The use of sport as a means to provide psychosocial support to people affected by disaster is a relatively new area of sport and development. A small number of research efforts and project evaluations have begun to help us understand the link between participation in sport and physical activity and trauma relief. While it is not yet clear how sport programmes might be effective in relieving trauma, the little evidence available (most of which focuses on children and youth) has shown that sport and play activities can enhance resilience, facilitate emotional and social stabilisation and the acquisition of new skills and abilities in people affected by disasters.
Psychosocial sport and play programmes aim to restore social well-being and psychological health through group-focused practices, tailored to fit the contexts of local culture, traditions, needs and resources. It is understood in the emergency field that group intervention is most effective, whilst it is appropriate for individuals with more serious psychological symptoms to receive individual support within the overall health system.
Psychosocial sport programmes can provide a safe, structured and friendly environment for people to begin to share their emotions through verbal and non-verbal communication. The emphasis is on building social cohesion and encouraging community members to interact and communicate with each other. Sport and physical activity can allow for brief periods of respite, focus attention away from the experience of loss and provide an opportunity to reinforce educational messages. Additionally, sport and play can provide a welcome breathing space for parents and caregivers, highlighting the impact of sport and play programmes on different levels of community members.
Creating a supportive environment through sport
Several project evaluation reports of the Fondation Terrre des hommes - Lausanne’s psychosocial programme of recreation centres after the Bam earthquake in Iran, revealed that children preferred being in a group rather than ‘doing nothing at home.’ In fact, ‘having fun’ was the least popular reason children chose to participate in the sport and play programme. There are also indications that participation in psychosocial sport programmes can positively influence school performance and children’s behaviour in the home environment.
Psychosocial sport activities do not have a primary focus on competition but rather an emphasis on creating a cooperative and supportive environment in which people can share their emotions through verbal and non-verbal communication. There is no direct evidence supporting one activity over another, although contact sports should be avoided. Also, preferences for certain sports or games can differ between male and female participants for reasons relating to culture and religion.
The role of sports coaches in psychosocial healing
Coaches (sometimes referred to as animators or facilitators) have an important role in providing psychosocial support. Coaches, after training, can become trusted adults whom young people, parents, and others affected by disaster can build relationships with over a period of time. This is an important element of psychosocial healing.
There is compelling practical, anecdotal and theoretical evidence to suggest that psychosocial sport and play programmes can assist people who have experienced severe stress or trauma in a disaster setting. However, little empirical evidence exists and this has been linked to the complexities of conducting research in an emergency setting, to limited financial and technical capacities of disaster relief agencies and to a small number of validated tools to measure psychosocial impacts of sport and play.