An empowered generation of youth: who is it about?

Coach Across America/ Up2Us Institute Recap
By: Amy Dahman

“It’s not about you” – a phrase that has sold over 30 million copies of “A Purpose Driven Life” by Rick Warren. And a phrase that serves up a really healthy portion of humble pie. More than just a “really healthy portion” actually; an essential portion.

Working with kids, while being dedicated to empowering them and helping them grow, is something that “should” be a given. And often it is. Most every teacher, coach, educator or figure who chooses a career serving and working with children does so because they legitimately want to effect positive change in young lives. We come in with the best of intentions, with hearts ablaze for helping kids achieve dreams and dream bigger than they might have without encouragement from an adult who cares. What I learned this weekend (or, what I was reminded of, but have actually harbored a sneaking feeling of for a while), is that this is not enough.

Before getting jazzed about that statement, let me take a moment to unpack it. Is it incredible that so many in the field of youth development are committed to empowerment and growth? Absolutely. More than incredible, it is imperative. The problem isn’t intention or commitment: it’s perspective. And for radically creating positive development in the lives of youth, we, the adult figures in children’s lives, need to challenge our perspective. I was rocked and humbled by this truth last weekend at Up2Us Sports’ Coaches Training Institute in Chicago.

If you’re reading this, you might be familiar with Kids in the Games’ mission to empower youth and provide opportunities to them through sports, movement, play and enrichment. This mission drives all our work; it compels us to innovate programs for youth, to stay abreast of best practices for helping youth succeed, and to continuously engage in training and development for all coaches on our team. For this reason, Kids in the Game is a committed partner with the Up2Us Sports Coach Across America program.

The program is a year-long professional development for coaches across the country to learn, advance and strategically implement the most effective methods in sports based youth development. Each year, we nominate coaches to engage in the program, where they take their growth and share it with their fellow coaches, our managerial staff, and ultimately, the youth with whom they work. The pinnacle training is “institute”, a four-day intensive where coaches from around the country come together and engage in classroom trainings, group games (including lots of team four-square, team rock-paper-scissors and giant-wizard-elf challenges, and smack-fu), role playing, strategic beach ball volleying, Socratic discussions, and idea sharing.

Myself and two KING Americorps VISTA volunteers were fortunate enough to participate in their training this past weekend in Chicago. I learned too much from the training to detail here, though I can say of the weekend in one encapsulating statement that the parent institute’s name, “Up2Us” is so appropriate. The 30 hours of training (and several additional hours of informal time connecting with fellow coaches and trainers across America) affirmed for me that it is, indeed, up to us (coaches, teachers, mentors, parents, family members – any adult role model) to empower youth.

Day one of institute shook us with research studies proving the greatest predictor of success in a child is resilience. Why was this truth as convicting as a bucket of ice water poured overhead? Because of the coinciding research affirming the greatest contributor to a child’s resilience is the presence of strong adult figure in their life. And so, my assertion that ‘Up2Us’ is an apt title for the country’s top institute for sports-based youth development, carries some validity. But I must come back to perspective here. Yes, it is up to us. It is not about us.

I am so guilty of making it about me, though. My perspective as I research best practices for active enrichment, as I craft lesson plans, as I go into administering the activities I carefully think out, it’s all in dedication to the kids and with a heart so committed to helping them be the best they can be. I’ll return to my point above though: this is not enough. Because I so often get caught up in the “plan”. Too caught up in the arrogant notion that the growth of my kiddos happens best when the lessons pan out how I envision them (which, you’d think I’d have learned by now that it NEVER goes exactly the way I craft in my head). Sitting in a classroom in Chicago, digesting this research and hearing Megan, a seasoned youth development expert say, “most of the time, that lesson plan means nothing” compared to making any of your kids feel seen, heard, known, accepted and more than anything, loved. To hear this veteran trainer share an emotional anecdote about the truth of this in her youth work, and then uttering the phrase, “it’s not about you” was the proverbial bucket of ice for me.

It is up to us to believe a child can succeed, and help them believe it too. It is up to us to draw out and develop the high-impact attributes that research proves make children successful in life. It is up to us to make youth feel competent, which sets a foundation for building team work, discipline, physical fitness, and decision-making skills. It is up to us to let children know – to show them – that we are there for them, that we care about them, that we want them to dream BIG and embrace the truth that they can achieve their dreams.

Upon reflection of this treasure trove of information I acquired (through exceptional hands-on activities, critical thinking exercises, intense discussion, difficult questions, and close small-group and one-on-one sharing), I came away SO convicted and totally rocked with the truth that the kids I get to serve, work and play with every day have a future that is dependent on me. It is up to us to instill traits of civility in youth, traits of compassion, tolerance, humility and patience. It is up to me, but it is not about me. It is not about me. And it is not about you, the reader. It’s about them. You can interpret the “them” to be as broad as the entire population of youth, or as specific as your own children, because I’m talking about both. It is up to me to stand firm in my commitment to showing these kids agape, a love that is selfless and for them. To show them that I won’t give up on them. That, even though I fall short and will continue to fall short in my greatest efforts, I am here for them.

My hope is that they will grow holding onto the truth that they are competent, that they are able, that they are resilient, and that they too will grow up and someday, whether they are parents, teachers, coaches, mentors or some other figure in a child’s life, they will work with an internal mantra, “it’s not about you.”

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