It’s official — the 2018 Winter Olympics have arrived! After the spectacular opening ceremony yesterday in Pyeongchang, sports are now top of mind for citizens around the world as nearly 3,000 athletes from 92 countries prepare to compete with the hope of earning a medal for their respective nations. While each event clearly showcases the talent and athleticism of the world’s top competitors, the Olympic Games also bring about an overarching feeling of unity, respect, and compassion within and across borders in the tradition of sport and peaceful competition.
It is this specific feeling of unity that helps us recognize the inherent power of sports to bring people together and transcend barriers of language and cultural differences. This is the ultimate goal of GLA’s Costa Rica: Soccer Beyond Borders™ summer program — to meld together sports, service-learning, and compassionate leadership in order to influence positive change and create a lasting positive impact on the local community.
One of the ways we’re able to accomplish this goal is through our partnership with Beyond Sports, a US-based organization that operates international sports tours. Their Costa Rica campus, located in Playa Flamingo, is where GLA students will spend 1-2 hours each day in soccer clinics led by world-class players and FIFA-certified coaches. In addition to honing their technical skills on the Beyond Sports campus, GLA students will also have the opportunity to organize soccer camps for local youth, refurbish sports facilities at local schools, and scrimmage against local teams during their two-week program.
Like GLA, Beyond Sports firmly believes that sports are about much more than just athletics. They share the idea that sports represent a bigger picture and an opportunity to impact a local community in a unique way, which is especially true with soccer in Costa Rica. We interviewed two members of the Beyond Sports staff to gather their thoughts and insight on how sports play an integral role in connecting cultures, developing compassion, and creating “leaders with heart.” Check out what they had to say below!
NAME: Grant Leslie
LOCATION: Seattle, Washington
ROLE AT BEYOND SPORTS: Director of Program Development
FUN FACT: Co-founded Beyond Sports in 2010
NAME: Silvia Batencourt
LOCATION: Playa Flamingo, Costa Rica
ROLE AT BEYOND SPORTS: Soccer Director
FUN FACT: Played soccer for the Costa Rica Women's National Team
On the ability of sports to transcend language barriers:
"We see it with every [Costa Rica] trip! Our students are so nervous to practice their Spanish in a classroom setting or with adults. But at our service-learning clinics, you have a dozen kids bombarding you with questions about the next drill. You don’t have the luxury of being nervous! We think of soccer as a foreign language that allows you to connect with billions of people around the world who also “speak soccer.” Soccer players are bilingual without even knowing it!
Especially the with the younger kids, they don’t totally understand the concept of different languages so when you don’t understand something they don’t give up like an adult would. They keep pestering you and their vocabularies are limited so often times you can understand after a few repetitions.
Sports are great because they are physical so you may not know the word for “kick” but you can show the kids and they will tell you the word. And then you use the word kick 50 times over the next hour and you never forget it. Sure beats vocab flashcards!"
Thoughts on how sports are unique in developing compassionate leadership:
"This is a constant debate in the Beyond Sports office. What is so special about sports? We’ve seen some really cool international development projects that develop compassionate leadership through music and the arts too. Really, we think it’s about creating an environment where there is a mutual love and appreciation for something where we’re all trying to improve and sports just happen to be really good for this.
We all know the feeling of frustration while developing a new skill as well as the feeling of satisfaction when we start to notice improvement. We also have memories from good coaches and not so good coaches and how they made us feel during the process of improvement. We find that in the right environment, compassionate leadership emerges when everyone is passionate about helping teammates or the children we are working with improve."
Additional lessons and skills (outside of athleticism) that sports can teach us:
"Sports teach us about the building blocks of success and help us develop a growth mindset. We learn that we need to develop strong fundamentals before we can build more advanced skills. We learn about delayed gratification and how time spent practicing can make the games a whole lot more fun!
We learn that there are certain goals that we can’t accomplish on our own but by becoming a part of something bigger than us we can accomplish more than we ever dreamed! Many things in life make measuring progress hard but sports make it easy to see our efforts lead to improvement."
How the leadership skills developed in sports can apply to other real-life situations:
"Great leaders are not always the team captain or the person at the top of an organization. In sports we learn that understanding your role on the team and pushing yourself to be great at your role will be an example for others to do the same and if everyone focuses on doing their role well, we’ll all get to where we’re trying to go together.
Sports teach us about being adaptive leaders. We learn that not every teammate will react well to the same type of coaching or support. We learn that to be a great leader we have to take the time to understand our teammates or everyone in our organization so we can appeal to them as individuals."
On the unique leadership skills developed in soccer:
"We do believe that certain sports have their strengths and weaknesses when it comes to leadership development. There is something beautiful about soccer in how it requires a true team effort. The best goalkeeper can’t score goals and a talented forward is useless as far as defense is concerned. Soccer players quickly realize that they can’t win games on their own and that supporting their teammates is important.
Soccer is also unique given the significance of every goal. The emotional ups and downs are intense whether you are scoring or getting scored on but great leaders on the soccer field learn to control their emotions and will help their teammates stay level and focused until the final whistle.
Soccer is a game of constant failure with so many shots just missing the net and almost great passes getting intercepted. You can have 5 great passes leading to an open shot only to have the ball kicked over the goal. But you have to keep pressing after countless failed tries until you share that amazing feeling of seeing the ball in the back of the net!"
On the intersection of soccer and community service in Costa Rica
"One of our founding principles across all of our programs is that we try to give back as much as our students gain during their experience abroad. And since soccer is practically a religion in Costa Rica, it’s the perfect tool to connect with local youth. Soccer has played a huge role in the healthy development of all of our program participants so we know that by creating excitement around soccer and increasing opportunities for Costa Rican children to play, we are helping them see the potential in a game that has given us so much!
Silvia: I remember growing up in Costa Rica and attending camps put on by visitors from abroad. It was so cool to see athletic women that were so passionate about soccer! I was lucky to have so much support from Costa Rican coaches during my development but it was visitors from the US that made me set a goal to earn a college scholarship to play soccer."
On the difference between service-learning sports tours and technical training camps:
"Beyond Sports has never been interested in providing an experience focused 100% on technical training even though our staff and the coaches we work with in Costa Rica have played and coached at the highest levels. Instead, our focus is on using soccer as vehicle to explore the world and make connections across cultures!
That is not to say students don’t improve their soccer skills during our Costa Rica soccer trips! Students experience great coaching and have the opportunity to practice and play with outstanding players in Costa Rica. What we’ve heard more than anything from coaches is that students return home more mature, more confident, and better leaders and that personal development carries over to the field!"
On the positive impact within the local Costa Rican community:
"Now that we are in our 8th year running programs in Costa Rica it has been so great to see some of the [local] children that attended our service-learning soccer clinics grow up to play competitive soccer! We don’t want to take all the credit but with so many negative traps in some of the environments where we work, it is great to see kids focusing on something positive! And every student that breaks through serves as an example to the next group of kids from their community."
On the growth and positive changes seen in international program participants:
"It has been amazing to see students transform during what is really just a short trip. But coming into a program where you do not know anyone else and you are uncomfortable being so far away from home and your family is such a fertile environment for personal development. We’ve had students who we thought might ask us to take them back to the airport after the first day telling us they aren’t ready to go home at the end of the program!
Lately, we’ve been studying the academic research on habits and we are really appreciating how a new environment can help students make the changes they’ve known they’ve need to make. It’s as if being away from the same comfortable routine they’ve developed in the US lets them flick a switch while abroad and it’s much easier to keep that momentum going when they return home."
On the lasting impact of the international experience:
"There are two things that have really surprised us over the years. First, we were completely focused on the cross-cultural interaction between the American students and Ticos. But we’ve been amazed by the relationships that are also built between American students. The experience they share in Costa Rica is incredibly unique and we’ve watched the bonds created in Costa Rica last years into the future.
We love seeing pictures of students on Instagram from different cities across the US meeting up years later in a new city. We had no idea they’d stayed in touch! Second, is that nearly every student will say that the service-learning component of the trip was the most impactful part of the experience. It usually goes something like this: “I mean, ziplining and surfing we’re really cool, but I’ll remember that day with the Costa Rican kids for the rest of my life!”
Thanks, Grant & Silvia!
Learn more about all of GLA's Sports Leadership programs:
Costa Rica: Soccer Beyond Borders™
Costa Rica: Surf & Sports Service Adventure
Dominican Republic: Sports Service Adventure