utsi, managing director at the International Sámi Film Institute, was part of the Verddet advisory group. She told NOW, "This is a good example of how a big, international company like Disney acknowledges the fact that we own our own culture and stories. It hasn't happened before."

"Disney's team really wanted to make it right," said Utsi. "They didn't want to make any mistakes or hurt anybody. We felt that they took it seriously. And the film shows that. We in Verddet are truly proud of this collaboration."

Sounds like you've done well this time, Disney. Let's hope such cultural sensitivity and collaboration continues, and that other filmmakers and production companies will follow suit.

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