Sports can help bridge the cultural divides that afflict our country. The cauldron of competition forges bonds between people who otherwise would remain unconnected and perhaps fearful or hateful toward each other.
Youth and high school sports are particularly important in this realm, because they can counter the culture of divisiveness before it roots in young hearts and minds. The huddle, the dugout and the locker room are great places for children to learn that we are all one race, human, and that we must work and play together in order to conquer any opponent, including ourselves, and win not just in games but in life.
The best coaches lead these efforts. Every year Positive Coaching Alliance honors youth and high school sports coaches whose goals are winning and more importantly teaching life lessons through sports with the Double-Goal Coach Award Presented by TeamSnap.
Every year, I interview candidates for the award. Every year, it is emotionally wrenching to hear of the extreme highs and lows the coaches and their players experience. This year, the divisive political climate, racial tensions, anti-immigrant sentiment, class warfare, and mounting social ills, ratcheted the emotions of these interviews to record heights.
Here are excerpts from 12 of the interviews:
Mariano Albano, Alacranes de Arizona (soccer), Phoenix
For Albano, a retired City of Phoenix police detective, “education comes first,” he said. “Finish school, no matter what. Do whatever is in your power. If you need help, ask. I never finished high school. I grew up in the inner city of Phoenix, and I started working when I was 13. Coaching for me has always been about kids furthering their education, teaching them there are other things in life. In 1988, I started taking girls to Europe to play in major competitions, so they could see that there are other worlds out there, other cultures. I took any kid. It didn’t matter if they were one of the millionaires from up in Paradise Valley or if they lived in a shack down in South Phoenix.”
Wes Bateman, Reseda (CA) High School Softball
“After the election, some kids were upset and having a hard time with their feelings about it. We talked about it being OK to have those feelings, but if you don’t handle that in a productive and constructive manner, then that’s going to be destructive to you as a person.”
Kevin Castille, St. Thomas More Catholic High School Cross Country and Track and Field, Lafayette, LA
Castille brings his own redemption story to bear on the youth he coaches. As detailed in this Runner’s World article, Castille dealt drugs for about 10 years, paid his debt to society, and now, as one of the nation’s top master’s runners, who contended for the 2016 U.S. Olympic marathon team at age 43, speaks from a position of experience and authority in guiding youth toward healthy lifestyles. “Without parents, I was bred for that life. I just did not understand what I was supposed to do. As a kid raising myself, I did not know how to make adult decisions, but I got a second chance at life. When I’m with kids, I tell them they don’t want to go there.”
Joe Eassa, Unity Preparatory Charter School of Brooklyn (wrestling)
Eassa impacts a wildly diverse student body that has up to 90 percent of its students receiving free or reduced lunch. “I keep my numbers kind of small, 10-12 kids, and take them on as family. I talk to their families every week. I sit in their classes; if they don’t have the grades, they don’t wrestle, and they don’t come to practice. This helps me get them to understand the importance of what may seem like little decisions they’re making academically and behaviorally. The biggest thing for me is letting my guys know I care about them, that I’m going to be persistent, and that change is urgent.”
Eassa also has the chance to impact the life of his community as a whole, especially in terms of uniting such a diverse population. “As a white guy in Bed-Stuy, I grapple with this all the time,” Eassa said. “Race is a major issue. But I’ve found from my coaching and teaching that as long as you’re there for people, and you’re consistent and give them unconditional love, that bridges cultural barriers.
“We have some refugees from Yemen and a lot of Mexican students, and their (deportation) concerns are very real. It’s been emotional. I tried to be as calm and even-keeled as possible and acknowledge these concerns. You listen. You hear. You try to explain some inaccuracies. At the middle school level, some stuff can get sensationalized. If you come in upset, the kids will do the same exact thing you do. I try to lead by example, and just acknowledge that some of these things that are happening are very scary.”
Breeze McDonald, Earl Watson Elite Basketball, Los Angeles
“I believe in ‘Each one teach one,’ and I believe it takes a village. By establishing relational trust with my players, I help them establish relational trust in other aspects of their lives. Our players come from a wide range of backgrounds, some more privileged than others, and I teach them how to be culturally responsive and linguistically responsive with each other, on the court, off the court, and online, when they’re on social media.”
Jari McPherson, K-Town Raptors Football, Killeen, TX
McPherson, who has served in the military and as a state trooper for the Texas Department of Public Safety, brings that background to bear in serving a population he estimates as 80-percent military families. “I use football to teach them leadership. Even if they are not the quarterback or the star, they’re still leaders. Most of the problems with youth today come from following, from peer pressure. I grew up without a father, and I use that to teach them – because some of them don’t have fathers around – that they can make it. One of my main objectives is to keep kids out of police cars. I’ve arrested many kids, and it saddens me, because I think that down the line, there could have been a coach that taught them something different.”
Ann Murphy, FC Jaguars and Lutheran High School Soccer, Kansas City
Murphy is a Kansas City Police Department officer, pursuing a PhD with a dissertation focused on youth mentorship and gang prevention. She started coaching underserved youth in Northeast Kansas City in the aftermath of a gang-related teen homicide she was investigating, while at the same time hearing from a friend who was a middle school teacher about several at-risk students who loved soccer and could be formed into a team. Those eight sixth-grade boys were the original FC Jaguars, and they are now high school juniors, still playing for Jaguars under Murphy’s non-profit Youth R.I.S.E. (Resilience, Influence, Support, Education).
R.I.S.E now comprises three Jaguars teams that compete at the highest levels of youth soccer in the Kansas City area and sometimes travel to college showcase tournaments. “We had 18 kids graduate high school last year, and 12 went on to college,” Murphy said. “This year I have five kids committed to college on full scholarships and we’re still working on two more seniors right now. Next year will be a big class, the original kids I was coaching. I think we’ll have 14 graduating high school; two want to go military and the others want to go to college.”
The amount and depth of Murphy’s commitments often have her working a midnight shift for the police department, “sleeping a couple hours,” fulfilling other school and coaching commitments, then working with Jaguars “from 4 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. by the time I take all of them home,” she said. “We have a partnership with the Kansas City Police Athletic League, so they give us a van for out-of-town tournaments, and I use my vacation time to take kids to college showcase tournaments and get them recruited.”
Murphy sees the result of her work with youth as nothing less than “transforming me and the kids,” she said, “for example, knowing a kid who feels safe enough to call on me at two in the morning when he’s sleeping under a bridge because his mom kicked him out of the house. He used to be gang-affiliated and had a1.5 GPA. Now he has a 3.5 GPA, works full-time for a construction company, and is saving up to go to community college so he can be a business major and start his own construction company.”
Beyond the normal coaching challenges of teaching soccer skills and getting teammates to play well together, Murphy also faces issues and behaviors common to impoverished urban areas. For example, she said, some react strongly to rough play or even a referee placing a hand on a player. “Most kids from that community call it ‘frontin’.’ You have to present a very aggressive front because in their schools and their neighborhoods you’ll get killed if you show that you’re weak. I kind of have to calm them down about that.”
She also must find ways to meld the cultures and learning styles of refugees and immigrants from 15 countries “One kid is from Iraq,” she said, “and he’s very angry. He has a lot of aggression that shows on the field. If I see it, I pull him off and sit him on the bench. Talking to him calmly, he’s able to re-set his brain and learn that anger and aggression don’t work, so he goes back out there and tries something else. It’s different with every kid. You have to read the kid.”
Murphy is usually the only female coach in the Jaguars’ tournaments, she said. “But because we have entire teams of refugees and immigrant kids and second-generation Hispanic kids together from a poor-income community, and they can compete and win these tournaments, they don’t see me as female. They just know I have experienced some of the things they deal with, and they see how they can react to the world and realize, ‘I can do this.’ ”
Gus Ornstein, The Fieldston School (football), Bronx, NY
Ornstein – an alum of The Fieldston School, who went on to play quarterback in the NFL – brings much more than the x’s and o’s to be expected from his experience. At a well-heeled private school that also offers financial aid to children from less-advantaged sections of the Bronx, Ornstein melds a team of players from diverse backgrounds. What makes it work?
“This is a progressive institution. From the time kids get here, whether that’s kindergarten or sixth grade or whenever, they’re taught to think for themselves. They’re given a ton of leeway in their academic studies, a ton of space to find their own passions. If we weren’t giving our kids that same kind of freedom in football, they wouldn’t know how to respond. So, I want to give them space, want them to be themselves, ask questions, and have input. I want them to feel invested, like this is theirs. To coach that way, you have to feel secure in yourself and not feel threatened.”
Gerson Quinteros, DC Scores (soccer), Washington, DC
Quinteros, who leads a school site for the DC Scores after-school enrichment program that mixes soccer and writing, was crucial in his players’ ability to cope with life’s challenges. On testimonial submitted in support of Quinteros’ award candidacy read in part: “Gerson has served as a source of deep support for his players. Just after the Presidential election, many kids at Wednesday practice were scared and crying, unsure about their future. Many of the students are immigrants, as is Gerson himself. Gerson recognized that what his team needed that day was a good session of soccer—a safe space where they could play hard and not dwell on the uncertainties that weighed so heavily on all of them.
“Since DC SCORES is a holistic program, he’d already worked with students to help them write poetry expressing their fears and hopes related to the election. But Gerson knew that he’d best help his students that day by enjoying soccer as a pure form of sport and camaraderie. Since kids had already talked about the election, in school and at home, he decided to use the power of sport to heal—and by choosing for his players to enjoy soccer that day instead of poetry, he gave his kids a constructive way to burn off tension and calm down.”
Quinteros himself reflected, “Coaching kids who don’t have the opportunity to play any other sport is amazing. These kids just want to be part of a team or want to get fit. I like getting them united and feeling like a team and part of a community.”
Adhir Ravipati, Menlo-Atherton High School Football, Menlo Park, CA
Ravipati melds his players into a team, despite the sharp socio-economic divide between some teammates from Menlo Park and Atherton on the more affluent side and other teammates from the troubled neighborhoods of East Palo Alto. Ravipati reflects on that dynamic within the team: “Football happens to be one of those unique touchpoints, where we have these kids from different backgrounds all interacting together. It’s a chance to give a transformative experience to the kids.
“A lot of these kids probably wouldn’t interact with each other if it wasn’t for sports. We have kids from Menlo Park and Atherton, who, if you looked at them you’d think everything was amazing in their lives, just because they come from an affluent family and seem to have everything, but you learn some things about what they’re going through. Then you get the flip side of the kids from East Palo Alto, and together they learn an ability to rely on each other and be there for each other. Getting those guys to spend a lot of time together means a lot to their personal growth. It helps us bridge those divides, and you see really cool things, like kids from Menlo Park and Atherton going to hang out in East Palo Alto and the flip of that. We take that very seriously, and the kids embrace it, and we’ve seen some really special relationships come out of that.”
Michael Spencer, Place Bridge Academy (soccer), Denver
Place Bridge Academy, with a 65-percent refugee population, earned the Denver middle-school city championship under Spencer, despite extreme language barriers among players from Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe and Latin America. “No matter where they’re from, the players have a certain set of ball skills, so that’s one commonality that we can build off of,” Spencer said. “As players, they also have a variety of assets, so we try to group them together to recognize and share assets in a way that fills gaps. We also use a very simple vocabulary, so I might just yell ‘ball’ to let them know there is a 50-50 ball in play.”
Despite the challenges, Spencer and his team are gaining a new understanding of the power of sport to unite people from diverse backgrounds. “Soccer is like a universal language. There are some things that happen out on the field without anything ever being said. It’s hard to quantify, but a team culture develops, and when you watch it happen in the moment, it’s pretty magical.”
Anthony Triana, Wharton High School Cross Country and Track and Field, Tampa
Written materials submitted from the Wharton community to nominate Triana for the award commended him for helping his athletes navigate the school’s ethnic and socio-economic diversity, including flexibility in practice sessions to allow for a Muslim athlete to maintain her ordained prayer schedule. “We don’t preach,” he said. “We just accept everyone who comes in. We’re very good about talking about the different cultures and points of view.
“There isn’t one way that’s the right way and only way. There are all different outlooks, whether on religion or other topics. When you look at the news, there is always different stories about political backlash. We try to make sure everyone’s comfortable and that we understand people’s backgrounds.”