Sports Participation During Treatment

Sports participation and education plays a major role in Recreation Therapy services. The benefits reach well beyond the field or court. I recently wrote a letter helping to illustrate how life-changing a sports participation program can actually be for troubled youth.

Illinois has a unique program allowing youth in residential facilities a chance to explore athletic opportunities and develop physical and interpersonal skills. Of course, sports participation can reach just about any special needs population when adapted properly and coached well.

I invite you to read my reflections on nearly a decade’s worth of work proudly helping at-risk youth.

The Benefits of Sports Participation: A Coach’s Perspective

When I first interviewed for my previous job over ten years ago, one of the lobby’s main focal points featured a large bookcase with trophies from several sporting events. During my interview, I learned these trophies were from sports participation events sponsored by the Illinois Inter-Agency Athletic Program (IIAA).

The IIAA is a program designed to provide athletic opportunities for youth housed in residential facilities. Throughout the year, these facilities collaborate to offer sports like basketball, volleyball, softball, bowling, swimming, and track and field locally and statewide. The program is funded by the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) and also seeks assistance from sponsors and individual donors.   

When hired as a Recreation Therapist for the Adolescent Unit, I quickly learned how valuable this sports participation program was to the young men in my program. And, more importantly, how these trophies were just the tip of the iceberg of all the IIAA has to offer.

image of basketball gameBackground

For over nine years I worked in a residential setting for young men (ages 13-20) in a drug rehab/mental health program. Many of these boys were Chicago inner-city youth tied to the criminal justice system admitted to our program as part of their probation.

Needless to say, they weren’t exactly thrilled to be in residential treatment. They came to the program more fixated about their discharge date than learning anything the program had to offer. The typical stay lasted anywhere from 1 to 9 months depending on a variety of factors.

As part of the Recreation Therapy program, we participated in just about everything the IIAA offered. It was a highlight for the boys–a chance to experience something more than groups and the day-to-day routine of residential treatment.

I want to share with you just some of the benefits of this very valuable program.

Increased Engagement in Treatment

Once the young men got familiar with our program and earned certain milestones, they became eligible to participate in the IIAA program. As they got involved in the sports and other events, they quickly discovered their behavior and willingness to engage in treatment would increase their chances of participating in the outings and events related to the IIAA.

As a result, their behavior improved. Some peers became positive role models to keep other struggling youth focused and engaged. A team mindset evolved on the field, court, and the unit.

The boys wanted to be a part of the IIAA. In fact, some actually rescheduled their home visits to participate in state events. As I walked into work early on a Saturday morning, many of the youth were awake and excited to hit the road for state tournaments.   

Willingness to Try Something New

Our boys often gravitated to basketball or weight-lifting during recreation periods. When a particular sport season came around, however, they wanted to practice and learn. They asked to go out and play softball, volleyball, or practice track events. With the IIAA, these boys were able to open their minds and try something new. Or something they gave up as they got involved in gangs, drugs, etc.

Opportunities for Teachable Moments

Group therapy and activities certainly have their value in this setting. Of course, sometimes the lessons taught may seem boring or contrived. During sports participation, however, positive coaching debriefing sessions allowed the boys to explore issues like sportsmanship, anger management, communication, teamwork, dealing with frustration, supporting one another, and so much more.

Positive coaching for these youth is an art form. After all, many weren’t natural athletes. They already experienced a hard life plagued by trauma, abuse, drug use, and criminal behaviors. Many of the IIAA coaches, however, turned some of the worst meltdowns into an opportunity to learn and grow. I can’t express enough how much I respect I have for my fellow coaches. Their impact on these kids’ lives could hardly be put into words.

Exposure to a Positive Atmosphere

All too often, we hear about the egos and issues of professional athletes. The necessity to win often sacrifices character and general human decency. The IIAA events were the exact opposite. Sure, the teams wanted to win, but everyone knew this was something much bigger than winning. The camaraderie and supportive atmosphere put winning in the background.

I developed relationships with coaches all over the state. We focused on making a positive sports experience for the youth who already dealt with so much in their young lives. We encouraged our teams to play hard. Our goal, however, revolved around positive behavior.  We wanted the youth to be good people throughout the competition. As coaches, we knew the youth already struggled significantly. We did our best to minimize demoralizing losses or moments triggering other traumas.

Feeling Proud of Accomplishments

Many of the boys in my program fixated on their negative behaviors as accomplishments. Illegal or dangerous activities, gang involvement, and drug use were bragging rights. Sadly, this was the life they knew. The opportunities to use their skills for positive endeavors diminished as they became more entrenched in a self-destructive lifestyle.

As the boys practiced and participated in IIAA activities, they soon learned (or re-learned) they could be a part of something positive–and actually enjoy it.

Our program was a little different than some of the other agencies involved in the IIAA. The boys often had a shorter stay. This meant less time to coalesce as a team. Still, they worked together, tried their hardest, and, despite the challenges, felt a sense of pride after the events.

I can’t tell you how many times the boys walked into a restaurant after an event with their medals, trophies, and uniforms seeking recognition for their accomplishments. You could see the pride in their faces and actions. When they came back to the unit, they often regaled the other boys with stories of the tournaments. Many of the boys proudly hung their medals on the bulletin boards of their temporary residence.

Even when the boys fell well short of winning at a tournament, we turned it to teachable moments. We talked about how working together despite adversity helped build character and resilience. Just about every tournament we left had the boys feeling better about themselves and what they could do.  

Finding New Ways to Relate to Others

Since many of the boys in our program had gang affiliations, this was how they related to one another. Sports participation, however, allowed them to temporarily suspend these attitudes in an effort to work together for a common goal.

Instead of seeing one another as an affiliation, they saw their teammates as individuals with both strengths and weaknesses. They supported one another and celebrated successes. The two-dimensional view of being a rival gang member turned into an opportunity to view someone else as an ally and human being–not just a label.

As a result, the long rides home were often met with stories, laughter, and a sense that they were all in this life experience together. Even if these moments were short-lived, they were profound and affirming opportunities for these boys to enjoy new perspectives.

Truly Enjoying a New Experience

As we practiced for a bowling tournament at a local alley, one of the boys threw a strike. He proudly said it was the first time he ever did it. After a few more weeks of practice, we set out for the state bowling tournament. He had one of the highest scores and earned a trophy for it. That trophy sat proudly on his desk throughout his stay.

I can happily tell dozens of stories I’ve observed just like this. The IIAA gives troubled youth opportunities to get out of their comfort zones, try something new, and truly benefit from it.

One of my favorite sports to coach was volleyball. At first, the boys were reluctant. They called it a “girls” sport. As they practiced, learned the fundamentals, and got better, they became invested. I can’t tell you how many times a series of good volleys had the boys laughing, excited, and totally suspended from their negative feelings of being in residential treatment.

Since the state tournaments were usually a 2 to 3 hour drive away from our facility, the boys got a chance to see a world outside their “block”. Some never saw the countryside, farm animals, or whatever else we encountered during our drives. They looked on as the miles passed.  One could only imagine all their thoughts as they took in the sights.

Recreation and sports participation is so important to youth in residential treatment. They have their schedules, groups, and daily routines. And, of course, that can be stressful and frustrating for them. When on the court, field, etc., however, it allows them to be something they’ve probably longed for–being young and having fun.

image of soccer fieldCreating Lasting Memories

Boys periodically return to our residential program. It’s the nature of the business. One of the first things they asked about were the upcoming sports. Some were actually excited, because, sadly, they didn’t have the opportunity to participate in something like this back home.

There were also boys that visited years later after successfully completing the program. They talked about their experiences with the IIAA and how it was a highlight of their treatment.

This is why programs like the IIAA are crucial to at-risk youth. While learning in groups and during counseling is important, the skills they practice during sports participation may be a major stepping stone to creating positive change in life.  


Coaching for the IIAA for over nine years taught me so much.  It helped shape the way I coached and related to others. More importantly, seeing the youth work together, deal with adversity, and make the best of whatever situations were handed to them serves as an important source of inspiration. 

The IIAA helps change lives–the youth, coaches, volunteers, and everyone else involved in the program. Without a doubt, developing more programs like the IIAA can change the way we offer treatment.  

I extend my sincerest gratitude to Tom Corr, Dave Dance, and everyone else that played a part in planning and implementing the IIAA activities. We may never know just how profound these events were for the youth.


Be Part of The Real Recreation Therapist Community

Comment below, share on social media, and tell your story so other professionals can gain valuable insights which ultimately help their participants.

Does your Recreation Therapy program have a sports participation program?

How have sports benefited your participants?


By the way, I know it is has been awhile since I posted. Things got busy. I hope to add more valuable posts soon. Are there any topics you would like to see on TRRT blog? Please drop me a line.

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