Kemba Noel-London MAT, ATC,CES is my guest blogger this week. This doctoral candidate is juggling multiple roles, including Athletic Trainer, lab assistant and university instructor, just to name a few. She also created an evidence-based trauma informed athletic coaching program! Understanding the role of ACEs in sports and the impact on athletes is what caught my attention. I had not connected those dots before and her specific focus of ACEs and sports fascinated me. I invited Kemba and her colleague Crystal Grimsley, PLPC to share their research and program bringing a trauma informed approach to sports coaching. Read Kemba’s fascinating story as she moves from a star athlete from Trinidad and Tobago to a scientist leading a movement informing how “sport can and should be used as a tool to build resilience and heal from ACEs.”
Growing up in a struggling neighborhood, a young athlete – no stranger to parental absenteeism or incarceration, abuse, neighborhood violence and the effects of economic challenges – lives with a certain ambition: survival. To this athlete, living means doing whatever is necessary to survive; from knowing when and where to walk to avoid violence, to embracing risky behaviors like alcohol abuse and illicit drug use, this athlete is like any other youth who shares this background. There’s an ever-present hope that there could be more to life, but they are limited in their knowledge about what the “more” could be and the paths to take to achieve this distant dream. This athlete is determined on escaping this a familiar narrative; their focus is on getting out… and sport is their ticket.
This scenario probably sounds a lot like a short pitch, reminiscent of stories like “The Blindside” or “Coach Carter.” For many clinicians and advocates for Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) awareness, this scenario is viewed a bit differently. The description presented above includes a few of the identified ACEs that have been shown to have a massive negative impact on adult and child, mental and physical health outcomes. These include increased risk of early death, as well as possible learning and behavioral disorders. The hallmark rags to riches stories are romanticized without giving much thought to the immediate and long-term impact associated with athletes’ exposure to these chronic toxic stressors. The beautifully written stories of their journey towards achieving their goals leave us inspired and hopeful as we celebrate its happy conclusion. It’s a common trope that sport is a young athlete’s ticket out of “bad situation,” and undoubtedly, it can be. Still, the reality for a lot of young athletes is that while they are encouraged to use sport as an outlet and a means of escape, not all sporting experiences are effective in helping athletes genuinely overcome the impact that ACEs may have on their development.
Sport is often employed as a youth developmental tool as well as a way for adolescents to engage in physical activity. However, it is unrealistic to assume that all sport experiences and environments will have equally positive outcomes. It must be remembered that when these young athletes leave practice, they may continue to exist in a neighborhood or household that keeps them exposed to the very ACEs that have impacted their development. In other words, participating in sport may provide a temporary escape, but it does not change the harsh reality to which these athletes must return to, nor equip them with the tools necessary to navigate these hardships differently.
When implemented with intent to account for the potential physical and mental health impact of ACEs, sport can and should be used as a tool to build resilience and heal from ACEs. However, this knowledge and training has yet to be widely disseminated to the sporting world
Athletic trainers and coaches tend to see their athletes as frequently as their teachers, and, in some cases, more often than parents and caregivers. They can undoubtedly sit at the forefront of shifting sport to a more intentional framework that supports athletes’ healing and development of resilience. Alongside my friend and colleague, Crystal Grimsley PLPC, I aim to spread the knowledge of ACEs to the world of sport. More importantly, we believe this knowledge can be used to help young athletes by utilizing tools that aid in identifying and understanding symptoms and modify coaching styles or practice structure. Coaches and professionals in sports medicine are in a unique position to continue their work empowering youth while also setting the stage for the healing process from the long-term effects of ACEs. We believe all fields of sport and youth development need to be educated in a trauma-informed approach to coaching and health care if sport is to truly become the force for advancement, development and empowerment that we know it can be.
Bio: Kemba is a current doctoral candidate at Saint Louis University’s College for Public Health and Social Justice, in the Department of Health Management and Policy. She is also a former national athlete for Trinidad and Tobago and certified athletic trainer. She has had the privilege to work with athletes from multiple countries and across multiple levels ranging from high-school and youth sports to the elite/semi-professional. She is passionate about empowering coaches through her work in developing Trauma Informed Coaching training as well as aiding youth development through her research centered around public health, policy and sports medicine.