Teach a Kid to Coach
By Eric Sean Weld
High school sophomore Keishla Reyes’s grades have
improved this year. So has her comprehension and participation in class. She no longer
rests her head on her desk during class discussions, she raises her hand more to
contribute and asks a lot of questions.
Reyes, 16, a student at William J. Dean Technical High
School in nearby Holyoke, Massachusetts, attributes all her in-class improvements—as
well as a newfound confidence and heightened energy—to her new job with a Smith
College program in which she learns how to teach younger children how to play soccer
Reyes and about two dozen other teenagers living in
Chicopee, Holyoke and Springfield, Massachusetts, are participants in Project Coach.
The program, founded and administered by Smith faculty members and students, prepares
teens between ages 13 and 18 to coach basketball and soccer to elementary school
children (in grades two through five). It then gives the teens their own teams and
pits the teams in friendly competition.
Project Coach was started in 2004–05 by Sam Intrator,
associate professor of education and child study, and Donald Siegel, professor of
exercise and sport studies, to teach leadership, planning and communication skills
to minority adolescents in distressed communities.
According to Reyes and her co-coaches, the students
have sharpened those skills while improving their lives overall.
“Before, I was kind of lazy,” said Reyes
recently at the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Holyoke during a break from a coaching
classroom session. “I’d be home sleeping or watching TV. Here, you get
to have fun, play games, and you’re a leader. It gives you confidence.”
“I do better in school now because when I’m
in school, I feel like I use things from this program,” says Christian Agron,
14, a ninth-grader, also at Dean Tech, who joined Project Coach in the fall. “Since
I got in this program, I’m not out in the streets just hanging out.”
Though Project Coach trains kids to coach, its purview
is much broader, say the program’s founders.
“Don and I believe that by teaching kids how
to coach we can contribute to closing the achievement gap that plagues these communities,” says
Intrator. “The teens we work with face a range of daunting obstacles. If we
can teach them how to coach elementary-aged kids, they’ll have the chance to
learn and practice a set of important skills—like goal setting, communicating,
motivating, planning and organizing, resolving conflict—that will serve them
not just on the sidelines but in the classroom and their communities.”
Intrator, whose academic career has focused on urban
education and researching more effective methods for teaching those in distressed
communities, coached sports for several years in a New York City high school where
he also taught.
“Don and I both grew up playing basketball in
Brooklyn,” says Intrator. “We both appreciate that there is something
intrinsically exciting about sports, and we wanted to capitalize on that spark.”
Siegel, co-director of Project Coach, has coached at
college and youth levels and now teaches courses to graduate students at Smith who
are training to become coaches.
“For the kids we work with, sports are serious
business,” says Siegel. “They are a lifeline that provides motivation,
skills and values that can open up opportunities well beyond what happens on the
playground. Sports are fun and they’re what gives us access to kids we could
never reach in any other way. But we see sports as an access point that, if leveraged
properly, can inspire our coaches-in-training to do something meaningful with their
In its first year, Project Coach trained 20 coaches
from Holyoke and Springfield during after-school sessions at the Gerena Community
School, which is located in one of the state’s most impoverished communities.
Those 20 coaches guided about 120 second- through fifth-graders at the Gerena school
in soccer competition.
Since then, Project Coach has expanded to about 35
coaches from Holyoke and Springfield and operates out of the Gerena School and the
Boys and Girls Club of Greater Holyoke. It has also added a winter basketball season.
“When we first started the program, we had to
do some heavy recruiting just to find kids to become our first class of coaches,” Siegel
recalls. “Two years later, we’re still working with many of the same
adolescents who have spread the word that working in Project Coach sure beats just
hanging out and doing nothing.”
For most participants, Project Coach is their first
job, and it has already led many to summer jobs as youth workers. Last summer, a
number of coaches were hired to work for the Massachusetts Youth Soccer Association
for as much as $15 per hour for a two-week period.
The pay aside, Project Coach participants invariably
say they would stay with the program even if not paid.
“The money helps me buy stuff, but I don’t
really care about the money,” says Jesus Carattini-Rivera, 15, a sophomore
at Chicopee High School who is now in his second year with Project Coach. “I
just like working with the kids. You get to help people out. I don’t do this
for the money.”
Project Coach participant Keishla Reyes (top photo) assesses
her team with Sam Intrator (left) and Donald Seigel while Luis Cardona (above) instructs
his charges. Michael Thomasson / Pivot Media