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  • Soccer Without Borders

Our Mantras: You play best when you're smiling

Joy is contagious. There is nothing that beats the feeling of being together with teammates and mentors, laughing and learning together. Yet the number one reason that kids quit sports is that it's not fun. Creating joyful and fun sport spaces starts by understanding that players are whole people who come to the field with complex stories, feelings, experiences, and stressors.

Two girls laughing and laying on the field
SWB programs include plenty of informal time, where participants form friendships and get to know one another outside of school and soccer. Friends are a major reason why more than 80% of SWB participants return year-over-year.

A coach's energy sets the tone for the team. This is why two of our essential coach behaviors in our FAMILY coaching framework are to "greet each participant joyfully by name" and to "model positive energy throughout the session." By taking these simple actions consistently, coaches invite each player to find joy in the game and in one another.

Coach Bela refereeing
Coaches take on the role of referee-mediator in SWB leagues to encourage players to ask questions, learn the game, and resolve conflicts before they escalate.

Our mantra "You play best when you're smiling" isn't only about fun and joy, but also about how we incorporate self-care and care for others. Many of our participants have experienced acute trauma through forced displacement; many also experience chronic trauma from exposure to community violence, poverty, and unsafe schools and neighborhoods. We incorporate trauma-informed coaching strategies like opening and closing circles, patterned, rhythmic, repetitive behaviors, and predictable, consistent transitions in order to create a sense of safety and promote healing.

Kids posing for a fun photo on the soccer field
In the words of one SWB parent, "This program is a medicine to many things like trauma." More than 95% of youth participants at SWB Uganda are refugees and asylum-seekers from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

We draw on research and partnerships with experts like the Center for Healing and Justice Through Sport to learn about the effects of trauma on young people's stress responses to design our programs to be healing-centered. This means prioritizing consistent, multi-year head coaches to ensure caring and reliable relationships; creating team and field markers to make every day feel like a home game; and offering league seasons with exposure to positive stress through healthy competition.

Teacher supports a student
Care for others is not just on the field, but by supporting one another through inevitable ups and downs that build , including navigating difficult circumstances like the Covid-19 pandemic.

Healthy stress looks like trying new things, getting out of your comfort zone, and knowing that your team has your back when you make a mistake. The combination of "safe space" and "try everything" - two of SWB's five rules - creates a sweet spot where participants are challenged, experience failure, and build resilience.

A player runs smiling on a soccer field
Energizer games are viewed as a silly way to get everyone moving and smiling to start the session, but getting the body moving and people laughing releases endorphins that will help everyone feel safe and uplifted to start the session.

Nature has its own healing strategies. While most SWB programs operate in urban areas, we prioritize taking team trips out into nature, enjoying hikes at state parks, playtime at the beach, trekking in the mountains, sledding down hillsides, and an occasional white water rafting trip. Getting off of screens and into the trees is always a great recipe for joyful time together.

Players from a soccer team stand together
Our Coach Foundations and Creating Belonging series are designed for new staff to not only learn the ropes at SWB, but also to meet their teammates across locations and gain a supportive community of program practitioners.

You can't give from an empty cup. Self-care is not only for our participants, but also our staff, who experience vicarious and secondary trauma as they support youth and families through challenging circumstances. A caring interpersonal culture is one of many strategies we use to ensure our best program practitioners can stay healthy and energized year after year. "You play best when you're smiling" is an everyday reminder of the whole person approach that makes SWB a community filled with joy, fun, and care for one another.

A participant receives a ball and activity kit at home


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