For most Harvard students, the end of the spring term marks the triumphant conclusion of another year of college, with four months of shirked responsibilities and lazy summer days to look forward to. Some students travelled abroad, others took the opportunity to get internships and network for the future. But for a small group of varsity soccer players, the start of summer meant the opportunity to travel halfway around the world to the backwaters of Africa in the hopes of uplifting the local populace through as simple a gesture as teaching them the game of soccer.
This past summer, Crimson soccer players sophomore Lauren Urke and junior co-captain Peyton Johnson spent two weeks near the capital city of Kampala, Uganda, in the sweltering African summer heat working with Coaches Across Continents. The program, which aims to improve the quality of life in third-world countries using soccer as a tool for social development, partnered the Harvard athletes with local soccer coaches, teaching them skills and drills that they could in turn instill in youth players. Over the course of two weeks, Urke and Johnson instructed approximately 20 coaches, who then coached teams of around 20 players of their own. In total, around 400 Ugandan children of differing skills and ages were impacted by the program.
“As the week progressed, it mostly started with us coaching them through drills and running the sessions,” Johnson said. “As the week went forward, the aim was obviously that when we left they would be able to coach their own teams with things that they’d managed to learn.”
The Crimson players would instruct the coaches through drills for a few hours in the morning, and got the chance to work with the various individual teams in the afternoon. In addition to teaching the coaches soccer techniques, the main point of the program was to teach the community leaders and youth important social development skills, such as conflict resolution, problem solving, confidence, and finding one’s voice. These important social ideas were framed in the context of soccer drills and games to spark the interest of young players who would otherwise have no access to this sort of knowledge.
“A game would be very competitive,” Urke said. “We would wait for disagreements to occur, then talk to them about how they can approach those [issues].”
Urke and Johnson were not the first Crimson athletes to be involved in Coaches Across Continents. The organization was founded by Harvard graduate and former soccer player Nick Gates ’91. Gates spent years travelling the world and quickly realized that soccer could serve as a vehicle for social change.
"What is needed is not another NGO doing the same things as some of the wonderful existing groups,” Gates said in 2006, two years before Coaches Across Continents launched its pilot program. “What is needed is a group who can educate and train teachers, coaches and volunteers so that they can use soccer to change lives.”
In 2008, Coaches Across Continents began running a single clinic in Tanzania. Now, less than five years later, the company has expanded to its present scope of 40 programs in 15 different countries.