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The power of Sport in connecting communities and breaking social barriers

During my time with the Badjao Tribe, the importance of sport within the community was evident. Every day groups of men and teenagers would play volleyball and basketball outside the school, the volleyball net being central to the community, in terms of both location and influence.

I am a massive advocate of sport and the benefits it brings to individuals and communities alike. Coming from rural Ireland, sport is more of a way of life rather than simply a hobby. It is often the only local place to meet your friends growing up, it is the talk of parishes across the country as clubs and counties take each other on each week, it gives you a group of friends with whom you develop a unique relationship based on trust, loyalty and support. It brings communities together nothing else I can think of. Sport is embedded in our history, in our culture and in our relationships.

Even people who take no interest in playing sport can find a connection with a stranger by speaking of a game that took place at the weekend, or of a loved ones involvement therein. The great thing about sport is that it can bring such a large group of people together for hours of entertainment at close to no cost. Take volleyball within the Badjao community, for example. They had one volleyball net outside the school open for all in the community to use. Thereafter, once one ball was available, as many people could join in. It was typically only the men who played, but that did not stop the women and children from gathering around the court each day to enjoy the spectacle. Likewise, there was one basketball net in the community and anyone could play once one ball was available. We also saw groups use a bucket to play. One person would move around with the bucket in hand while others tried to shoot the ball into it. Such a simple adaptation of the game but one that provided them with hours of joy and connection, not to mention exercise.

Sport also gives the greatest gift to people all around the world – hope. Young people from all walks of life often grow up with the same dream- to play their sport professionally or at a high level. Although there are sports such as sailing which require a lot of investment in terms of equipment and sponsorship and so on,  for some of the more simplistic With sports- wealth, race, sexuality etc. do not act as barriers; if you have the talent, you have anthe opportunity to excel. Be it premier league soccer or NBA basketball, or even the Senior hurling championship, teams consist of people from poverty stricken backgrounds, affluent backgrounds, broken homes and happy homes, and multiple ethnicities. Their sport brings them all together to conquer a common goal – win the match for them, their teammates and their supporters. While they play their sport together no social opinions, diversities or barriers exist and everyone is equal, working together and for each other, despite any differences that may exist between them.

Sport provides many of the Badjao youth with hope, goals, aspirations and discipline as well as an outlet from their day-to-day lives, as it does for many in Ireland. When asking some of the students what they wanted to be when they were older, some would answer ‘a professional basketball player’. There was one student in particular who seems incredibly determined to make this happen.

Almost every day you would see him in the yard practising, and whenever you spoke to him, basketball was the key topic of conversation. It was wonderful to see how much purpose and drive basketball brought to his life. There is a documentary series on Netflix called ‘Last Chance U’ which is about a group of student athletes (American footballers), many of which come from troubled upbringings with many obstacles to success. The documentary clearly shows how sport has played a positive role in the young men's’ lives and given them purpose and hope for a brighter future. Even on a smaller scale, sport gives my teammates and I a common goal, purpose and drive each season that has a positive impact on our behaviours off the pitch too. Sport develops skills and virtues such as discipline, commitment, intuition, support, respect, as well as the ability to overcome disappointments and setbacks which are beneficial attributes in a professional and social context also.

During our time with the Badjao, I, along with the other SERVE volunteers, organised a sports day for the high school and adult-development students of the Tribe. The day proved to be one of the most wonderful experiences of my life; a day I will forever treasure and hold close to my heart.

Why? The sheer joy and companionship that the day brought to the students was incredible. Roughly 70 students travelled to the grounds of The Holy Family Retreat House where there is a large green field, a basketball court and a tennis court. We set up basketball, volleyball, soccer and race stations, along with a rest station where students could get their face painted and the different groups rotated along the stations.

The students were split into groups consisting of adults, older high school students, younger students and boys and girls alike. Despite the wide age gaps in the groups, the varying abilities and gender mix, everyone played inclusively together, supporting weaker players and encouraging them. The excitement they showed for every new activity was like nothing I experienced whilst coaching soccer in summer camps. For example, as an introductory activity we invited every team to come up with a team name and chant. I expected this to be a 15 minute activity max with each team coming up with a quick and easy chant. I could not have anticipated how immersed they got in it.

At least half an hour later, each group performed what can only be described as a well thought out and choreographed song and dance routine. As each group performed the other groups clapped, cheered, and laughed so fully, the level of engagement amazed me and it was really wonderful to see young teens and older adults alike getting so involved. – every single one of them enjoyed and appreciated the activity so much, even the adults, some of whom were more than 30 years old. I could not help but think would a group of Irish people be so enthusiastic and willing to get so involved? I honestly do not believe we would, from my experiences.

I was leading the soccer station. Soccer would not be the most popular sport in the Philippines yet the students were so so eager to learn about it and play. Games that I thought would be a bit boring for them filled them with so much excitement and laughter that I would play numerous rounds. Before the second group finished both our soccer balls had burst in the heat. Suddenly we had 18 people and no proper ball. We had small sponge balls that we decided to use (the type you would give to a toddler – smaller than a size 3). I honestly did not think it was going to work, and in the back of my mind, I was thinking of ways to join groups together for the other activities. All credit to them though, they were not fazed by the fact we had no actual soccer ball to play soccer with.

They played all the games and match with the small sponge balls and enjoyed every minute, it was every bit as good as if we had a normal ball to use. I think this just epitomised everything that was great about the Tribe. They appreciate every gift and opportunity put their way and make the most of everything, something I think we could certainly learn from here in Ireland.

About Author:

Name: Leonie O Donnell
Award: Silver Award