How I Used Basketball to Help Black Boys Embrace Emotional Wellness

Voices | Mental Health

How I Used Basketball to Help Black Boys Embrace Emotional Wellness

By Clementina Jose     Jun 12, 2024

How I Used Basketball to Help Black Boys Embrace Emotional Wellness

"It would be amazing if the boys were able to find their voices and develop confidence before they go into high school," my supervisor remarked during a meaningful conversation about Black boys in our school.

She expressed genuine concern about the challenges many staff members faced in effectively relating to and supporting Black boys. She noted that the boys would often have emotional outbursts in class, and when confronted about their behavior, they would become unresponsive and disengaged. This lack of engagement was evident as they avoided eye contact by looking down, fidgeting with their hands and seemed generally disinterested in the conversation. Their reluctance to speak up was further highlighted by their low, hesitant voices and apparent skepticism about expressing themselves.

Engaging Black boys effectively in conversations about emotional wellness requires a deep understanding of their unique experiences and cultural backgrounds. Culturally relevant approaches are essential in supporting their emotional development and fostering a sense of belonging. These behaviors created a significant barrier to staff understanding the students' needs and providing the necessary support, underscoring the importance of developing more culturally responsive and empathetic approaches.

Initially, whenever individual students ran into emotional outbursts, I tried traditional methods like distributing worksheets focused on mental health and wellness. However, these worksheets merely listed definitions and coping mechanisms without providing engaging content or opportunities for meaningful discussion. It became evident that these approaches were not resonating with students. Digging deeper, I discovered a shared passion for basketball among the boys who were expected to be a part of the group.

"Leveraging this interest could be key," I proposed in the next meeting with my supervisor; with their support, I introduced the "Talk it Out Basketball" program as a way to blend their favorite hobby with meaningful discussions on emotional expression and self-worth. This initiative allowed them to feel heard and valued — and gave teachers and administrators an opportunity to discover a new method that can help address the mental health crisis of Black boys in the classroom.

Playing Through It

Recognizing the urgent need to create a safe space where these boys could thrive, I started an eight-week “Talk it Out Basketball” program a few months ago, with five boys from the seventh and eighth grades. This program aimed to blend their passion for basketball with meaningful discussions on emotional expression and self-worth. The first week began with a circle gathering, where I introduced the program's concept, emphasizing the importance of creating a safe space for open dialogue.

To break the ice, we started with questions related to their favorite aspects of basketball and what the sport meant to them, fostering a sense of camaraderie and trust within the group. As we progressed through the program, each session delved into specific themes crucial to their emotional development, including identity exploration, representation, dreams and aspirations, self-expression, empowerment and critical inner voice analysis.

Students eagerly lined up on the court for the game rounds during each session. Questions related to confidence and self-esteem were posed, with varying difficulty levels. For instance, questions like, “Have you ever let a fear of failure hold you back from something new? How did you overcome it?” challenged them to confront personal obstacles and share strategies for resilience. Each correct answer earned points for their team, which encouraged healthy competition and teamwork.

At the end of each session, I provided an opportunity for students to debrief for five minutes, share their thoughts and feelings and reflect on what they learned about themselves and each other, identifying affirmations and setting personal goals for growth.

Enriching Lives One Basketball at a Time

The powerful influence of the “Talk it Out Basketball” program was evident in the transformative experiences of the participants. A clear sign of its success unfolded when a student, previously hesitant to vocalize his emotions, mustered the courage to approach his dean and request a fidget toy during moments of overwhelm — an unexpected act of self-advocacy that signaled a remarkable shift in his emotional awareness and coping strategies.

This singular instance not only exemplifies the program’s capacity to empower individuals to assert their needs but also underscores its broader mission of fostering a culture of openness and support among students.

Moreover, teachers reported observations of heightened engagement among students who participated in the program; even when they did not know the answers to questions in class, they still made an effort to contribute. Such outcomes highlight the importance of culturally relevant approaches in nurturing emotional resilience and fostering a sense of belonging among marginalized youth.

By seamlessly integrating basketball, a familiar passion, with structured discussions on identity, self-expression and empowerment, this program not only enriched the lives of the participants but also set a precedent for holistic, community-driven interventions in Black male youth development.

It’s crucial to recognize that Black boys are not a monolithic group; while basketball may resonate deeply with some, it may not necessarily be the ideal approach for every cohort. This emphasizes the importance of initiating conversations with students to understand their interests and preferences, thereby ensuring that interventions are both culturally relevant and personally meaningful.

By actively involving students in shaping their educational experiences and bringing elements of their identities into the school space, we foster a sense of ownership and belonging that is essential for holistic well-being and academic success.

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