From the refugee camps of Palestine to the mats of ‘Cheer’ – why sport is a game changer for children’s mental health
Imagine a small crowd of children. They are intently focused on an adult who’s teaching them how to do handstands and cartwheels, how to manoeuvre their bodies with discipline and grace. They are rapt – fascinated, intrigued and excited by what the trainer will teach them next. They clap and laugh. Let your imagination picture the wider scene – these children are in Arroub Refugee Camp, Palestine. Outside their classroom, shots are fired and tear gas is used. Many of their parents and family members have been seized or killed during conflict, and they live in a world where it’s normal for soldiers to raid their homes at night. Having a short moment of play in their daily lives allows them to be children again, and regulates their emotions, if even for a little while.
Now transport yourself halfway across the world, to Navarro County, Texas. A group of young people are training in their community college gym. It is an intensely corporeal experience – great smacks are heard as bodies tumble across the mats and rebound from apparatus, and sweat permeates the air. There are even occasional crunches as bones are broken. But still the young people documented in the first season of Netflix series ‘Cheer’ show up. Their hard work and dedication in this gym can figuratively and literally transport them, opening up new opportunities for their future. Here they are part of a supportive family unit – something that not all of them are lucky enough to experience at home.
This is the transformative power that sport can have on the mental health and lives of children and young people, regardless of their circumstances.
I know this from my own experiences. The children in the refugee camp are being taught capoeira through a project run by Capoeira4Refugees, the charity I co-founded that uses the sport as a psychosocial tool for children in conflict zones. These children have experienced great trauma, which often shows up as PTSD. It’s evident in behaviours such as aggressive tendencies, an inability to control their emotions, regular nightmares, and more. Traumatic incidents can trigger the brain and body into ‘fight or flight’ mode: the brain literally rewires itself, and a physical change occurs. To rewire the brain out of this ‘unresolved trauma’ mode takes time and safety. Sport is one known way to do this. The structure, sense of community and safe space fostered can help etch new pathways into a scarred mind.
There are many other proven benefits. The classes enable the children to develop their physical capacities and related self esteem. Capoeira is a martial art, and so the children learn discipline and self-control. But capoeira also incorporates music and elements of dance, so they learn creativity and self-expression. It is highly collaborative, and forges strong trainer-student bonds. The importance of role models in this context cannot be underestimated. People that show up and are there for these children, who believe in them, and demonstrate that they can be something more (or something different) can be critical to their wellbeing and positive development.
Similar transformative effects can be seen played out in ‘Cheer’. The young gymnasts do not generally come from privileged backgrounds. They are not always the best scholars. Sometimes they exhibit self-destructive behaviours. But through the regularity of their practice, through the guidance of their coach, and through the community of their team they grow individually and together. They develop a sense of purpose, and become physically and mentally stronger as a result.
I didn’t grow up doing regular sports, but aged 18 I joined a martial arts class while at university. It was made up of lots of tall, physically imposing men; as a shorter Muslim Asian woman I could have easily felt the odd one out. But this wasn’t the case at all – the class proved to be an incredibly comfortable space, and I always felt like I belonged. Since then, I’ve loved staying active throughout my life. It’s helped me during times of high stress, and made me feel part of something. I’d encourage everyone – children and adults alike – to try it and enjoy its positive effects.
Ummul is CEO and co-founder of Capoeira4Refugees, RealtimeAid, and tech start-up Frontline Aid. She is an advocate for race, equality, female leaders and localisation. She wrote this piece in response to Children’s Mental Health Week 2022.