My partner and I enjoyed a movie over the weekend — an old favourite — Coach Carter. Coach Carter is based on a true story of high school basketball coach who suspends his team for breaking their academic contract. This movie provides a critical examination of the intersectionality of race, class and socioeconomic status. As well, there are many examples of less-than-adaquate attachment relationships, and trauma histories as the movie delves into the personal stories of the basketball players.
While I do not agree with all of the teaching and relationship strategies employed by Coach Carter in the movie, I believe several of his strategies were trauma-sensitive and likely quite progressive considering the movie premiered in 2005. Some examples of Coach Carter being trauma-sensitive included his not lowering expectations despite what he knows about his player’s histories, his restorative discipline approach, use of social stories for the purpose of respectful relationship building, reframing student narratives through the use of positive self-talk and affirmations, impartiality to student behaviour and his overall understanding of the systemic oppression faced by his students.
The other polyvagal observation assignments that I have completed were primarily centered around observations of people in sympathetic or dorsal vagal states. For this assignment, I wanted to focus on a trauma response that also resulted in activation of the social engagement system. The character in the scene, Timo, has a family history of involvement with drugs and violence. His behaviour in the school by way of angry outbursts, threats, and intimidation leads me to believe that he is frequently in a state of hyperarousal. His trauma issues are clearly unresolved and he is lacking attachment figures that would assist him in co-regulating. It is likely that he is rarely, if ever, in a vental vagal state. His autonomic nervous system is in high gear as it searches for cues of danger in his dysfunctional life.
When Coach Carter arrives two important things happen. First, Coach Carter and Timo begin to form a positive relationship. In Coach Carter, Timo is able to find consistency, predictability and ultimately, safety. Second, some of the trauma-sensitive strategies used by Coach Carter which I listed previously, make way for Timo, and the other players on the team to be socially-engaged, forming positive connections with each other; increase their self-agency and self-advocacy, learn about repairing relationships and second chances, increase self-esteem and overall positive life narrative.
In the following scene, Timo’s cousin, is killed in a drive-by shooting directly across the street from where Timo is talking with a group of friends.
Timo goes into a “panic flares” (Wallace & Lewis, 2020, p. 84) state. Immediately after witnessing his cousin being killed, his adrenaline is high and he is in a high state of sympathetic arousal. In his panicked state, he runs towards his cousin and the scene cuts away as he calls out “Somebody help me!”.
The next scene shows Coach Carter opening the door to a panting Timo who has just run from the scene of the shooting. Timo begins to speak immediately in attempt to rationalize what has happened but stops short as he breaks down. At this point he continues to be in a sympathetic state. Coach Carter hugs him and Timo’s body goes limp inside the hug as he continues to break down further.
This scene illustrates how adults can be a regulating body for young people who are struggling and that the primary goal of the autonomic nervous system is to seek safety and connection. Though I wouldn’t consider Timo to be in a vental vagal state at this point, he is attempting to seek connection with someone he associates with vental vagal attributes and it is clear that his brain and body have down shifted.
Gale, D., Robbins, B. & Tollin, M. (Producer), & Carter, T. (Director). (2005) Coach Carter [Motion picture]. United States: Paramount Pictures.
Wallace & Lewis (2020). Trauma informed teaching through play art narrative (PAN). Brill Sense.