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Putting people first: Creating ecosystems that help every individual flourish

Copyrights: Daniel Thomae

Putting people first: Creating ecosystems that help every individual flourish

As crucial as it is that sport and development aligns with the Sustainable Development Goals, there also needs to be a paradigm shift to prioritising people over projects and programmes; quality and depth over scale and numbers.

This article was submitted as part of our call for reshaping the future of sport and development.

In South Africa there is a proverb that says, “Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu,” which translates to “A person is a person because of people.”

Participation in sport quickly reveals the necessity of interdependence and collaboration. Sports such as basketball, cricket, football, hockey, rugby, and volleyball are prime platforms for young people to learn the importance of relationship and teamwork. Even individual sports such as boxing, climbing, cycling, judo, tennis, and skateboarding are replete with opportunities for shared learning and cooperation. Everything that happens within the realm of sport is a microcosm of life, and can be leveraged to aide in the holistic development of young people.

Accelerating globalisation and urbanisation continue to cultivate diversity. Although there is increasing awareness of the need for inclusivity and equity, the UN says that conflict and violence are on the rise around the world. The World Social Report 2020 found that over 70% of the global population lives in countries with increasing inequality. The fault lines of societies across the globe were laid bare during the COVID-19 crisis. In the midst of this information age, with knowledge doubling at unprecedented rates, the world seems to present more questions than answers. The world we have been working so hard to build threatens to break down under this strain. We are counting the cost of rising individualism across the globe, and we need to shift our focus if we want to turn the tide.

Sport provides the perfect inspiration for the task at hand. We are familiar with the scenes of a fighter being pushed back against the ropes, an athlete who just can’t catch a break on the day, or a football team being pinned inside their own half. History shows that these anxious moments are just temporary. Recall those enthralling instances when the tide suddenly turns with the boxer fighting back, the skater finally landing their trick, the football team breaking forward with a stunning counterattack. These are the moments that restore our hope, that rekindle our passion, and motivate us to keep moving forward.

How, then, do we move forward? We do it by putting people first. As crucial as it is that sport and development aligns with the Sustainable Development Goals, there also needs to be a paradigm shift to prioritising people over projects and programmes; quality and depth over scale and numbers. We must not look at people as problems to be solved, but rather as teammates on life’s journey. “No man is an island,” John Donne once wrote, “every man is a part of the main.” Martin Luther King Jr. echoed this sentiment when he said, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” When we place people at the centre, we learn to practice empathy and celebrate diversity. We embark on a journey to increase accessibility and inclusivity because we long to learn from those with different experiences. Where voices are marginalised, we are moved to draw near and listen intently.

Sport has shown its power to convene people across vast divides. Sport coaches have an unparalleled opportunity to impact and empower other people. The word “coach” originated in Hungary to describe a new method of transport that was developed, and was later adapted in England during the 1800’s to describe an instructor who helped carry/move kids towards a goal. A coach’s responsibility is to move players from where they are to where they can be. A coach is entrusted with more power than most adults, so a coach must be conscious of how that power is used. A coach has a responsibility to use their time with young people purposefully, helping each individual develop their full potential on and off the field.

Committing to putting people first and helping each one realise their full potential naturally requires looking beyond the field of play. Such a commitment necessitates an entire ecosystem of support to help every individual flourish. Putting people first drives us towards partnership. Because we are interconnected, we need each other. We work together, and we rise together. This is the spirit of the global goals; they can only be met if we cooperate and collaborate.

Each of us is broken in some way, yet each of us has something uniquely special to contribute. A study conducted by Coaches Across Continents showed that 96% of youth felt their mental health and wellbeing was negatively impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Most frequently, youth reported increased anxiety, loneliness, and stress. Trauma care expert Dr. Bruce Perry says, “Relationships are the agents of change. The most powerful buffer in times of stress and distress is our social connectedness.” It is imperative that we build relationships so we can move forward together.

Positive youth development requires long-term, needs-based investment and mentorship. Sport creates a space for building intentional relationships. Coaches can help players by building trust, providing patterned rhythmic activity, and controlled predictable stress. Sport has the potential to help facilitate healing. Properly structured activity can help regulate people. Participation in sport can provide reward and motivation.

Sport creates an ideal platform for education outside the classroom. Sport can help people learn skills for resilience, innovation, and leadership. Through sport, people can be empowered with tangible skills for work so that they will be able to access, retain, and excel in their desired field of employment.

Sport and development must lean more heavily on these truths moving forward. More and more, we must put people at the centre of all we do. We must work together to create ecosystems of support that help every individual flourish. In the words of Wangari Maathai, “I’m very conscious of the fact that you can’t do it alone. It’s teamwork. When you do it alone you run the risk that when you are no longer there nobody else will do it.” 



Daniel Thomae is the co-founder of training4changeS in Stellenbosch, South Africa. He is a social entrepreneur, creative content designer, and has helped pioneer a unique relationship-based model using futsal for holistic development.


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Monday, July 4, 2022 - 18:51

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