The Role of Sport in Addressing Youth Violence

11/04/2015 09:23 am ET Updated Nov 04, 2016

Approximately 775,000 youth in America are involved in gangs. According to Kids Play USA Foundation, adolescents who don't have adult supervision at least three days a week are twice as likely to hang out with gang members and three times as likely to be engaged in criminal behavior. Laureus Sport for Good Foundation USA supports sport organizations that target at-risk youth in under-resourced communities, using sport as a tool for social and community cohesion. There are two ways we can address youth violence and crimes: prevention and reducing recidivism, which is the tendency to relapse into criminal behavior. By harnessing the power of sport and providing youth sport programs with strong mentors, the sport for development sector can strongly impact the lives of youth and environments in communities to help prevent youth violence and reduce recidivism. While many sport for development programs exist that are successful in touching the lives of these children before they go down the road of crime, there needs to be more programs that are dedicated to rehabilitating delinquent youth so recidivism does not occur.

Prevention

It is critical to start employing tactics preventing youth violence from a young age. October was National Bullying Prevention Month, and Playworks CEO and Founder Jill Vialet explained in her blog post that bullying can happen because of two factors: environment and adverse childhood experiences. The sport for development community is addressing these factors by creating pro-social, pro-inclusion environments, and safe places for kids to play; many of these programs are intentionally designed and equipped with coaches who know how to work with and include youth that have had adverse childhood experiences. Sport-for-development programs have the power prevent youth from turning to delinquent activities, and there are many programs which do this very well in communities around the country. The STARS Program in Fort Myers helped reduce the amount of juvenile arrests by nearly 1/3 since the program started, according to the local police department. The STARS Program provides opportunities for youth ages 6-14 to engage in activities such as sports, music, dance, arts, and academics, with the intention to provide alternatives to gang involvement, drugs, crime, illiteracy, and poverty. Son of a Saint, a local organization in New Orleans, aims to help at-risk boys who have lost their fathers to street violence or long prison sentences by providing them with mentors who can provide support, guidance, and encouragement during a critical part of their childhoods. Son of a Saint members participate in team sports and other recreational activities, while their mentors step in and attend their extracurricular activities and support them the way a parent figure would. Brooklyn Nets star Wayne Ellington is committed to using his celebrity power to stand on a platform against youth violence. He has begun advocating for peace and reducing violence as a featured speaker at Peace Day Philly's March for Peace, as well as through participating in the fourth annual Chicago Peace League Basketball Tournament, which is aimed at reducing gang violence and create peace in Chicago's communities.

In September, Up2Us Sports hosted a panel discussion on coaching to prevent youth violence. Anne Tremblay, Director of the Mayor's Office of Gang Reduction and Youth Development, emphasized the following:

This isn't just about kids playing sports... It is a cost-effective and powerful way to transform communities and youth away from violence.

Reducing Recidivism

Laureus published a report regarding the economic benefits of sport tackling youth crime. With three examples of programs in the UK (Kickz, The Boxing Academy, and 2nd Chance), the report showed that sport programs can reduce costs for society by "reducing costs to the criminal justice system... and improving the life chances of young people." The report tracked youth in various stages of the criminal pathway. In one Kickz location in North London, youth crime dropped from more than 2,500 incidents to less than 900 incidents in the third year of programming; 20 percent of this reduction is thanks to the Kickz program. This demonstrates that intentionally designed sport-for-development programs can be used to prevent crime and reduce recidivism.

Various states have turned to psychotherapy methods with the goals of reducing recidivism amongst juvenile offenders. MST Services works with organizations and service systems, and trains therapists in multi-systemic therapy (MST), or using a combination of psychotherapy methods to improve the youth's ability to make good decisions and stay out of trouble. MST Services conducted studies in a number of states and found promising results. In Study 2, the MST group had "75 percent fewer official adult convictions for aggressive crimes than the control group" four years after their treatment period. Stanford Youth Solutions provides the Juvenile Justice and Prevention Program in partnership with the Sacramento County Probation Department for youth offenders and youth participating in at-risk activities. Through this program, functional family therapy is used as a form of rehabilitation with the goals of "reducing criminal behaviors, decreasing individual and community risk factors, changing negative family relationships and enhancing protective factors to facilitate relapse prevention."

Communities and local organizations that provide youth sport programs can make an immeasurable difference in preventing and reducing youth violence by intentionally addressing this issue. Kids Play USA Foundation presented some benefits regarding youth sports:

There are plenty of programs and national initiatives that have proven to be successful in preventing youth from engaging in criminal behavior. However, the U.S. lacks enough programs that reduce recidivism amongst youth. The sport for development sector needs to respond to this gap. Many studies have shown that juvenile crime rates are consistently reduced in neighborhoods where sports-based youth development programs enrich the lives of at-risk youth. These programs often result in community cohesion, which promotes the acceptance of people from different backgrounds and encourages strong and positive relationships between these individuals. There needs to be more youth sport programs that aim to rehabilitate youth who are already engaging in criminal activity and steer them in the right direction through mentorships and physical activity; this way, we can establish environments that are pro-inclusion and peaceful. We can see the positive impact sport programs have on the youth in our communities. The sport for development sector should create more programs to increase community cohesion in challenged communities where the number of youth engaged in violence is high.