September, for me, will always be synonymous with soccer. To be sure, the smell of freshly cut grass and the twinkle of the stadium lights will never leave me. As a former collegiate coach, the fall brings memories full of laughter, exhaustion, hard work, friendship, pain, and joy. A wave of possibility washes over me every September: the possibility of greatness. Teams kick off the season wondering what the months ahead will hold and committing to pursue collective greatness. This pursuit, they well know, is not without sacrifice. Placing the team above self is a prerequisite for success in competitive sports; I appreciate and congratulate the sacrifices that coaches, players, trainers, and staff will make for one another this fall.
Still, I can't help but wonder what constitutes a worthwhile sacrifice. Is it wins, a championship, or their pursuit? Perhaps it's the moments in between: the laughter, the friendships, and the shared purpose. By far my favorite part of being a college coach was the opportunity to shape and influence young adults in their pursuit of greatness, however defined. While most college athletic departments include off-field outcomes as a part of their mission, in the midst of an accelerated recruiting process and a professionalization of college sports, winning, branding, and revenue seem to be prioritized above all. Coaches are obligated to win, and their jobs are at risk for falling short. The irony (unless we're in for a season of endless ties) is that numerically half of them must lose. Few will win a championship and just a single team in every sport will win the championship.
The pursuit of what greatness, then, justifies the sacrifice? Strip away the demand for wins and the influence of money and media, and you have the foundation for sports-based youth development (SBYD). In this model of sport, programs and coaches have the opportunity to make choices with a singular goal in mind: supporting young people to be great. I am often asked how SBYD differs from my experience as a collegiate coach or professional player. Three things come immediately to mind. First, it focuses on the development of the whole person, on and off the field. Sport (in my case, soccer) is the hook or common language, but it approached and leveraged in such a way that outcomes off the field are the ultimate goal. As it turns out, wins often follow.
Second, SBYD programs reach young people who lack pathways to inclusion and success due to differences in culture, ability, language, social capital, and financial resources. Their potential, though, is extraordinary. I think about Marwa, a 13 year-old girl from Iraq, who finds herself living in Oakland, CA after her brother Saleh accidentally picked up an abandoned American explosive, blowing up his hands, abdomen, and face. Saleh and his family were evacuated to the Oakland Children's Hospital, where Saleh made a miraculous recovery. Enrolled in a new school, in a new place, beginning a new life, Marwa's team gives her the space and support to be young, to be understood, and to heal. Her team is full of refugee girls from around the world whose families have been resettled in the U.S. with the hope for a safer, brighter future.
Third, of the 1,000+ decisions, small and large, that are made over the course of a season, SBYD programs get to prioritize what's best for the personal growth of their participants every time. That means when the team wants to use practice time to make a video to lobby the school board for a new field, the practice plan goes out the window. It means that scholarship nominations are based on character, work ethic, investment in the team, and commitment to the goals of the program. It means that behavior consequences for the best players are the same as for the worst. It means that no player is ever encouraged to quit or transfer for a being unable to contribute on the field. Decision-making as a coach is far from easy; adults working with young people in any context are constantly challenged by nuanced, complicated situations. However, rather than weigh what's best for the fans, or the scoreboard, or sales, or marketability, SBYD coaches get to focus their energy, talent, creativity, and kindness on those who need and deserve it the most: the young people who look up to them.
As the fall season begins, I am nostalgic for the smell of freshly cut grass and the possibility of a championship. With a new school year upon us, I also wonder if the heated dialogue about the purpose of collegiate sports will perhaps draw a lesson from sports-based youth development: give coaches the space and support to be educators who teach their players how to be great in more ways than one.