… Promote Leadership Skills Through Sports

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Putting in time: Instructor Kevin Price teaches Trey Benally, 7, about how to read putts, as part of the NB3 Junior Golf Program.

Photo: Notah Begay III Foundation

Sports seems to be a natural avenue to youth development, especially for leadership skills, because kids naturally gravitate toward physical activity and competition. But using sports to reach at-risk youths is a lot tougher than it appears.

“The mistake we make is [to believe] that sports builds character. In and of itself, it doesn’t,” says Don Hellison, professor in the College of Education at the University of Illinois at Chicago and co-author of Youth Leadership in Sport and Physical Education. Hellison says sports is a good medium because kids like it, but there has to be more to it.

His co-author Tom Martinek, professor in the Department of Kinesiology at the University of North Carolina Greensboro, agrees. “You have to have a set of core values that drives what you do,” he says. “The program has to teach kids life skills, not just sports skills.”

Why Teens Make Good Leaders

Hellison says a key to teaching kids to be leaders through sports is to eliminate the emphasis on winning. Instead, he suggests showing youths how to work with other kids in the community or showing them how to plan a lesson and then teach it to others.

That’s what Project Coach in Springfield, Mass., does. “In most communities, teenagers are looked at as vulnerable and as threats,” says Sam Intrator, co-project director for Project Coach. “We see them as inspired assets.” This is especially true in the north end of Springfield, where impoverished communities lack the parent volunteers to run sports programs for children. That’s why Intrator and fellow Smith College (Northampton, Mass.) professor Don Siegel decided to turn the community’s teenagers into coaches to have them to fill the shoes normally filled by adult volunteers. Their program teaches at-risk teens to lead younger children through participation in basketball and soccer.

“Teenagers have traction with younger kids in the coaching world,” Intrator says. “And leading kids naturally builds self-esteem for them.”

Teenagers participating in Project Coach receive salaries, and Intrator says making it a paying job is part of the strategy. “Our coaches feel professional,” he says. “They’re getting paid, and they’re making a tremendous time commitment.”

What Works

“Teenagers want to be on that horse,” says Patricia Broersma, who runs the Transformational Adventures with the Horse program in Ashland, Ore. “But we start with the groundwork first.”

For Broersma, that means working with youngsters on identifying the obstacles that stand in their way and then symbolically conquering those obstacles through increasing skill in horsemanship.

Intrator says it’s also important when trying to teach kids leadership through sports to give them a very real opportunity to lead. “Whether you’re doing sports or theater, what really works is when you work together, not in a hierarchy,” he says.

Broersma says she finds that a big part of teaching leadership is showing youths they can control their own destinies. She works with teens from a residential treatment facility and tries to create an environment in working with horses that encourages kids to see their lives as an adventure they must work their way through. “They start seeing themselves as in charge of their own stories,” Broersma says.

Kids can also be inspired when they are provided with something to which they wouldn’t normally have access. The Notah Begay III Foundation (NB3) in Albuquerque, N.M., for example, gives Native American youth on severa; nearby reservations the chance to play and develop skills in golf. “Golf can be a hard game to sell, because it’s very expensive,” Notah Begay Jr., head coach for the foundation’s Junior Golf Program, says. But when kids see the opportunity to be like Notah Begay III, a PGA pro, they want to be a part of it. “It’s not common for a full-blooded American Indian to be a pro golfer,” says Begay of his son.

Both NB3’s Junior Golf Program and Project Coach make use of a process of ongoing personal evaluation, through which kids analyze how they have performed. Hellison says this is central to making sports a leadership tool. “Have the kids self-evaluate at the end of the day,” he says. “Did you make this a better program today?”

Get Connected

As with any youth program, community connections are important to success. Project Coach has developed close working relationships with schools in Springfield, as well as local community organizations, and relies on both for recruits and for space to conduct its programs. “We’re very embedded in the community,” Intrator says.

The NB3 foundation has a strong relationship with To’Hajiilee High School on the Laguna Pueblo, which the golf program serves. The school provides uniforms and transportation. At the same time, the golf program requires participants to maintain passing grades in school. Program leaders say it helps youths develop the skills they need to build better lives. “A lot of kids on the reservations fall off the map after they graduate,” says Begay. By partnering with the school system, Begay hopes to inspire more Native American students to reach for higher goals, just as his son has.

Martinek says sports can be a great way to level the playing field for at-risk kids. “They get to experience a leadership role in a program,” he says. “These kids don’t usually have a lot of opportunity for leadership in school.”

“If you ask a teenager to lead and give them structure to do so, they can do remarkable work,” says Intrator.

Deborah Huso is a freelance writer based in Blue Grass, Va.