Sports programs create social change for youths

Molly Miller

Staff Writer

Sports are used around the world to improve the lives of children as well as the communities they live in.

Four experts on the topic of youth and community development through sports spoke about this growing trend on Oct. 7 during a presentation that was a part of the International Sports Programming Initiative: “Sport for Social Change.”

Funded by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and developed by UConn’s Global Training and Development Institute, the program allows 10 professionals from the United States and 10 from South Africa to learn globally about youth sports.

This presentation featured Dr. Marion Keim from the University of the Western Cape and Nariman Laattoe of the Western Cape Network for Community Peace and Development, both from Capetown, South Africa.

Megan Bartlett, the Chief Program Officer of a coach and community sports training organization Up2Us based in Boston, and James Morton, the president and CEO of the YMCA of Greater Hartford, represented the American side of sports and youth development.

The speakers agreed that coaches can play a hugely important role in young lives. 

“Coaches can be the most transformative adults in the lives of kids,” said Bartlett.

Morton spoke about his experiences with caring adults. Growing up very poor, he never spent more than a year at the same school. 

“I was not a confident learner,” Morton said.

Morton was put in a class for slow learners and juvenile delinquents, but was helped out of it by a teacher. In high school, a track coach told him that he would get him to college if he worked as hard in the classroom as he did on the track.

When he became a track coach, he used his influence to try to keep kids in school.

“We want to put a caring adult in the presence of every child,” Morton said.

His goal with the YMCA is to build credibility with kids so they will trust the adults in the program for advice when they’re older.

Bartlett explained that training coaches specifically with regards to youth development is crucial.

“Most coach training doesn’t involve understanding of youth development, mental health issues or community issues,” she said.

Bartlett is working to fill this gap by training coaches and developing training programs for people who already coach teams of young people.

Laattoe agreed that understanding the community is very important when trying to implement new programs, especially in a country like South Africa.

“For many years community development was something done to people,” she said. “We want to build something together.”

Communities in South Africa are working through issues specific to their history, which isn’t always understood, even by those with good intentions.

“There’s still an issue of the psychological effects of apartheid,” she said. “Funders don’t understand the fertilizer that needs to go into the soil.”

Keim, who blends research and academia with hands-on community engagement, explained that South Africa has the greatest wealth disparity in the world.

Keim has participated in South Africa’s changes as they occurred, working with some of the country’s first multicultural sports programs.

She explained that sports alone couldn’t change lives.

“It’s not the sports. It is us using sports as a tool in the place we find ourselves,” Keim said.

Morton spoke about finding resources for these programs. At the YMCA, programs in impoverished communities are funded by the revenue from memberships and summer camp tuitions at suburban centers.

Leonard Marthinus is one of the South African professionals who is participating in the International Sports Programming Initiative.

In his home country, Marthinus works with at-risk youth and uses sports for behavior modification and conflict management.

“In high-crime areas, I use sports to bring balance,” Marthinus said.

Marthinus said that he tries to reward good behavior and hard work. “They just want to be acknowledged.”

Marthinus will visit sports and youth development programs in New York as part of this program to teach and to learn.

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