Nelson Mandela said it best: “Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand.” The non-traditional classroom of the sports field is not only powerfully unifying, but also ripe with tangible learning opportunities. Some sport-based programs focus on addressing barriers to participation, using the sport itself as the classroom to teach life-skills, promote physical fitness, and reinforce positive decision-making. Other programs use sport as a hook to motivate youth to participate in off-field programming such as academic tutoring, community service, and so on.
At Soccer Without Borders, we strive for the best of both worlds. The value of the soccer team itself as a living classroom should not be underestimated. With the right adult mentor and coach, personal and interpersonal challenges such as disappointment, success, conflict, and pride, can be converted into teachable moments that shape the character and maturity of youth participants. These “soft skills” are undoubtedly powerful, but breaking cycles of poverty and advancing personal and professional goals may also require hard skills and credentials. Things like computing, written and oral communication, and navigating a college process require concrete preparation are often necessary to access ladders of opportunity. In our programs, wrap-around services such as academic tutoring, language instruction, test and college preparation, and informational workshops complement our sport activities. Academic goals are embedded into team goals, with game and tournament play leveraged as an incentive for positive school engagement. In our international programs, where public primary and secondary schooling is not free, we provide opportunities for invested participants to earn school scholarships to pay for fees, uniforms, and supplies.
Whether teaching hard or soft skills or both, programs like these should be viewed as a part of the larger education strategy. A failure to address the specific barriers to girls’ participation in sport-based programs is a failure to provide the holistic education they deserve. Roll out a soccer ball almost anywhere and you could have hundreds of male participants within hours, even minutes. With limited resources, perhaps the extra investment to create a girl-friendly out-of-school space is viewed as too much. Or perhaps sport leadership that is overwhelmingly male lacks the understanding of how to go about it. In a funding landscape that values massive participation, some might argue there is a lack of incentive. This must change. There are sport-based programs that are leading the way in girls’ engagement, and there are incredible models of girls-specific education programs outside of sport. It’s time to work together to fix this.
This topic is incredibly timely. The largest all-female single sporting event in the world is going on in Canada right now: the FIFA Women’s World Cup. Alongside it, this month sport practitioners, academics, advocates, and educators, gathered in Ottawa for the Girl Power in Play Symposium. There, a collective call to action was issued with concrete recommendations for change. Join us by signing the Call to Action and making it known that sport, education, and empowerment of girls are inextricably linked- then let us move forward together to change the world.