Monday, October 03, 2011
I love "The Amazing Race." Other than Fox Soccer and a few other TV shows, this would have to be my companion on a desert island. So imagine my delight when the show premiered last Sunday and one of the contestants was a familiar face, Ethan Zohn. Some of you may know Ethan from "Survivor" where he was the winner of the third season, Survivor: Africa. I don't watch "Survivor" but I learned of Ethan through his soccer playing and his founding of "Grassroot Soccer." Ethan was a goalkeeper at Vassar and played for the United Soccer League and in Zimbabwe for their Highlanders F.C. He has done soccer commentating and hosting over the years, so you may have seen him on Fox Soccer or MSG.
I think of Ethan often when I see my own sons working on their soccer. While Ethan did live the dream of playing college and professional soccer, it was how he parlayed that interest and success into something more significant. We parents want our children to achieve, but we also want them to develop into adults with integrity and honor. Most kids won't play soccer much beyond their youth experience. Therefore, that time should be spent joyfully benefitting from the important essentials of youth soccer: exercise, learning to work with others, traveling, accepting defeat, winning with humility, and sharing time with family and friends. Additionally soccer can teach tolerance and introduce players to the world. It's these last lessons which Ethan has expanded and built upon. He's the ultimate soccer role model for my children.
From his experiences in Africa, he recognized the horrible toll HIV/AIDS has taken throughout the continent. In an effort to stem the spread of the disease, education was essential. So Ethan used soccer as a tool to bring young people together and then teach them how to prevent infection in their own lives and the lives of their loved ones. Called "Grassroot Soccer," it combines education through their "Skillz" curriculum with developing soccer skills. As their web site (grassrootsoccer.org) explains:
Skillz is a culture, mindset, and toolkit for educators to use when teaching young people 12-18 about HIV and AIDS and life skills. Skillz creates simple but powerful connections between soccer (sport) and life skills.
The program has graduated 340,000 young people and the goal is to graduate one million kids by the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil.
In April 2009, Ethan was diagnosed with a rare form of Hodgkin's lymphoma and after intensive chemotherapy and additional aggressive treatment, the cancer is now in remission. Building on this personal experience, Ethan added cancer causes to his extensive charity work. His determination to use his "Survivor" prize money to help African children survive and then use his own cancer survival to help others overcome the disease has always been coupled with his love for soccer.
His great example demonstrates that youth soccer can stretch beyond just being a competitive sport and help players participate in the world arena by doing community service. For example, kids could raise money for organizations by running a dribble-thon where teams sign up contributors who pledge an amount for every field length completed by a player. Or they can have a cone contest where teams compete against one another in dribbling a ball through cones in a tag-team manner. Youth soccer can also build character by offering players service opportunities that will hopefully become a part of their life skills. Some clubs have had food drives where players have to donate a can or box of food each time a goal is scored. Other clubs run soccer clinics for kids who don't have the means to participate regularly in soccer and provide each player with a ball.
There are also dozens of soccer-oriented organizations that youth teams can support by donating gently used gear. U.S. Soccer Foundation's "Pass Back" program
usually has donation centers at local soccer stores and at state association offices. "Peace Passers
" asks you to contact their web site and they will tell you how to get the gear to them. "Operation Give
" collects gear that U.S. military troops distribute in Iraq. Fedex provides free shipping to their warehouse (address on the website) so there is no cost to your team to ship the items.
Augmenting the sports aspect of youth soccer with community service and charitable work promises a richer development of our children's character. The amazing part is that you can add these with little extra effort and tons of rewards. While Ethan Zohn is a survivor on several levels, I suspect that's not proactive enough for the life he's created. Surviving wasn't a terminus; it was a point from which to launch even more success. Likewise soccer shouldn't be a terminus experience. We want our kids to celebrate, grow, and build good memories. As a global sport, soccer should give youth players a sense of being part of the global community. That means stretching beyond drills and games to embrace the experiences of other cultures both abroad and in our own cities. Connecting through service can lead to even greater relationships. As Ethan states in the introduction to his series of youth soccer books, Soccer World
, "Soccer is played in almost every nation, so this game is like a common language that brings people together. I can just show up at a field with a ball and instantly make 20 cool new friends." Hopefully youth soccer can be the springboard for compassion, altruism, and tolerance in adulthood. Whatever our children aspire to be, they won't all be professional soccer players, but hopefully they will all be good citizens.