Week 6

October 22nd, 2012 | Uncategorized

Greetings everyone,

It will be nearly impossible to capture the following experience in a short blog post, in a way that truly conveys how profound it was. As such, I’m sorry for the inevitable length, in advance.

In an odd sort of paradox, since I’ve arrived here, I’ve realized more and more each week that I am blessed well beyond my capacity to realize how much I am blessed. I’m not just talking about the incredible opportunities that Sport Changes Life has given this group of scholars over the next 9 months. Having finally been introduced to some of the communities in which we’ll be working and coaching, I’ve learned of hardships and difficulties that I can never begin to fully comprehend. 

Back on UL’s campus, all I have to say to a classmate is “I’m going to be coaching and working in the community of Southhill this year,” and the looks I get (mixtures of shock and pity) tell me everything I need to know, even before the stories that follow.

Yet, for every description I’ve heard of drug-use, crime, and murder, I’ve encountered another two stories of hope and promise…in a community that feels disregarded and not-so-discretely alienated by the government and residents of the Limerick area. More often than not, these stories of hope arise in the form of individuals who’ve given up their lives and careers, to work in these communities, striving to help the residents (particularly, the young ones) find direction and purpose. 

This past week, Sarah and I finally met John, a soccer coach, and the man with whom we’ll be working throughout the year in Southhill – an impoverished community that seems to be a breeding ground for drugs, shootings, arson, and more generally, what the Irish call “antisocial behavior”. (On a sidenote, after two months here, I wish the Irish version of Microsoft Word would stop telling me to put a ‘u’ in words like ‘behaviour’…it’s annoying.) 

We got our first taste of this environment when we were driven through these neighborhoods and introduced to other individuals who are trying to make a difference, as well as some of the residents themselves.

Within 24 hours of this introduction, I learned a lesson that will stay with me throughout the rest of my life.

The day after meeting John, I went to watch him coach a soccer team made up of Southhill residents (his plan, and I agree, is to slowly and gradually involve us in this type of work). Walking down to the field, I didn’t know what to expect. How would individuals from an area prone to “antisocial behavior” actually behave on a pitch – in a structured athletic environment? 

Throughout the rest of my life, I’ll never forget what I witnessed over the next hour of training. The group was a mix of talent. There were some with skill and technical ability, but there was an apparent lack of tactical awareness in general, presumably attributable to a lack of structured coaching in the past. The session began with sloppy play, accompanied almost immediately by a barrage of yelling and profanity among the players. John had them playing a short-sided (8v8) game to small goals, and the initial result was difficult to watch, to say the least. The yelling and cursing increased steadily, and tensions were noticeably rising.

And then, with one sentence, everything changed. 

John shouted “Each time a player turns the ball over to the other team, he has to drop and do five pushups, while the game continues.” It was a very simple rule change – one that I’ve encountered in my own career with past coaches. Yet, in this instance, my initial expectations envisioned complete chaos. “There’s no way this particular group of guys will respond well to this…” 

I couldn’t have been further from the truth. In an effort to avoid the extra fitness, nearly every player began to focus his energy solely on possessing the ball within his team. Teamwork across both sides skyrocketed. The shouting and profanity gradually disappeared…well, almost disappeared. 

Instead of focusing on the other players, each guy focused on his own responsibility to keep possession of the ball. 

The style of play gradually transformed – from utter chaos into an impressive (and Barcelona-like) display of 1- and 2- touch soccer – as the ball was moved skillfully around the field. 

It took one slight alteration in the rules of the game to turn this practice into (believe it or not) one of the most attractive displays of soccer I’ve seen since I arrived in this country. At the end of the session, I overheard one of the players telling his teammate, as they walked toward the parking lot, that it was “one of their best practices yet”… 

More importantly, it made me realize how a small change can have a massive and echoing effect across a group. Whether or not this will serve as a microcosm to the contributions we make in this community this year remains to be seen. I only hope I can continue to learn from John and the others, and maybe, just maybe, change one life for the better. 

**This served as the first real testament I’ve experienced here in Ireland, to the impact sports and physical activity can have on the lives of those who don’t have much else. I’m sure that I’ve only encountered the tip of the iceberg in terms of hardships these communities face. But, this training session opened my eyes to the extraordinary influence one can have, if given the right tools and the right approach. Sport Changes Life and these other organizations are doing incredible work…and I’m beyond honored to be a part of it.

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