New Ways to Break Old Cycles

The Wall Street Journal recently highlighted Mexico’s efforts to rethink the cycle of violence (“Mexico’s New Focus To Stem Violent Culture: Children” by Robbie Whelan). Of course, it’s a cycle that’s not confined to any country at this point and it’s a problem that’s gripping mayors from Puebla to Chicago, from London to Baltimore.

I have always believed in the capacity of human beings to “heal.” Violence is the epitome of the broken human spirit. It is the desperate moment in which all other reasoning collapses and an individual acts without regard to human life. So how do we break the cycle of violence? How does a belief in the power of healing transcend an absolute void of human dignity?

The Wall Street Journal article discussed “multi systemic” therapy. In a nutshell, behavioral change cannot happen through interventions directed solely at the violent perpetrator. They need to be administered in the whole context of the family, the home, the school and the community. I absolutely agree, but we’ve applied a model of individual therapy to a complex and urgent problem. While major systemic change is needed, as the Wall Street Journal article suggests, we need a simple solution now, at a time in which killing is happening every 31 minutes in this country.

I believe we need to start with simple interventions that we can implement in the here and now. What’s more, we need to start with interventions that directly counter the very psychological factors that contribute to violence as a cycle: exposure to unsafe environments; modeling of poor behavior by adults, caregivers and peers; systemic stereotypes that reinforce powerlessness and hopelessness; and institutions that purport to educate but fail to foster skill building and positive self-identity.

The intervention I suggest with urgency is youth sports.

You heard it: YOUTH SPORTS.

Some readers may associate youth sports with obsessive win-at-all-cost coaches and the exclusion of all but the best athletes. However, violence prevention experts, policy makers, school leaders and everyone concerned about violence today should take another view of youth sports.

Youth sports, in the sports-based youth development framework, are an intervention that literally “breaks the cycle.” What’s more, it can be mobilized immediately in every community and school afflicted by violence.

Sports-based youth development provides vulnerable youth with an adult mentor who can take advantage of a non-traditional setting — say the basketball court — to learn the story of a child on and off that court. The coach engenders an immediate sense of trust, an “I’m on your side” mentality that enables an acutely at-risk child to open up, perhaps for the first time, to an adult about fears, insecurities and social anxieties. A youth sports coach, if trained, can then listen and use the context of mentorship to guide young people to view themselves and their futures differently. After all, the coach has every tool at his/her disposal: a team of peers with whom he/she can establish positive social norms and culture; a set of rituals with which each player’s dignity can be affirmed; a set of rules which mimic life and allow for teachable moments that emphasize constructive responses to challenging situations; a set of tasks which enable children to see their positive progression in talent and self-efficacy; and stress.

Yes, stress.

Sports can be very stressful. Did you catch the Saints and Rams NFL football game the other week? If not, just flick on any afternoon game and look at the faces of the losing team at halftime. But here is just where sports may hold one of the most effective solutions to violence. By exposing young people to stressful situations in the game, the trained coach can help reset a young person’s stress response. Consider this — when confronted with a violent situation, the amygdala — the part of the brain responsible for the Flight, Fight or Fright Response — fires. In a tense situation on the streets, this firing of the amygdala can cause a child to start a fight, or worse yet, pull a trigger. It is this same part of the brain that fires during the most stressful moments of a sporting event. It is at this moment when a trained coach can calm a child down and teach him/her to think; to respond not with the amygdala but with the frontal cortex. A coach can help a young person shift away from instinctual violence and towards conscientious decision-making. Just like training a player to make that 3-point shot, practice makes perfect. A coach can help a teenager rationally respond to a stressful situation through proper decision-making that will lead to better performance during a game — and a safer future.

I know this because my nonprofit, Up2Us Sports, is training and supporting coaches everyday to be leaders and change makers in their communities. Our coaches are breaking the cycle of violence. We need more of our coaches and our coach training in Chicago and Baltimore. We even need trained coaches in Puebla and London. We need these coaches because they are a solution that we can employ immediately. And immediate solutions can provide us more time to build up the multi-systemic approach that can eventually replace the epidemic of youth violence with the universality of youth harmony for all time.