Fusing Sport and Therapy to Heal and Strengthen At-Risk Youth

What if we challenged the norm of traditional talk therapy through the power of sport?

Photo of David Cohen
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Founding Story: Share a story about a key experience or spark that helps the network understand why this project got started or a story about how you became inspired about the potential for this project to succeed.

Doc Wayne Youth Services is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization founded (in 2002) by Susan Wayne in memory of her brother, Eli (Doc) Wayne. Eli was a pediatric surgeon as well as a tremendous supporter of youth sports as a medium for positive youth development. Long associated with professional sports, in his volunteer work with kids he coached many troubled youth towards lives of good behavior and joyful accomplishment. His work with kids serves as an inspiration for Doc Wayne staff and kids.

Which categories describe you? (the answer will not be public)

  • White (for example: German, Irish, English, Italian, Polish, French, Caucasian)



Location: Where is your organization headquartered? [State]

  • Massachusetts

Location: Where is your organization headquartered? [City]

Boston, MA

Location: Where is your project primarily creating impact? [State]

  • Massachusetts

Location: Where is your project primarily creating impact? [City]

Framingham MA, Boston MA

Problem: What problem is this project trying to address?

There is a tremendous need for culturally-specific mental health services for low-income youth. 1 in 5 children under the age of 19 suffers from a mental illness that impairs how they function at home, at school, and with peers. It is estimated that only 20-34% receive treatment. This low percentage can be attributed to a lack of transportation, low retention rates, high cost, and the stigma that is often attached to seeking mental health treatment. With our Chalk Talk® group therapy, we can overcome barriers by providing a culturally competent, accessible, engaging, affordable, and sports-based mental health intervention where the youth already are.

Chalk Talk® is a sports-based group therapy program that enables youth to work towards treatment goals in an environment in which they feel comfortable participating. Experience has shown that many youth find it easier to say they are going to a sports group than to group therapy. As one experienced mental health clinician said after observing our Chalk Talk® program in action, “I’ve never seen youth run to therapy before.”

We have our do the good® and Chalk Talk® curricula that our team is trained on and follows as guides for our programming. The Chalk Talk® group therapy modules have been designed so there are 28 total therapy sessions that embed seven weeks each of soccer, basketball, flag football, and indoor rowing.  Delivered by a trained mental health clinician and coach who teach, model, and reinforce positive behaviors through team sports, Chalk Talk® is designed to help young people feel effective and successful. While playing sports, youth practice pro-social behaviors such as positive decision-making, communication skills, and impulse control. These life skills improve behavioral health and enable youth to succeed at school, at home,  and in their communities. 

As a sports group, there is no stigma in continuing in “therapy” – which is one of the strengths of the model.

Is your model focused on any of the following traditionally underserved communities?

  • Communities of color
  • Low-income communities

Does your model work within any of the following sectors?

  • Child and Family Services
  • Community Development and Empowerment
  • Mental Health

Year Founded


Project Stage

  • Growth (the pilot has already launched and is starting to expand)

Example: Walk the network through a specific example of what happens when a person or group engages with your solution.

Jenny, a Doc Wayne athlete for five years, has been in DCF custody from the age of three. Jenny flourished once she reached a treatment center that participated in Doc Wayne sports. The stable and caring environment coupled with an opportunity to take positive risks and be active was what she needed. Being part of Doc Wayne helped her learn social skills, feel confident, and improve her clinical awareness. On the field Jenny was an equal teammate and someone her teammates could rely on. Doc Wayne games were so important to Jenny that participating was her motivation to stay safe the rest of the week. If you ask her what’s most important she will likely tell you about the Do the Good® skills, her teammates, and her coaches.

Impact: What was the impact of your work last year? Please also describe the projected future impact for the coming years.

Doc Wayne has served as a gateway service to youth by providing them with access to mental health services and referring them to additional providers - our youth are not being served by other services. In addition, Doc Wayne continues to reduce resting heart rates and aggressive behaviors, while increasing helping behaviors by 570%. Our youth show a 28% decrease in engaging in conflict. Youth are more likely to consistently attend Doc Wayne sessions than other more traditional mental health services; Doc Wayne beats the national average no-show rate for mental health services by more than 20%. In FY16, Doc Wayne's Chalk Talk® program served 185 youth per week. In the upcoming fiscal year, we are projecting that we will serve at least 225 youth per week. We have grown from working with three partner sites in FY15 to 13 in FY16. We are projected to have 20 partner sites in the coming year.

Organization Type

  • nonprofit/NGO/citizen sector

Annual Budget

  • $500k - $1m

Financial Sustainability Plan: What is your solution’s plan to ensure financial sustainability?

Chalk Talk® group therapy is a reimbursable service through Mass Health, Massachusetts's Medicaid program. Chalk Talk® is sustainable through third party billing. To continue the program's growth and provide bridge funding to hire more mental health clinicians and staff members as well improve our systems (billing, notes, records), we have acquired philanthropic support.

Unique Value Proposition: How else is this problem being addressed? Are there other organizations working in the same field, and how does your project differ from these other approaches?

There are other outpatient clinics and community health centers available to our population. However, many of the known obstacles to mental health care are diminished through Doc Wayne's model. Our service is mobile and our mental health clinicians bring services to where the youth are in the community, which eliminates the need for transportation. Doc Wayne's service reduces the stigma for requesting mental health care by using the power of sport. The accessibility of our services and using sports make our model unique.

Reflect on the Field and its Future: Stepping outside of your project, what do you see as the most important or promising shifts that can advance children’s wellbeing?

To advance children's wellbeing, it is important to train educators and other professionals who work with youth to identify symptoms of mental health disorders. Supporting other innovative mental health approaches that reduce stigma, like alternative therapies that engage youth outside of the therapist's office, could improve children's wellbeing. Ideally, it would be important and helpful for youth and their families to have access to care regardless of their health insurance plan or carrier.

Source: How did you hear about the Children’s Wellbeing Challenge? (the answer will not be public)

  • Email

Program Design Clarity

Our beneficiary community includes at-risk youth living in South Boston, Dorchester, Hyde Park, Jamaica Plain, and Framingham. The main activity we do with our youth is sports-based group therapy (Chalk Talk®). Although we do our Chalk Talk® groups once to twice a week at each site, we are constantly involved and immersed in the communities we serve. We consider ourselves a community member of the neighborhoods we work in. Masters-level mental health clinicians and trained coaches provide direct services to our youth and run our Chalk Talk® groups.

Community Leadership

We have frequent interactions and meetings with our partners, which includes teachers, community center leaders, and parents. Our partners' input helps us improve our services within a specific site. Based on our community knowledge, we are informed about the social inequities that exist in each community. Since 85% of our youth are of color, we are sensitive to these inequities and they are discussed and processed during our groups.

Age of Children Impacted

  • 3 - 5
  • 6 - 12
  • 12+

Spread Strategies

Our main strategies include speaking at conferences and educating clinicians on our model with the hope that sports therapy becomes more normalized. Doc Wayne is committed to the Boston area at the moment, but we are thinking through the train the trainer models, as well as franchising. We are hoping to make connections with government officials, insurance companies, potential funders, and leaders in mental health in order to increase our impact.

Reflect on how your work helps children to thrive. How are you cultivating children’s sense of self, belonging, and purpose through your model?

Wendy D’Andrea, et al. (2013) has found that our sports-based model is just as effective as traditional individual psychotherapy. The support that our mental health clinicians provide for our youth helps them realize their full potential in life. Team sports, when constructed using positive youth development techniques and trauma-informed care, help create a child’s sense of self, belonging, and purpose.

Leadership Story

David Cohen (CEO) has been deeply involved in sports-based youth development since 2008. He is managing and overseeing the Doc Wayne operation while exploring ways to broaden the organization's reach to more youth on a national and global scale. Rebekah Roulier, LMHC (COO) has extensive experience in coaching and work in youth services. She is responsible for day-to-day operations and supervision of staff and programs. After only serving youth in residential programs, we have expanded our reach to communities and schools, which has been made possible by being able to bill through insurance.

What awards or honors has the project received? (Optional)

2015 – Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Sports Award: Influential Leader and Model for Others Making Communities Healthier Through Sport Category Winner 2014 – Root Cause Social Innovator 2014 – Provider’s Council Innovator of the Year

Organization's Twitter Handle


Organization’s Facebook Page (URL)


Evaluation results

5 evaluations so far

1. Relevance: Does this project seem to help children (ages 0 to 12 years) develop a strong sense of self, belonging, and purpose?

5 - Yes, this is great! The project lays out a strong, compelling case for how its model nurtures children’s wellbeing. - 20%

4 - It seems like a good fit, and the model talks explicitly about children’s wellbeing. - 60%

3 - I think so. The project seems related to children’s wellbeing, but the logic is vague. - 0%

2 - Not sure. The project doesn’t have much to do with wellbeing, or it doesn’t give enough information. - 20%

1 - Nope, this project definitely doesn’t fit the challenge brief (e.g., It doesn’t help kids younger than 12, isn’t in the U.S., etc.) - 0%

2. Innovation: Does this project tackle children’s wellbeing from a new angle?

5 - I loved this! The project describes a novel model that addresses important cultural or systemic barriers. - 40%

4 - This is pretty cool. The project is addressing an important problem in a new or compelling way. - 40%

3 - I feel like there’s something there, but I want more details about what makes it distinctive. - 20%

2 - It’s a good project, but I’ve seen others like it before. - 0%

1 - It was confusing or hard to tell what it made it different. - 0%

3. Social Impact: What is this project’s potential for creating positive social impact?

5 - Lots of potential. This project is achieving impressive results, and it’s growing quickly. It could absolutely inspire changes in the ways we approach caring for kids nationally, across sectors (e.g. childcare, healthcare, education). - 0%

4 - Pretty good potential. This project demonstrates significant positive impact so far, and it could scale regionally or nationally one day and fundamentally change how a system operates (e.g. childcare, healthcare, education). - 60%

3 - Budding potential. This project is creating local impact, but it would take a few adjustments before it could scale. - 20%

2 - Some potential. This project demonstrates some initial positive impact, but it would require major changes before it could scale. - 20%

1 - Limited potential. This project has great intentions, but it looks like it does not include key drivers of a shift towards children’s wellbeing. - 0%

4. Overall, how do you feel about this idea?

5 - This idea rocked my world. It’s awesome! - 0%

4 - This idea seems really exciting. With a little more polishing, it’d be among my favorites. - 60%

3 - I think the idea is great, but it needs some work before it moves onto the next round. - 40%

2 - I liked it fine but preferred others. - 0%

1 - It didn’t make my heart beat faster. Needs significant revisions. - 0%

5. Offer some feedback. Where should this participant spend some time revising?

DEFINING THE PROBLEM. Make sure to articulate the root causes or main barriers of the social issue your project addresses. (Founding Story, Problem, Solution). - 50%

CLARITY OF MODEL. Make sure to mention (a.) the beneficiary, b) the main activities, and c) how those activities drive social impact. Keep it streamlined! - 25%

MARKETPLACE. Make sure to research other players in this space and articulate how this project is different. I didn’t get a complete sense of how this project compares to others. - 75%

IMPACT POTENTIAL. Make sure to use specific numbers to describe what your project has achieved so far! And consider how you might scale the model or its insights, through partnerships, trainings, or franchising. - 100%

WRITING STYLE. Try to stay concise and make it vivid. Avoid jargon. - 25%

Nothing stands out! I thought it was great. - 0%


Join the conversation:

Photo of Tesfaye Ayalew

Great idea David! I’m student at Penn State University studying Kinesiology Exercise Science. So everything that was showing on the video was very clear and I can see a a change on the communities. “Exercise is the Medicine”
Thank you for sharing your ideas!

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