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Adverse Childhood Experiences: What Coaches Can Do

By William Massey and Sam Johnson on September 29, 2020 hst Print

Editor’s Note: This is the second in a two-part series addressing what coaches should know about working with athletes affected by adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). In the first article, we provided an overview on ACEs, the prevalence of ACEs and what individuals working with students who are experiencing (or have experienced) ACEs need to know. In this article, we focus on identifying practical strategies for coaches related to ACEs.

How Does Sports Participation Impact ACEs?

In the previous article in the September issue of High School Today, we discussed that research has demonstrated that sports can be beneficial for those impacted by ACEs1. However, competitive sport is not inherently a positive developmental opportunity for youth, and can trigger or amplify ACEs depending on the environment created and the behavior of coaches and teammates in that environment.

Below we outline strategies for creating an optimal environment, best practices in coaching behaviors, and resources for coaches interested in learning more. Implementing these strategies and best practices will aid not just athletes experiencing trauma, but all athletes.

The Sport Environment

Coaches know that playing sports goes beyond just what happens in competition. The interaction between athletes and coaches is an essential component, as is the environment that the coach sets. This can be particularly important for children who have experienced trauma because they can be hypersensitive to uncertainty and the dangers that can accompany the unknown. Therefore, coaches should focus on developing the following:

  • Structure
  • Routine
  • Predictability

In order to create a predictable environment, coaches should make clear what the norms and expectations are for players on the team. By creating codes of conduct, as well as establishing norms of interpersonal interactions, each player will know exactly what to expect. Importantly, accountability measures should be in place so that it is clear what will happen if any player does not meet standards of conduct. In addition to setting norms and expectations, consistent practice plans can help bring structure and routine to the sport environment. A well-executed practice plan not only will serve the athletes well, it will help in preparation for competition. Practical suggestions for developing structure, routine and predictability are listed in Box 1.

Box 1: Practical Tips for the Sport Environment:

  • Always start and end on time.
  • Provide a rough outline of practice or the practice plan to athletes at the beginning of the session. Consider writing out a plan that the team can see.
  • Provide clear transitions during practice activities. Use transitions to check-in with athletes who might be struggling.
  • Use music. Consider different playlists for different parts of practice.
  • Develop a code of conduct and implement supports and accountability for player behavior.

Coaching Behaviors

The relationship a player develops with his or her coach is critical to creating a positive experience in sport. One problem that can occur, particularly with children who have experienced ACEs, is the need for control on the playing fields. Often, coaches expect athletes to comply with directions, and become frustrated with a player who tries to question things or call the shots. Yet, the need for autonomy, or personal control, is paramount to all athletes, not just those experiencing ACEs. To help with autonomy, as well as to promote a sense of safety for athletes, Bergholz and colleagues recommend using C.L.E.A.R. communication:

  • Calming voice and tone
  • Listen deeply
  • Explain how and why you are doing what you’re doing
  • Ask engaging questions
  • Reduce outside “noise”

In addition to autonomy, all athletes, but especially those who have experienced ACEs, need opportunities to feel competent during their sport experience. Previous research in youth sport has shown that coaches who use encouragement and technical instruction in response to athlete mistakes have the best outcomes for athlete enjoyment, well-being and retention. Additionally, focusing on the athlete’s effort and improvement, rather than wins and losses, has shown to improve psychosocial and performance based outcomes.

Finally, athletes need to feel connected during their sport experiences. Box 2 provides strategies coaches can use to intentionally connect with athletes, particularly those who have experienced ACEs.

Box 2: Practical Tips for the Creating Connections:

  • Use informal times to talk to athletes about things other than sport (homework, homelife, etc.)
  • Conduct formal check-ins at each practice to see where athletes might need extra support.
  • Invite athletes to share traditions or rituals from their home or culture that can be integrated into the team.
  • Monitor and reflect on athletes you don’t ‘click’ with and work to build common interests.

Resources for Coaches Sport participation has the potential to be a transformative experience for youth, including those who have experienced trauma. However, to allow that to happen it is essential that coaches adopt behaviors and practices that create an environment that fosters the development of the whole individual – whether they have experienced ACEs or not. Many resources are available for coaches who are interested in learning more, some of which we have outlined in Box 3.

Box 3: Resources for Coaches:

Coaching Corps


Trauma Informed Oregon

Center for Youth Wellness


1. Easterlin et al. (2019). Association of team sports participation with long-term mental health outcomes among individuals exposed to adverse childhood experiences. JAMA Pediatrics, 173, 681-688. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2019.1212

2. Massey and Whitley (2016). The role of sport for youth amidst trauma and chaos. Qualitative Research in Sport, Exercise, and Health, 8, 487-504. https://doi.org/10.1080/215967 6X.2016.1204351

3. Ryan, R.M., & Deci, E.L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. The American Psychologist, 55, 68–78

4. Bergolhz, L., Stafford, E., & D’Andrea, W. (2016). Creating trauma-informed sports programming for traumatized youth: Core principles for an adjunctive therapeutic approach. Journal of Infant, Child, and Adolescent Psychotherapy, 15, 244-253. http:// dx.doi.org/10.1080/15289168.2016.1211836.

5. Smith RE, Smoll FL and Cumming SP (2007) Effects of a motivational climate intervention for coaches on young athletes’ sport performance anxiety. Journal of Sport Exercise Psychology 29(1): 39–59.