The Purpose and Power of Sport
Everything important that I’ve learned about life, I learned on the soccer field before I was 16 years old. It’s a bold, attractive, and perhaps provocative statement. Ask any poetry-prone and perhaps overly dramatic athlete and they’ll tell you about how their sport reflects the best and worst of life; they’ll tell you that a game is a microcosmic life, that a season is birth, growth, and death, that a career encompasses all the major benchmarks and setbacks of a lived life. They’ll tell you that the game can be the rehearsal for the real thing: struggle and failure in sport prepare us for the disappointment in life; victories and accomplishments propel us to want more in the world beyond the arena.
There is, in practice, a bifurcation in the sports world. For the sake of clarity, we should consider them as the “Sports Development” path and the “Sport for Development” path. Sports Development concerns the more traditional understanding of the purpose and use of sports, and at the youth level is devoted above all else to one thing: producing good athletes. Meanwhile, the lesser observed and known Sport for Development (S4D) world is focused broadly on a wholly different outcome: producing good people.
According to Shaping the Sport for Development Agenda post-2015, assembled by inFocus Enterprises, a social impact consultancy, on behalf of GIZ, a German-based service provider in the realm of international cooperation, their working definition of S4D[i], adopted from Right to Play’s ‘Promoting Practice Action and Policy Change” report, is:
“’the intentional use of sport, physical activity and play to attain specific social development objectives.’ It represents a particular approach to the design and delivery of sport and physical activity programmes that helps leverage the positive attributes of sport and follows a set of core principles that support the prioritization and optimization of social objectives from a S4D programme, above any sporting performance outcome.”[ii]
Any online search regarding S4D, positive youth development, or sports-based youth development will return mountains of research, anecdotal stories, studies, and NGO names with stake in the S4D bubble. The literature is growing, the field is expanding, and the stakeholders are becoming more deliberate and well informed on this relatively new mode of promoting development.
The list of organizations is lengthy. Each has taken on its own section of the globe, its own cause, and its own methodology. The US Soccer Foundation’s aim is to provide a platform and curriculum in which children learn about health and nutrition. PeacePlayers International uses basketball for conflict resolution in divided communities. Grassroot Soccer uses soccer to spread knowledge about HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention. There are innumerable more that address gender equality, disabilities, education, unemployment, the environment, and any number of other issues. Many do great things where they operate, others less so.
I hang my hat at AMANDLA EduFootball[iii], an S4D organization focused on the use of soccer to teach life skills to youth from particular communities in South Africa. In a general sense, the organization seeks to improve the quality of life for participants through role modeling positive decision making, facilitated discussions regarding important and practical life skills, and the common language of the beautiful game. Among a number of variables, what makes AMANDLA unique in this field is that it provides not only the programs (think: software), but the field and a clubhouse structured to be outfitted with a classroom, staff office space, and the capacity to support small partner offices (think: hardware).
Underpinning this model is the notion that children need a safe space to play, grow, and learn, hence the name Safe-Hub. With the growth and maturity of the organization, these Hubs are meant to become community gathering points where community members can play, learn, get the support they need to continue moving forward, and everyone can grow peacefully. There are currently three Safe-Hubs in South Africa: two in the townships of Cape Town, Khayelitsha and Gugulethu-Manenberg, and one in Diepsloot outside of Johannesburg.
Without diving too deeply into the political history of South Africa, it’s important that I note that while apartheid—a governmental ethos based in racial segregation and oppression—ended 22 years ago, the social hangover persists in townships around the country. Hundreds of thousands of black and ‘coloured’ (referring to people of mixed race) South Africans were restricted to living in townships on the outskirts of major cities under apartheid. What remains are communities of formal houses as well as informal houses fashioned from corrugated sheeting. These townships are mired by high levels of poverty, heavy unemployment, minimal or underdeveloped infrastructure, gang violence, and terrible drug problems, among other things.
AMANDLA has built Safe-Hubs in these particular areas to provide children and young adults with an opportunity to realize their own potential and avoid the destructive forces that run rampant in their communities. While so many of us, myself included, use sport as an escape from the everydayness of our lives only to return to those rhythms and routines later, AMANDLA’s life skills focus is trying to make that escape more sustainable in the lives of the participants.
Synergy of Life and the Game
Setting aside any arguments regarding the original intention or purpose of sport as entertainment or pacification of the masses, we’re left with a powerful narrative through efforts undertaken by organizations like AMANDLA. Yet, equipped with this knowledge of the theoretical standards of S4D as well as the practical example in AMANDLA EduFootball, I am left with a burning question about all of this: why the divide between sports development and sports for development? Is it possible to find a form of absolute synergy between sport and life?
It should be so obvious. It rests on the tips of our tongues. We struggle to articulate exactly how we can possibly transcend a model in which we favor the athlete over the individual or the life skills over the sporting prowess. So, when we move from the ethereal concepts swimming through our minds to the documented and institutionalized practice, we find ourselves prioritizing the great person or the great athlete. Not both. Informed by my own experience and certain idealism, I can’t help but believe that there must be a means through which to create the complete and unrecognizable integration of sport skills and life skills in a way that creates great people and great athletes—a means through which life skills inform sport skills and sport skills inform life skills.
In the same way in which we can analogize sport to life, we can do the same with career and life. As such, I am in the infancy of this process. Wide-eyed, bushy-tailed, and idealistic with little reservation, I am fascinated by what is possible. I’m driven by wandering and excited conversations with colleagues, the powerful coaches who devote themselves to the growth and development of youth from their communities, and above all else, the internal reassurance that everything important that I’ve learned about life, I learned on the soccer field before I was 16 years old.
[i] There is no single agreed upon definition of sport for development, an issue addressed at some length by the report.
[ii] Hatton, Damian, Shaping the Sport for Development Agenda post-2015, InFocus Enterprises, (2016), 6.
[iii] Amandla means ‘Power’ in Zulu and Xhosa. Here I would also like to reiterate that while I work for AMANDLA, I am here through generous support from the CTC Ten Foundation, AMANDLA’s founding partner of the CTC Ten Safe-Hub in Khayelitsha, AMANDLA’s first site.