John Harvard's Journal
Soccer and Survival
Coaches Across Continents teaches more than lofts and headers.
As the planet’s greatest sporting extravaganza, the World Cup, kicked off this summer, Nick Gates ’91 was not in South Africa. It’s not that Gates, a former all-Ivy Harvard soccer star, wouldn’t have loved to be there. But he’s been busy about 2,000 miles north of Johannesburg, coaching hundreds of shoeless kids on the dirt fields of Uganda’s capital, Kampala, as the founder of Coaches Across Continents (CAC), a three-year-old nonprofit that’s part soccer camp, part classroom. The ultimate goal is not about creating budding soccer prodigies, but about using the world’s most popular sport to teach life lessons in some of its poorest neighborhoods.
Gates’s life has long revolved around soccer, dating to his days as a ball boy for the English professional club Middlesbrough, where his dad played and he later spent a year as an executive. Now he’s driven by the idea of making a difference beyond the soccer pitch, beyond a month-long soccer spectacular. “What is the real social legacy of the World Cup?” Gates says. “What’s going to be left behind?”
After college, he started Play Soccer, which runs camps around New England and other parts of the United States. A decade later, he grabbed a backpack and visited 60 countries, looking for the next challenge. Whether in China, New Zealand, or Argentina, he found soccer was the obvious, universal connector. But a question nagged him: “What can sport do for people who have nothing? I just had the bug to do something that would have a major impact.”
Soccer broadcaster Seamus Malin ’62 (see “The Shots Heard Round the World,” May-June 1994, page 38), who played the game in college with the late, legendary Chris Ohiri ’64, then directed Harvard’s International Office, and now serves on the CAC board, says Gates and the organization discovered their calling in “making the game do something more than entertain demented fans.” Gates himself calls taking the program across Africa a life-altering experience. “It’s like being the pied piper,” he says. “The kids just follow you, because you’re the soccer coach.” At Harvard, he’d played sweeper, a defense position requiring vision, communication, and leadership. “He’s very much a take-charge guy, with a lot of authority,” says Malin. “The breakthrough for Nick was that this was not just getting some soccer balls out there, but he had the curriculum, too.”
Gates and his team of coaches pass along soccer drills and games to educate young players about health and wellness, HIV, leadership, conflict resolution, and female empowerment. CAC works with local programs for three years (“Hat Trick Initiatives”), offering sessions that lastfrom two to 12 weeks a year, depending on each program’s needs. The partner programs, often taking place after school, run year-round, usually a few practices a week, with CAC furnishing additional online mentoring.
The typical CAC day includes two three-hour sessions, often with 1,000 kids or more in attendance. CAC’s coaches train and teach educationalgames to both the children and to the local coaches, who then incorporate the gamesinto their own soccer programs. (“The model is really a ‘train the trainers’ program,” says Deb Glazer, director of development and strategy for CAC. “We want the program to be sustainable.”) “Condom tag” teaches about the dangers of HIV: if a player gets tagged, then he or she has HIV, too. The only way the rest can protect themselves is to “make good choices,” by holding onto players who are the “condoms.” In one conflict resolution game, teams of five try to place a ball on top of a cone, without talking or using their hands or feet. It’s not easy; the kids must work together to do it. In all these games, soccer is a teaching tool. Says Gates, “The last thing we teach is football [soccer] itself.”
In its first year, the organization worked with 3,000 kids--the next year, 30,000. In 2010, it expects to reach, through local coaches, 90,000 children in Kenya, Uganda, Malawi, Tanzania, South Africa, Zambia, and its first non-African venue, Haiti.
Several current Harvard players and recent alumni have invested summer-break time in joining Gates’s humanitarian squad. “It’s completely changed my perception of the world,” says Adam Rousmaniere ’10, a midfielder from Andover, Massachusetts. In 2009, he traveled to Malawi with the group and was struck by the enthusiasm of the kids. Some training sessions drew 900 youngsters who’d play on fields devoid of grass, strewn with broken bottles, needles, and rocks. “As a student in college, you hear all the time that there are a billion people living on less than $1 a day,” says Rousmaniere, who remembers an excruciating 12-hour nonstop bus ride, with Malawians carrying everything they owned: chickens, bags of rice, goats. “You don’t really understand it until you’ve experienced something like this.”
Last summer, Sophie Legros ’12 played a special role as the only female coach. “People in Africa, and around the world, love soccer,” says Legros, a native of Brussels. “It’s a lot of fun, but it’s also a very powerful tool to inculcate social skills and educate children about health issues.”
For CAC, spreading the female empowerment message starts by including girls in every aspect of training. Girls play soccer with the boys and against them. This summer, the organization will lead more than a dozen female empowerment programs in sub-Saharan Africa, where most girls never enroll in secondary school and may be forced into child marriage to survive or support their family. Girls also represent three-quarters of all young people living with HIV/AIDS.
This summer also, two more members of the Harvard men’s team are in Africa with CAC. “It’s been fantastic. It’s been educational not just for the players, but our team as a whole,” says head men’s soccer coach Jamie Clark. “Soccer is such a powerful game and it’s fun to think how much good can come of it.”
Gates’s effort is already drawing attention. Last summer in London, the Beyond Sport Awards honored Coaches Across Continents--chosen from 265 entries from more than 80 countries--as Best New Project before a crowd of 500 including Tony Blair, Desmond Tutu, and Olympic gold medalists Ian Thorpe and Michael Johnson. Rousmaniere predicts the true import of the program won’t be seen for years. “The point of going is not to find the next Pelé,” he says. “It’s about implementing these educational strategies.”