I was thirteen, had just moved to the US from Quebec, Canada, and was beginning to develop my own opinions about the world around me. I was also beginning to realize that as the less-academically-inclined or outgoing half of a pair of identical twins, I’d need to edge out my own unique identity through something other than school or my social circles. While making sense of the weird feelings of growing up, socializing, and thinking for myself, I found reprieve from paralysis-by-analysis on the soccer pitch.
My pestering ‘identity crisis’ ebbed and flowed over the better part of my teen years, but the simplicity of soccer kept me rooted. On the field, things ran quite simply: as a left back, my role and purpose was to keep the opposing team from scoring and, when possible, launch a counterattack or join my team’s forward momentum. Soccer provided an escape from the quotidian nature of a well supported and structured life. Soccer was my podium.
Years later, after graduating from college, I taught English in South Korea through a Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship (ETA) on the pretext that I’d use soccer as a way to connect with students outside the classroom. The theory was simple, if not inaccurate at times: I could reach engaged and motivated students in the traditional classroom setting; I could reach the troublemakers and less-than-academically-stellar students on the field.
On my first day of coaching, I walked down to the dirt soccer field that doubled as a parking lot when the school was hosting special events to a group of about 18 boys sitting on the concrete bleachers. Of the 700 boys I taught, these boys represented the most disengaged, disruptive, disrespectful—and just about any other nightmarish quality for a teacher—students of the lot. Within two weeks, there was a cumulative shift in attitudes, mine included. Soccer had humanized them to me and me to them. They were devoted to the game in the same way that I had been as a kid.
I don’t have the credentials to psycho-analyze anyone, but I’m quite sure that for some of those boys, soccer was a way out of the academic bottleneck that sometimes plagues South Korea. For some of the boys, it was a long term aim—professional soccer—and for others it was short term—a Tuesday afternoon away from lectures, memorization, and strict regulations on all aspects of life at school. Soccer was their escape.
Four years and a master’s degree later, I find myself sitting in Cape Town, South Africa working for AMANDLA EduFootball on a one-year fellowship through the CTC Ten Foundation. I’ll speak more about the organizations, their missions, values, and work, but for the purpose of this post, I’ll speak to an experience from just a few days ago.
After a particularly grueling 13-hour workday, I was leaving a 5-a-side tournament at one of AMANDLA’s fields on Friday night. A man from the township in which the field is located started speaking to me. Without introduction or asking who I was, he dove into a reflective monologue about the importance of this field for the community. It was 11pm on a Friday night and roughly 200 young men between the ages of 18 and 26 were playing in a round-robin tournament.
In short, there were 200 young men who had elected to play instead of getting involved in any number of destructive habits available in the townships—areas of high poverty rates, startling levels of violent crime and gangsterism, and chronic unemployment. It meant that there were 200 young men who opted out of going to the bars and drinking or facing pressure to experiment with drugs. This man with whom I spoke highlighted the simple victories that a field can have. Beyond all the programming, politics, and administration, this field gave the players an escape from the types of forces that derail young lives around the world.
From these brief anecdotes, I see two important thoughts. First, the game, and sport in general, has an exceptional way of being a blank slate for anyone. For me, sports continue to be an outlet for identity, for my boys in South Korea, it was a reprieve from school-based pressures, and for all of the kids in Khayelitsha and Gugulethu (the Cape Town townships in which AMANDLA operates), soccer provides a safe place to play.
Second, and closely connected to the first thought, while I was a common component of the three stories, I was only central to the first, when I was a player. The promise that I see in sports-for-development comes from the way in which it is not wholly dependent on a single person, a privileged person, or a well-educated person. Sport intrinsically provides a rich foundation from which to grow. Beyond all the well-worn clichés about sports, the change that is possible, the escape that is accessible, and the potential that is realizable, what is perhaps most revealing is that the change, escape, or potential has always come about through the participant’s initiative and ownership of the process.
I firmly believe that if we give sports the chance, they can change us in profound ways, because when used responsibly they don’t just teach us, they reveal qualities within us. In that sense, sports and play that are available to people around the world have this curious way of feeling as though they’re tailored to each of our personal needs.