Inclusion, not exclusion, is the key to success

Sports play a critical role in developing and building core values and character within our youth. Often poor parenting is targeted as the primary reason behind some of the island’s gang-related problems; however, infrequently is the lack of “belonging” highlighted as a counterbalance.

Sport clubs, coaches, teachers and team-mates can all have a significant impact on our youth and help to fill the void for some of the most at-risk children. This is common practice throughout the world — the number of stories of inner-city children growing up in underprivileged, challenging environments without idyllic family circumstances yet becoming a success, on and off the field of play, are countless.

Why, therefore, should Bermuda be any different? Maybe to answer that question, we first need to understand how we define “success”.

All too often, Bermudian sport is obsessed with discovering the next Michael Phelps or Nahki Wells. Rather than nurturing and encouraging youngsters who show the correct attitude, determination and belief, we often reject them at a young age based purely on ability or supposed “talent”. However, ask the vast majority of sporting greats and you will find, without doubt, that attitude and effort trump talent every time.

So why do we continue to get it so wrong? Frequently, we focus a disproportionate amount of our efforts on the exceptional athlete: the boy or girl who could turn their hand at pretty much any sport. Coaches regularly build teams and bend over backwards to accommodate the needs of that “special” talented child, turning away many other youngsters from playing sport and enjoying that sense of belonging and camaraderie that comes with truly being part of a team.

Through this we turn sport into an “exclusive club” for the select talented few. It becomes another form of rejection for many of our island’s youth, who become disengaged and feel underinvested.

Stories of the Bermuda Football Association not allowing Andrew Bascome’s highly successful Valencia youth programme to enter all its youth teams into the “league competition” is a case in point. Why would Bermuda football not look to find a way to include as many teams as possible?

Stories of Bermuda Swimming excluding local swimmers from competing at the Carifta Swimming Championships, despite having achieved the necessary qualifying times, to focus instead on a couple of Canadian-based swimmers is shameful. These overseas swimmers and their families contribute nothing to on-island swimming, yet seemingly choose to swim for Bermuda because they can dictate to a medal-obsessed Bermuda Amateur Swimming Association which races they chose to enter — a luxury they would not be afforded in Canada.

Is winning as many medals as possible with overseas-based swimmers more important than finding a way to include as many locally qualified swimmers? Stories of our youths being asked by coaches not to play other sports through fear of hurting their own sport or team’s individual needs is shocking. What coach would actively jeopardise a child potentially excelling in another sport to satisfy their own selfish needs?

Reality check: Bermuda is a small island with a population between the ages of 5 and 19 of fewer than 9,500 and falling. We simply cannot expect to compete with the depth and level of competition that larger countries enjoy. To effect a seismic cultural change in our island’s youngsters, we need to find a way to ensure that as many of our youths are playing sport as possible and hold our sports governing bodies accountable to upholding a set of core values.

Anyone who has played rugby believes it is truly the greatest team sport. According to Jonny Wilkinson, “rugby is the most phenomenal team sport that exists. Everybody digs in, everybody tackles and everybody works hard — it’s never about you. Through rugby you create friends that, no matter how many times you see them, there will be very few relationships as intense as ones you spend with the guys in that arena before a match”. Those relationships are powerful; those relationships can fill voids.

In 2011, rugby union was chosen as a sport for change in Bermuda. With the vision of John Layfield and the passion of Martha Dismont, Beyond Rugby Bermuda was established: a partnership between Family Centre and the Bermuda Rugby Football Union. This all-inclusive programme was designed to target “at risk” youths who were in need of positive role models, as an outlet for their growing frustrations and to develop a sense of belonging without fear of rejection. Working with CedarBridge Academy, the Berkeley Institute and Dellwood Middle School, the programme provides homework support, counselling from Family Centre, rugby training, dinner and transportation home from school — four days a week.

Rugby was perceived by many in Bermuda as a violent and aggressive sport, which would exacerbate the challenges the island was experiencing with their young male population. Head coach Patrick Calow recalls fears and concerns from parents and teachers alike that the Beyond Rugby coaches would spend their time breaking up fights and brawls rather than having a meaningful practice session. In reality, these types of behaviour were rarely seen on the rugby field.

Channelled aggression is essential for any player, but respect ensures that where conflicts arise, the players are forced to learn self-regulation and self-discipline to take a strong tackle without the need to retaliate. Rugby players understand that once the final whistle has gone, each player must offer a handshake to that very same person, and any animosity is left on the field. These lessons are far more than just sporting in nature; they are valuable life lessons, which many of our island’s youth need.

Beyond Rugby did not fall into the trap of targeting popular “top quartile” athletes that other sports were wrestling over. It steered clear from athletes whose egos had been swollen by coaches, parents and team managers, and focused on the many athletes who had been excluded from mainstream sports. The success of Beyond Rugby did not depend on the on-field results at all; it was focused on developing the individual as a person.

Whether fast or slow, large or small, there is a position for everyone on a rugby field and, critically, each position is of equal importance to the team’s success. This allows for rugby to be a truly “inclusive” sport — there are no superstars in a rugby team. The programme worked with the schools to target those in need of inclusion. By looking after the individual off the field, and upholding and instilling in them the sport’s core values of teamwork, respect, sportsmanship, enjoyment and discipline, on-field improvements will naturally follow.

The Bermuda Police Service have since provided the programme with a “home” at Police Field. There are now more than 90 youths in the formal Beyond Rugby programmes across three government schools, and Tashon DeSilva has been added as a coach to Berkeley.

In 2015, the Beyond Rugby Bermuda programme received international recognition by winning the “Nacra Fair Play” award — selected from more than 7,000 programmes throughout 17 countries. Rugby is firmly back on the schools curriculum and recently five graduates of the various youth programmes made their debut for the men’s national team. There are now competitive high school and middle school leagues. The pride demonstrated by these young players in playing rugby for their school is once again palpable.

This year, there are international tours to Britain and the Bahamas for every age group from under-nine to under-15, and our under-19s will compete in the Rugby Americas North championships in Miami. Bermuda’s under-19 team will be almost exclusively local Bermudians, and predominately black Bermudian youths from the government school system. Quite a transformation.

The patience and inclusive attitude have ensured that rugby is flourishing among Bermudian youth. The sport is shattering stigmas of the past and removing the racial divide that often exists in local sports. Bermuda’s perception of rugby being an exclusive sport played predominately by white, privileged “elitist” expatriates has changed beyond recognition.

Having youngsters form positive bonds is key to long-term success. By focusing only on the needs of the elite athlete or winning at all costs, we hurt our long-term sustainability. Ten years from now, would Bermuda prefer a thriving sporting environment with strong core values enshrined in youngsters, or would we be content with Bermuda producing one or two iconic elite athletes who, inevitably, leave our shores for pastures new, leaving behind a legacy of misguided and rejected youngsters?

Our youth have everything to gain from being part of sporting programmes that are willing to maintain and uphold a set of core values. We must provide our youth with opportunities to be part of a team, to allow that sense of belonging to flourish in a positive, structured environment. To do so, however, we must stop this obsession with creating the next global superstar and focus on the masses of young Bermudians who, without question, will be the generation that will remain on the island’s shores and can make a real impact against our present cultural challenges.

Gareth Nokes is chairman of the Bermuda Rugby Football Union and father to two school-aged children

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Published Mar 6, 2017 at 8:00 am (Updated Mar 6, 2017 at 1:00 pm)

Inclusion, not exclusion, is the key to success

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