In South Africa, VCU-led delegation sparks social change through soccer

In South Africa, VCU-led delegation sparks social change through soccer

A delegation led by Virginia Commonwealth University’s Center for Sport Leadership is in South Africa this week and next as part of a U.S. Department of State-backed effort to boost cultural understanding and spark social change through the country’s passion for soccer.

“It’s sport diplomacy,” said Carrie LeCrom, Ph.D., executive director of the center, which is part of the VCU School of Education and was a participant in the Global Education Office's 2014 Faculty Development Seminar to the University of KwaZulu-Natal. “The goal is to basically increase cultural understanding between the U.S. and people of South Africa through sport. Our other goal is positive social change.”

The two-week trip is part of Project PUSH — or “Play Until Something Happens” — a partnership between the VCU Center for Sport Leadership and the Richmond Strikers Soccer Club, as well as the Boys & Girls Clubs of South AfricaRagball International and Grassroots Soccer. It is funded by a $200,000 grant from the U. S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs’ International Sports Programming Initiative.

Last June, 14 youth soccer coaches from South Africa visited Richmond to work with the Center for Sport Leadership and the Richmond Strikers to learn how sport can be used as a teaching tool in the areas of leadership, teamwork, education, responsibility and lifelong learning.

Also as part of their training in Richmond, the South African coaches developed action plans to use soccer to address specific social challenges facing their communities back home, such as teen pregnancy, drugs and alcohol, and HIV/AIDS education.

Now, the eight-person delegation from the United States is visiting Johannesburg and Cape Town to meet with the organizations and clubs of the coaches who visited the U.S. last year and to observe and assess implementation of their social change action plans.

“[The South African coaches] have been back home for six months. On our trip, we are going to be visiting all of them and working with their kids. We’re going to get updates on where they are, what their next steps are, and how we can keep these programs moving forward,” LeCrom said. “The biggest reason for this trip is sustainability and accountability. This part of the [project] is a check-in. It’s to make sure they’re implementing their program, and to see: What’s working? What’s not working? What can be done better?”

Additionally, the team plans on meeting with a number of other coaches in South Africa to provide them with an abbreviated version of the training the 14 coaches received in the U.S. last summer. With more coaches trained, more young people will be reached, LeCrom said.

By working with other coaches while we’re there, hopefully it inspires more positive social change.

“We want it to have a multiplier effect beyond just the 14 coaches who came here. By working with other coaches while we’re there, hopefully it inspires more positive social change,” she said. “We’re going to have the coaches [who visited VCU] lead the training, so they can be seen as community leaders.”

The delegation includes LeCrom and three others from the Center for Sport Leadership; two coaches from the Richmond Strikers; Paul Shaw, the coaching education director for the Virginia Youth Soccer Association; and Todd Olsen, head coach of the Lynchburg College women’s soccer team.

Brendan Dwyer, Ph.D., director of research and distance learning at the Center for Sport Leadership, said he is excited to be taking part in the trip.

“It is a wonderful opportunity to interact with coaches and administrators from a different culture,” he said. “The methods and strategies may be unique to us, but we all share the same message of education and empowerment through soccer. We are extremely thankful to the U.S. Department of State for the opportunity.”

Dwyer added that he hopes the team will build an infrastructure to continue its relationship with its South African partners for years to come.

“Our goal is to sustain the momentum we created from Phase 1 and use soccer as the vehicle to build long-lasting conversations that foster cultural understanding and youth empowerment between our countries,” he said.

Erwan LeCrom, director of youth development for the Richmond Strikers, who has previously traveled to Ethiopia and China for similar projects, is also be taking part in the trip.

“We have a very experienced group that is eager to find ways to impact the lives of South African players, coaches and their families,” he said. “On a personal level, it is my third time involved in such a project … and I am looking forward to discovering a new soccer environment, to discovering a new culture and meeting new people. Those are experiences that positively impact my life and my work.”


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