Nobody gets there alone*
Sportsmen’s Tennis and Enrichment Center’s (STEC) – Volley Against Violence (VaV) program is a community program. With the support of all involved, youths are empowered to achieve.
In 2012, when asked what I could bring to the existing STEC VaV Program by Anne Greenbaum, then Director of Institutional Partnerships at STEC, I immediately had a lightbulb moment reflecting on my involvement with another program. I was an intern from Boston University (BU) having hung up the boots on a +15 year financial services and investment banking leadership career in 2011. At BU, I was involved with the Get Ready Program at Boston English High School. It was here that I was introduced to a model called Teaching Personal Social Responsibility (TPSR) by Don Hellison (Hellison, 2011). Given Anne’s background in education, we were able to discuss with ease and understanding, what I could bring to VaV. I was confident an impactful approach could be designed, and knowing that there has been wide adoption of the structure and curriculum, fills me with hope that many more youths will be empowered to strive in life achievement with a sense of purpose.
I recall suggesting initially, that I would need to observe the current environment and structure before making any recommendations. During the first few weeks I got a sense of how many youths were involved, who the key stakeholders were and how best I might adjust and tailor my thoughts of a program structure and life skills curriculum, to suit the environment. It was important to respect the existing framework and combine and apply my clinical education and growing knowledge in sport psychology and youth development within the environment, by developing relationships with all involved. With that, after a few weeks of observation, I was able to share my ideas with Anne and my advisors about creating and developing a psycho-social structure and curriculum underpinned by the TPSR model – a 5-step model approach.
The aims of the sport program structure and curriculum helps youths to: feel supported in setting goals, work with team mates to successfully complete tasks, take initiative to lead others to success, learn to respect their environment and those who support them, recognise that all tasks require effortful engagement and self-direction, learn to compete and develop a sense of self-respect and self-esteem (Bailey, 2006; Hellison, 2011). Each week and throughout their time on courts, youths were reminded about the life skill and lessons and how they are demonstrated in other areas of their life (transference). Research has also evidenced that exercise improves mood, reduces health related illnesses such as obesity and diabetes, supports social skills and behaviour, and improves academic and cognitive development when mediated by teachers, coaches, parents and carers (Otto & Smits, 2011; Bailey, 2006). As such, it was important to try and draw together the social, cognitive and health aspects in the program by keeping them active, engaged and learning how to lead and care for themselves and others.
The curriculum design I came up with required collective involvement, and I should mention only works because it is a community approach involving the Boston Police Force, current and past STEC staff and leadership, parents, volunteers, youths. It was important to get all on board thinking and being mindful of a culture being cultivated. Each week, after a recap of the previous weeks lesson, a new topic was introduced in line with and with a reminder of the TPSR stages, and the goals for the day were set.
TPSR Stages and Responsibilities 1. Respect (Stage 1) Respect for everyone Resolve conflict democratically Include everyone 2. Giving effort (Stage 2) Focus is on self improvement rather than comparison to others Work on personal goals Go the extra mile when the going gets tough Explore new tasks with interest 3. Self coaching (Stage 3) How do you drive yourself? What do you say? Be responsibly independent Resist peer pressure 4. Coaching (Stage 4) Be sensitive to others needs Provide leadership to encourage group welfare 5. Transference (Stage 5) Try out and integrate the responsibilities at home, school and in the community Be a role model
The curriculum delivered included simple lesson topics each week, beginning first with each of the TPSR levels :
Respect, effort, self coaching (self talk, goals that are self directed), coaching (encouraging others), teamwork, leadership and gratitude.
At STEC-VaV, I believe the signature psycho-social format is driven by science, and has the following structure:
1.“Relational Time” – Set Up
This is a time for informal interactions between youths attending the program and mentors. At VaV this was during set-up. Youths, staff, volunteers, Boston Police i.e. everyone present are involved in setting up the courts with adults modelling values of teamwork, encouragement and community leadership.
2. “Group Time” – Warm Up and Life Skill Delivery
After the youths are guided through some stretches they are made aware of some key rules to keep all safe. They are then introduced, by an adult-leader (mentor) who initially was Officer Frank Williams Jr. (Founder of the Boston Police Tennis Program), to a key life-skill message in simple format over a couple minutes, while stood around the perimeter of one tennis court. The mentor at times invites a youth to help demonstrate and discuss the life skill message (re-inforcing youth leadership culture).
3.“Activity Time” – Life Skills in Motion
A life skill brought to life through a tennis exercise while all groups are on their designated tennis court.
4.“Reflection Time” – Circle Up
A chance to reflect on when the life skill may have been demonstrated during the course of 1 ½ hour tennis session, and discuss how it can be applied in school, at home or in the community. Youths are seated in a ring with a mentor and are asked 2-3 questions to help reflect on the life skill lesson of the day.
It was important to keep the life skill intro step brief and simple especially when introducing a concept to a large group of youths (often +120 in attendance) aged anywhere between 4 and 18 years of age. Making connections to life outside of the tennis program was also essential to help develop a sense of leadership and social responsibility in all environments. Coaches, led by Jelani Haynes, were introduced each week to the message and nuances to help educate the other mentors, and mentors were asked to think about their posture and diffuse the power dynamic that often exists in school and at home. During circle up time, rather than having the youths seated with a mentor towering over, they were asked to join in the circle up and also be seated. We tried to keep the circle no larger than 15 youths. This allowed for all to have a chance to speak and the mentors were encouraged to allow youths to share their voices openly. Even during their tennis play time, mentors are constantly reminded to help model values and support youth leadership by encouraging them to lead their peers. It was important that these youths felt heard and noticed, thereby building their self esteem.
Of course, when working with a large group of youths and many stakeholders there are always challenges. Sometimes the mentor-youth ratio presented difficulties – coaches, officers and volunteers changeover, and new youths enter the fold. Many youths may have had clinical presentations and learning difficulties. I recall a situation where one of the youths had severe learning difficulties and felt so misunderstood. He struggled to follow guidance, which can be challenging for mentors trying to guide and support several children. However, by reminding all that we needed to recognise his challenges and adapt in our communication methods, and by inviting him to keep coming back, we intended to make him feel less isolated. An inclusive safe culture where all are welcome and heard is so important at VaV. This leads to consistency in attendance too, and consistent attendees help to build the culture by leading new comers in teaching personal social responsibility. Additionally, mentors always need to be reminded of mindfully guiding and encouraging the culture as a leader with concern, acceptance, genuineness and empathy (Yalom, 2005).
I have been informed that the program continues to have a steady number of youths attend, many of which are achieving in school and going onto college, others being able to manage conflict and even assist officers in conflict management, and in the words of Officer Frank Williams Jr., they are “kept safe, off the streets and away from crime”. I have continued to lend some occasional support when noticing certain relational elements, and to know that youths are still being impacted by the psycho-social structure and program curriculum I designed is heartwarming. Moreover, to know that the creative design has rolled out in 8 cities under the US Tennis Association’s Serve and Connect brand, is a privilege. I am humbly reminded of several stories, including Arthur Ashe’s own journey that highlights “nobody gets there alone”. My thanks to my educators, the VaV youths and those who trusted in me with the opportunity at STEC.
Currently based in the UK, I continue with my own applied practice (Empower2Perform) impacting youths in sport as well as elite performers internationally and am also employed as psychologist to the women’s and girl’s teams by Brighton and Hove Albion Football Club, which is in the Football Association Women’s Soccer Leagues, UK. I am member and certified practitioner of the Association for Applied Sport Psychology, who is also on the Diversity and International Relations committees, a Registered Counsellor with the British Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy and a Graduate Member of the British Psychological Society – Division of Sport and Exercise Psychology.
* Subtitle inspired by Dr Rob Bell
Bailey, R. (2006). Physical Education and Sport in Schools: A Review of Benefits and Outcomes. Journal of School Health, 76 (8), 397-401.
Hellison, D (2011). Teaching personal and social responsibility through physical activity. 3rd ed. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
Otto, M.W. & Smits J.A.S ( 2011). Exercise for mood and anxiety. New York, NY: Oxford Uiversity Press.
Yalom, I.D. & Leszcz, M. (2005). The theory and practice of group psychotherapy. New York, NY : Basic Books.