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Social sport coaches reach most vulnerable players

The power of sport to have a positive influence on people’s lives is recognised around the world. From street kids kicking a ball around a dusty township to stressed working professionals running around the block to unwind: sports have become an escape and a coping mechanism for many of us. In the Netherlands, they are taking this idea one step further, by using sports for the personal development of socially excluded people.

“I was younger than some of the players, so I had to find a way to gain their respect”, says 23-year old Arcinio. Just two years ago, he was a street soccer player in the city of Utrecht, when his trainer recognised his leadership qualities and asked him to join the coaching team. “It was a bit difficult to sit on both sides of the fence at first. But my experience as a player definitely helped me to be a more social coach, too.”

Street soccer players are often referred by their social worker or come across the drop-in sessions via shelters or housing associations. The players in Arcinio’s team come from a range of backgrounds. Some are immigrants, others are native Dutch. “In a training I sometimes have to speak English, French and Dutch, and not all players understand each other. That can be a bit of a challenge”, he says. “Sometimes I just show what I mean by acting it out. That way, at least we’ll all have a laugh.”

Arcinio re-discovered his love for football through his social worker, who helped him find a team to play for. Within the Dutch welfare system sport is widely recognised as a powerful tool to reintegrate people on the side lines back into society. Sport sessions are offered to clients in the care system, housing projects and Salvation Army shelters.

Street Cup

Organisations like the Life Goals Foundation offer special competitions aimed at achieving life goals. They range from finding a job by participating in the Dutch Career Cup to getting back into permanent housing through the Dutch Street Cup. In all programmes, the training sessions and games are only one part of the strategy. Job coaches and social workers are on hand to help regain control of other aspects in participants’ lives, including housing, work, relationships and mental and physical health.

Team sports like football help to make people who might have felt excluded from social circles to feel part of something again. Popular team sports have the additional benefit of easy accessibility. There are a staggering 3,400 football clubs in Holland, with 1.2 million members (on a population of 16.8 million people), and 400,000 volunteers. The sport has been played in the country since 1865 and almost every small village has a football pitch or simply some space to play on the streets. But other sports can work equally well: kickboxing classes are popular with both men and women within the social sport programmes. Organisers say that simple walking or running sessions also serve as a motivating factor for their clients.

Social coaching

In order to help professionals and volunteers working with vulnerable groups, the Dutch Life Goals Foundation has developed a Social Sport Coach training. During this four day programme a sports psychologists shows a mixed group of welfare workers and sports coaches and trainers how they can use sport as a way to reach social goals. The course is used as a quality mark for those working in the ‘sports for change’ sector across the Netherlands.

The programme identifies the participants’ own talents and pitfalls and teaches them how to stimulate the personal development of others through sport. There is also a section on how to work together with partner organisations to set up their own social sports projects. The Salvation Army endorses the course and aims to train at least 200 social sport coaches in the Netherlands alone.

The course is already attracting international attention. Learnings from the course are shared with organisations participating in the Homeless World Cup: the annual football tournament for people who have experienced homelessness. During a recent international workshop, the Life Goals Foundation introduced the course to a group of European street soccer organisations. Organisers from Denmark, Poland, Switzerland and other countries were keen to adopt elements of the curriculum to suit their local circumstances.

The goal moves beyond winning and performing well: it is about making each member of the team a better person.

Beyond winning

Neighbourhood sport coach Kees Grovenstein co-ordinates social sport projects in Utrecht and the Noord-Veluwe area. He was heavily involved in the development of the Social Sport Coach course in the Netherlands. He says awareness of how to reach social goals was one of the crucial things missing from ‘traditional’ sport coaching.

“It is all about finding a way of coaching that suits your teams needs at that particular time”, explains Grovenstein. “We teach coaches that their personalities are reflected in their coaching style. By recognising their own strengths and weaknesses, they can recognise them in others too. That way, they can really work with each team member to achieve their goals beyond the football pitch too.”

Grovenstein emphasizes that the characteristics of a social sport coach would benefit any sport coach. The examples of screaming and shouting football coaches on the side lines during a Premier League game do not necessarily set the right example. “If you look at team processes, which we do during the course, you see that the different phases apply to any team”, he says. “There is an orientation phase, a conflict phase, a cohesion phase and a performance phase. These all come back –in different ways- when you work with a team, no matter what your target group is. If you allow each of these elements to be a valuable learning phase, you can make real progress. The goal moves beyond winning and performing well: it is about making each member of the team a better person.”

Photo credit: Dutch players during the Homeless World Cup in Mexicy City in 2012, coached by social sport coach Kees Grovenstein. Photo by Danielle Batist

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