Casey Stewart
Up2Us Sports Monitoring & Evaluation Associate
AmeriCorps VISTA

On a warm, sunny day in October, I headed to Papa Playground in West Philadelphia to see the girls’ JV soccer match between Science Leadership Academy @ Beeber and Lincoln High School. I went to watch Saraa, a girl I mentored last year while I was serving as a Coach Across America coach at Starfinder Foundation. The game began as I arrived, and Saraa had just enough time to say a quick hello. As the girls began to play, I immediately noticed that Saraa, who just last season had been a shy and tentative soccer player, had transformed. She was now dominant, confident, and LOUD. She had found her voice on the field.

When I first met Saraa last September, she had only been playing soccer for a few months. Her family is from Sudan, a country where, she tells me, few girls play sports. At first, Saraa was an all-around quiet person. While off the field she quickly made friends and gained confidence, it was a different story out on the pitch. During soccer sessions, she struggled with the drills and how to build her mental toughness. By February, though, my fellow coaches and I had all noticed a shift in Saraa. Even if her feet were not yet used to the skills we were teaching her, we knew she understood and tried to execute the soccer techniques and tactics we taught.

Saraa’s commitment to soccer, Starfinder Foundation, and her peers extended off the field as she became a member of Starfinder’s Youth Council, where she was one of its youngest members.  She represented her peers and worked with the coaches to organize events for all of the high school students.

As I watched her play this game in October, you could hear Saraa’s voice from anywhere on the field. What impressed me the most was how she modulated the tone of her voice to stay confident and encouraging as she directed her teammates. Saraa centered the defense, a critical position for any soccer team. The center back needs to know how to keep her defense organized, when to push them up the field and when to keep them close to protect the goalie. She took her team’s free kicks, which requires confidence for any high school student, especially one who has only played soccer for one year. Her teammates looked to her for advice and support, and, from where I stood, she was the clear leader on the team.

It’s hard as a coach to see changes in your youth. You work with them every day, and improvement is gradual, but it still comes. Sometimes it means taking a step back, letting them try out the skills you have taught them in a new setting, such as a new team.  At Up2Us Sports’ training institutes, we discuss the power of sport, especially when the coaches are trained in SBYD strategies. We also discuss the importance of adult role models in the lives of our youth and how having a stable, supportive relationship can build self-confidence in them. Saraa’s improvement, not just as a soccer player but as a leader, is one of my proudest achievements as a coach. She put in so much effort at Starfinder last year, and it took courage to lead her school team. So you can bet I gave her some Up2Us Sports-style TLC after the game. I told her that her improvement in communication showed a lot of leadership, and then I gave her a hug to celebrate her growth.

Casey and Saraa