[Opinion column written by Gareth Nokes]
Bermuda has an opportunity. Whether it chooses to grasp it with two hands is dependent upon a significant change in attitude by many of the island’s sporting organizations. 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 ongoing gang-related problems, however, infrequently is the lack of “belonging” highlighted as a counterbalance.
Sport clubs, coaches, teachers and teammates can all have a significant impact on our youth and help fill the void for some of the island’s most at-risk children. This is common practice throughout the world – the number of stories of inner-city children growing up in under-privileged, 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, in order 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, Brian Lara or, indeed, 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 on ability alone.
Somehow, many of our coaches believe they possess that extraordinarily rare ability to spot talent at a very young age whereas, in reality, it is almost impossible to successfully identify and harness this talent [with a few exceptions; Tiger Woods springs to mind].
Ask the vast majority of sporting greats and you will find, without doubt, that attitude and effort trumps talent every time. Hard work, determination and a willingness to learn are the key ingredients to getting to the top in any sport, however, it is these attributes which often also define the humility and respect that many who have achieved true greatness personify off the field.
Through this desire to find the next Ronaldo, we frequently turn sport into an “exclusive club” for the select few. It becomes yet another form of rejection for our island’s youth who, from a young age, become disengaged and feel under-invested. The drop out rate in youth sport is shocking – you only have to look at the percentage of primary school children engaged in sport versus that same statistic at high school level.
Frequently, we focus our efforts on the “top quartile” athlete – the boy or girl whom, quite frankly, could turn their hand at pretty much anything and be guaranteed a first team place in any sport they choose. As coaches, we regularly build teams and bend over backwards to accommodate the needs of that “special” talented child.
We thus create programs for the “elite” athlete to shine, but at the same time away many youngsters from playing sport and enjoying that sense of belonging and camaraderie that comes with truly being part of a team. Indeed, all to often, the core value of teamwork is substituted or forgotten in order to secure a local victory with a game plan centered around Bermuda’s next-big-thing.
Stories of the BFA not allowing Andrew Bascome’s highly successful Valencia youth program to enter all their youth teams into the “league competition”, which is actually only a series of friendly matches, due to restriction on number of entrants per club is a casing point. Why would Bermuda Football not look to find a way to include as many teams as possible? After all, it is not a league and there are no league winners.
Stories of Bermuda Swimming excluding local Bermudian-born swimmers from competing at the Carifta games despite having achieved the necessary qualifying times in order to focus on a couple of Canadian-based swimmers is shameful.
These overseas swimmers, one of whom hasn’t set foot in Bermuda for over a decade, and their families contribute nothing to on-island swimming yet choose to swim for Bermuda because they can apparently dictate and manipulate a medal-obsessed BASA which races they chose to enter – a luxury they would not be afforded in Canada, their chosen country of residence.
We are talking about under 12 swimming and one must ask what is more important; winning as many medals as possible with a couple of limited overseas based swimmers or finding a way to ensure as many local swimmers as possible, with the necessary qualifying times, experience and benefit from attending a truly international swimming gala?
Stories of our youths being asked by certain coaches not to play other sports through fear of jeopardizing their own sport or team’s individual needs is shocking. What coach would actively jeopardize a child potentially excelling in another sport to satisfy their own selfish needs? We must do better – we must find a way to be inclusive, not exclusive, and allow as many of our youngsters to enjoy island-wide sports.
Let us take a reality check: Bermuda is a small island with a population between the ages of 5-19 of under 9,500 and falling according to the most recent Bermuda government census. Whilst we can sustain healthy competition on the island, we simply cannot expect to compete with the depth and level of competition that larger countries enjoy.
We do, however, have a duty to ensure that sport is available for each and every youngster who wishes to participate. In order for a seismic cultural change in our island’s youngsters, we need to include as many of our youth playing sports as possible and instill the core values that a child can obtain through playing sport. We must hold our sports accountable to maintaining a set of core values to which all National Sporting Governing Bodies should unequivocally uphold.
Unfortunately, school sports in Bermuda seems to have taken a backward step behind the club establishments. There was a time when representing your school at sport was the highest accolade of any player and the proudest moment in a young person’s sporting career. However, the extra-curricular club scene with all the well-documented cultural challenges around sporting clubs has taken center stage in Bermuda.
In recent years, however, the Bermuda Rugby Football Union took a different perspective; rather than creating a youth section of the island’s existing four clubs, Rugby set out to reintroduce the sport into the sporting curriculum and work alongside the education system. The results have been impressive.
There is no doubt that anybody who has played the game of rugby believes it is truly the greatest team sport in existence today. To quote the 2003 world cup winner Johnny Wilkinson, “Rugby is the most phenomenal team sport that exists. Everybody digs in, everybody tackles and everybody works hard – it’s never about you. If you are the guy that puts the ball down over the line, the chances are it came from someone else. Through a team sport like 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. The sport is perfect for Bermuda’s youth, many of whom have the ideal attributes to be top-class rugby players but, more importantly, have the ability to become well-rounded and respectful adults.
In 2011, rugby was chosen as a sport for change in Bermuda. With the vision of John Layfield, the passion of Martha Dismont, MBE and a few key corporate sponsors such as Validus Re and Aspen Insurance, “Beyond Rugby Bermuda” was established; a partnership between the Family Centre and the Bermuda Rugby Football Union.
This all-inclusive program 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 and Dellwood Middle School, the program provided homework support, expert counselling from the Family Centre’s therapeutic support team, first class rugby training from Patrick Calow, the BRFU’s youth development officer, a dinner and transportation home from school – 4 days a week.
In its first year, around six children from both schools enrolled. Why so few? The answer was simple – rugby was deemed to be an ex-pat “elitist” sport played by the privileged. The elitism in sport reared its ugly head yet again and this stigma needed to be removed. Inclusion, not exclusion, was key to success if this perception was to permanently change.
Rugby was perceived by many in Bermuda as a violent and aggressive sport which would exacerbate some of the challenges Bermuda was experiencing with their young male population. From the outset Patrick Calow recalls fears and concerns from parents and teachers alike that the Beyond Rugby coaches would spend most of their time breaking up fights and brawls rather than having a meaningful practice session.
In reality, nothing was further from the truth – the fact these type of behavior were rarely seen on the rugby field is a strength of the sport. Channeled aggression is a key component for any player, but respect ensures that where conflicts arise the players are forced to learn self-regulation, self-discipline and the personal skills needed in order to take a strong tackle without the need to retaliate.
The players understand that once the final whistle has gone, each player must possess the humility to offer a handshake to that very same person and any animosity stays on the field.
To win a game of rugby, teamwork is essential – the name of the person who scores the try or kicks the penalties is irrelevant. Whether the young person is fast or slow, large or small – there is a position for them on a rugby field and, critically, each position is of equal importance to the team’s success.
This allows rugby to be a truly “inclusive” sport – there are no superstars in a rugby team. This inclusivity allowed Beyond Rugby to welcome every player into the program with open arms; unless, of course, they refused to adhere to the strict core values of the program.
Despite the disappointing start, the Beyond Rugby program did not panic. John and Martha, alongside Gareth Nokes, the newly appointed Chairman of Youth Rugby whose timely arrival in 2012 gave the program added direction, set about promoting Beyond Rugby as a youth program with a difference. It did not fall into the trap of targeting those popular “top quartile” athletes that other sports were constantly wrestling over to improve their results in order to achieve success.
The success of Beyond Rugby did not depend on the on-field results at all; on the contrary, back in 2011/12, rugby had largely disappeared from school sports timetables, meaning there wasn’t actually any competition for the Beyond Rugby schools. The program instead lead with the philosophy “to grow the game, grow the player” – be patient, do the right thing and over time growth will come; as will the top athletes.
Beyond Rugby steered clear from those athletes whose egos had been swollen by coaches and team managers alike and focused on many of the athletes who had been excluded from mainstream sports. Those players whose opinions of themselves and their abilities were morphed only by their parent’s views of their prize possession were avoided. Beyond Rugby worked with the schools to target those in need of inclusion, those lacking a sense of belonging and desperately seeking positive role models.
Athletic ability or an understanding of the game was not necessary; those attributes can be coached, attitude was everything. The program realized that to be successful the youngsters themselves must want to be part of the program. By looking after the individual off the field, upholding and instilling in them the sport’s core values of Teamwork, Respect, Sportsmanship, Enjoyment and Discipline, on-field improvements will naturally follow.
Rather than attempting to “poach” the top athletes, Beyond Rugby worked alongside PE teachers and school counselors to identify young people who could benefit from a holistic therapeutic sports program where the importance of education and well-being are just as, if not more important, than the final score of a game.
Through a committee of hard-working volunteers and generous donors the youth rugby programs have flourished. In 2014, with support from Axis Insurance, Beyond Rugby expanded into Berkeley High School. The Bermuda Police Service has since provided the program with a “home” at Prospect near Cedarbridge school – their support has been invaluable as they themselves recognize the gang intervention work that can be achieved by Beyond Rugby and similar programs.
The rugby community responded by installing floodlighting, maintaining the field and clearing areas of land to make the best possible use of the Police Field facility. There are now over 90 youths in the formal Beyond Rugby programs across three government schools. Tashon DaSilva has been added as a part-time coach for the Berkeley team and future expansions are being dreamt about.
In 2015 the Beyond Rugby Bermuda program won the “NACRA Fair Play” award – selected from over 7,000 programs throughout 17 countries in North America. Rugby is once again firmly back on the schools curriculum and we are now seeing a number of our youth players transitioning into senior rugby. Only recently, five graduates of the various youth programs made their debut for the Bermuda National Team against New York Athletic Rugby Club in a closely fought contest.
In addition to the Beyond Rugby program , there is now a competitive Ariel Re High-School league played under flood lights at NSC on Wednesday evenings – every high school in Bermuda competes at under-16 and under-18 level. There is the Digicel middle school league with seven of the islands middle schools competing at under-12 and under-14 level.
The pride demonstrated by these young players in playing rugby for their school team is once again palpable. Sunday mornings see between 150-200 children aged from 4 – 16 turning out to play the game – but more importantly to learn the values of Rugby. In short, rugby is now being played by around 350-400 youths each week during the regular season [Oct-March].
With pride comes respect, both for the opposition and the officials, and it is hoped many of these young persons will go onto represent Bermuda with pride on the field and with respect off the field. As Sean Field-Lament, President of the BRFU, comments “some of us might not become the best rugby players on the field but all rugby players strive to be the best possible human beings off the field”.
in 2017 there are international tours to the UK and Bahamas for every age groups from under-9 to under-15 and our under-19s will once again compete in the Rugby Americas North championships later this year. Our under-19s team this year will be almost exclusively local Bermudians and predominately black Bermudian youths from the Government School system.
Quite a transformation in a relatively short time span. Ironically, many of the athletes that was written off at aged 11 or 12 have since turned into well rounded athletic young men which other sports are beginning to notice. Unintentionally, rugby is now attracting those top quartile athletes which other sports have scrambled over for so many years. However, in order to succeed in the sport, they must leave their ego at the gate and uphold the strict core values of the sport.
It has taken over 5 years however, the patience and inclusive attitude has ensured that Rugby is flourishing amongst Bermudian youth. The sport is shattering stigmas of the past and removing the racial divides which exist in Bermuda.
Throughout Bermuda Rugby are multi-ethnic, multi-racial teams however, this isn’t new; role models such as Bobby Hurdle and Alvin Harvey, both black Bermudians, have captained Bermuda National teams in the past but now, these misconceptions and barriers are finally being dismantled permanently. Bermuda’s perception of Rugby being an exclusive sport played predominately by white, privileged “elitist” ex-pats has changed beyond recognition.
The future of the sport is bright.
Whilst a culture of inclusivity is paying dividends, the sport has not lost sight of what is important. Of course, winning some of the 2017 tournaments would be nice, but having these youngsters form positive bonds with teammates, coaches and officials is more important.
These are the key to long term success on our island paradise however, the sport is humble enough to acknowledged that rugby isn’t for everyone. It was therefore delighted to see Andrew Bascome, a man who shares common beliefs and values to the Beyond Rugby program, recently establish his second soccer program in the heart of Victor Scott Primary school recently.
By only focusing on the needs of the elite athlete we hurt our long term sustainability, we must think what we want our sporting programs to look like in 10, 20 and 30 years from now and work towards that vision.
Would Bermuda prefer a thriving sporting environment with strong core values enshrined in youngsters island-wide, or would we be content with Bermuda producing one or two iconic world-class elite athlete who, inevitably, leave our shores for pastures new leaving behind a legacy of misguided and rejected youngsters?
Our youth have everything to gain and nothing to lose from being part of sporting programs who are willing to maintain and uphold core values such as sportsmanship and respect. 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.
In order 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 current cultural challenges.
- Gareth Nokes
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