‘We just played basketball for 30 minutes’

This ‘We just played basketball for 30 minutes’ blog article was written by Marina Dickson, Manager in the Professional Education Services team, at the Australian Childhood Foundation.


As professionals we seem to find all sorts of ways to question our own skills, capacity and efficacy in our work.

One of those ways is often the sense that we are not doing ‘real therapeutic work’ – or words to that effect. I heard these words recently from one of the team at the Australian Childhood Foundation and it got me thinking – what does ‘just playing basketball for 30 minutes really do?

This blog tries to unpack that by looking at a range of areas of trauma impacts and link them to the experience of playing basketball. While I apologise to neuroscientists for the simplistic neurobiological analysis, I hope this provides a helpful way of looking at the strategies and activities we use in our work, often intuitively, and the value they can provide to the children and young people with whom we work.

Area of trauma impact – 

  • Brainstem The physical activity enables the heartrate to elevate and we and we can then work on decreasing it toward the end of our time together.  This is helpful in terms of building physiological rhythm and also links into the area of safety discussed shortly. 
  • Diencephalon – This session builds some sensory associations with positive experiences – the feel of the ball, the sound of it hitting the backboard, the taste of the water we drink during the session, the sight of an adult having fun alongside the child.  Not so sure about the smell but I am sure there will be something! 
  • Cerebellum and corpus callosum – There is a rhythmical movement associated with bouncing the ball and then running that is also linked to activities that cross the midline – bouncing the ball from one hand to the other – which support activating both sides of the brain. 
  • Limbic system – It is likely that this will be a positive emotional experience if the child engages with it for the full half hour.  However, there is also capacity to manage feelings such as frustration and even anger in a safe and contained way during the play. 
  • Cortex – This activity gives the child or young person an opportunity to plan their moves in getting around the adult to take their shot.  There will also be discussion and perhaps the opportunity to use some ‘inventive’ language in terms of trash talking! 
  • Prefrontal Cortex – There are lots of opportunities for problem solving during the play.  What can I do if this person is taller than me?  What can I do to take a shot by getting past them?  How can I distract this person so I can duck past them?  There is also the opportunity for reflection on possible plans ie: What did I do last week to beat this adult and what didn’t work last week? 
  • Relationships – Clearly, this is a positive relational experience with an adult outside of the home.  This process also incorporates multiple elements of relational exchanges such as turn taking, cooperation, other conversation topics that may be challenging to discuss.  There may also be physical contact that is positive and safe. 
  • Polyvagal Theory/Safety – Playing basketball, or any sport, is likely to be an experience of positive mobilisation.  This means that much of the physiology of the mobilised response is activated but connected to neuroception of safety. 
  • Physiological arousal – As with the connection to safety above, this provides an experience of safe physiological arousal that is likely to hold the child at the edge of their window of tolerance.  We may need to monitor our own responses and also the child or young person’s to ensure they don’t push outside of their window but this positive experience enables hyperarousal that is beneficial. 
  • Play – Playing something like basketball with just two people enables an opportunity for cooperative play – which can be a challenge for children and young people who have experienced trauma.  This playing ‘with’ not just playing alongside or alone is a more advanced developmental stage of play.  It also provides an opportunity for joy in play which can be something that children and young people have struggled with or struggled with being able to experience. 
  • Attention – This is a huge one that can get lost in the midst of the rest of the discussion.  This child or young person has been able to focus their attention on one thing for 30 minutes! 
  • Identity – Regardless of whether you keep score or not, this is a success experience.  This a child or young person demonstrating personal agency regardless of their skill level, because they are most likely to always be better than the adult!  For some children and young people it can even move into the realm of mastery and builds a sense of their own capacity and identity.
  • Memory – There are lots of layers of memory associated with this experience – such as the positive sensory associations mentioned earlier.  However, it also gives children and young people an opportunity to revisit and review an experience and its elements and outcomes if we do it more than once.  This helps them to hold onto a memory and be able to revise it to help them hold episodic memories more generally. 


This is just a brief analysis based on my own reflections about aspects of trauma and its impacts but it tells us how something so simple is actually so complex. 

I am sure as you are reading this you could think of other areas that you could add to this list and we would love to hear about those. 

While not all of us necessarily have basketball skills or the physical capacity to engage in this activity it is a reminder that working with children and young people gives us as professionals opportunities to connect and play and that these are incredibly important and certainly have both an overt intent and a therapeutic outcome that is very much at the core of working with trauma.