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Thursday, August 21, 2014

Trip diary: Teaching youth in Chile life lessons through sport

A baseball field in Tocopilla, Chile. 
Written by John Guinan
Development Manager

Aside from soccer, baseball is a huge passion of mine. I have played and coached the sport since I was young, most recently as part of Home Run Baseball Camp (HRBC).

I recently was awarded a sports diplomacy grant — applied for through HRBC — to travel to Chile for eight days to facilitate a coaching and "train the trainer" baseball program. As I left the States with my co-facilitator Anttonio Brown, the plan was to facilitate programs in the mining towns of Tocopilla and Antofagasta. We also had goals to meet with leadership from the Chilean National Baseball Association, based out of Santiago, to collaborate on how to develop the sport in the country.

We flew into Santiago and hopped on a connecting flight to Antofagasta in Northern Chile. From Antofagasta we drove roughly 100 miles to Tocopilla (home of Alexis Sanchez for all of you Arsenal fans).

Tocopilla’s primary industry is copper mining. The town was nestled against the Pacific in the middle of the desert. The mining factory propped up their small economy but also generated a grotesque amount of pollution. Giant cement smoke stacks incessantly poured billows of smoke from the mining center. A dusty soot layered the window sills of my hotel. Not exactly the ideal environment in which to play sports.

Upon arriving, we quickly changed and headed to the baseball diamond to facilitate our first coaching session. The excitement was palpable. We were greeted by a curious crowd of roughly 80 players and parents. American coaches had not set foot in the town since the 1980s.

Much like many of my practices in the States, I started by sitting the players down at home plate to introduce myself and Anttonio, an Academic All-American college football player at Virginia University of Lynchburg. We proceeded to discuss our themes for the day; teamwork (sound familiar?), heart, hustle, and communication.

The players were eager to impress. They were attentive, enthusiastic and showed a lot of heart throughout the sessions. Much like DC SCORES, our program was oriented toward teaching life skills through sport. The thread throughout our sessions was the notion that sport can serve as a tool to help develop youth as productive and value-driven human beings.

While in Chile, John's Sports Diplomacy
program was in the newspaper.
While in Tocopilla, we also facilitated three train the trainer sessions at a local community center with community leaders, teachers and coaches. During the sessions, we discussed international best practices for coaching youth. We laid forth a team practice methodology, coach/player dynamic approaches, and how to deal with obstacles in building and sustaining sports teams.

After three days in Tocopilla, we headed back to Antofagasta, a wealthier and larger city with an economy also dependent upon copper mining, to facilitate a similar program.

Much like in Tocopilla, the Antofagastans were welcoming and energetic. More than 100 children and parents attended our first coaching session. The bleachers were full of padres, tios, and abuelos. The players were less experienced ball players but matched the intensity and heart of those in Tocopilliano. 

The welcoming nature of the Chilean citizens was incredible. We watched the local Serie A professional football team play in the owners box. We attended an amazing traditional Chilean seafood lunch with community leaders, coaches and teachers. And we were greeted with smiles, hugs, kisses and the high fives we love around here everywhere we went.

Most importantly, we got the chance to work with youth who face many of the same obstacles to a well-rounded childhood that DC SCORES participants face. To connect with both the kids and coaches, we used the notion of “The Exemplar" during most sessions.

Developmentally, youth are looking for direction and guidance. The parallel we drew during our train the trainer sessions was that of a non-sailor attempting to sail in the middle of the sea without a nautical compass and no sailing experience. How would one find their way to shore? The idea is that if a child has an exemplar — a well-trained coach — they are, in essence, being provided a nautical compass for life to help them succeed.

Anttonio served as an ideal exemplar in many ways. During one of our last coaching sessions, he delivered an honest and heartfelt narrative about his past and the many obstacles he faced while growing up in the District.

Anttonio is from the Shaw neighborhood, which includes a few DC SCORES schools. The prospects of him “making it out” and achieving his goals in life were slim to none. As a child and adolescent, he was surrounded by violence, drugs, poverty and uncertainty.

But aided by a support system built around sports and his coaches, Anttonio is on track to do big things. He has dreams of one day playing in the NFL, but is also a standout scholar — giving him a much more secure path to post-college success. He coaches and mentors youth during the summer and maintains a network of supportive and value-driven friends and mentors.

The tables have turned for Anttonio. Now he serves as the nautical compass or exemplar for youth that have very similar backgrounds to him — and passes on lessons learned to youth such as those we spoke to in Chile.

Much like many of DC SCORES coaches, Anttonio is a real-life example for kids of what they can achieve through sport — even with the chips stacked against them.

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