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Vital Connections – Lou Bergholz

I met Lou Bergholz at the Beyond Sport conference held in Cape Town in December 2011. Although we talked on that occasion the opportunity for collaboration sadly never came around. Lou is founder and managing partner of Edgework Consulting a Boston based firm that provides leadership development and capacity building to organisation’s around the world. An important part of the company’s work focusing on innovative approaches to youth development including sport for development activity.

When I met Lou in Cape Town, I was unaware his company Edgework Consulting had just completed a sport for development manual for UNICEF Namibia called Sport 2 Life. A manual that would key in the delivery of the Namibian Football Associations Galz & Goals programme. Four years later Donny Jurgens and I were asked by the GIZ Namibia to develop a Sexual Reproductive Health & Rights manual for youth in football and basketball.

As the Sport 2 Life manual developed by Edgework Consulting was embedded in the youth development through football approach in Namibia it was important that our Sexual Reproductive Health & Rights manual was built on some of the approaches it advocated. Connected conversations and inside-out coaching are key components of Sport 2 Life and it made sense that our manual should adopt a similar methodology in teaching health skills, especially as the football coaches were already skilled in this approach.

This idea of the Coach helping young people to make the connection from their experience on the field of play to their life outside of sport is key to achieving development outcomes through sports programmes. Research suggests that sport for development programmes are most successful when there is a positive adult-youth relationship and where there is an intentional connection between sports activities and the development goal.

I was therefore excited when I received an invitation from Lou to review his new book “Vital Connections“. The sub-title catching my eye “Harnessing the Power of Relationships to Impact the Lives of Young People“. This sparked my interest as a practitioner in the fields of sport and sport for development. Whether it is sport for performance, for recreation, or for the holistic development of the young person, the quality of the coach-athlete relationship is key to the the young person’s experience and outcomes.

So I approached Lou’s book from the perspective of a coach and coach developer even though the book is intended for a wider audience of people who work with youth and are involved in their development.

In Vital Connections Lou reflects on his experience of working with young people in a number of different settings across the world and sets out in the book the lessons he has learned. The result is the author’s six vital connections.

1. Make Time at the Right Time.

2. Know Their Story.

3. Believe They Can Succeed.

4. Make Vital Conversations.

5. Facilitate Connections with other Caring Adults.

6. Intervene When They Need You Most.

The book is organised in three parts each covering two of the Vital Connections. The order is intentional with subsequent chapters building on each other. The sequencing of the Vital Connections aimed at building the readers skill and capacity to leverage their power as Caring Adults.

In covering the first Vital Connection – Make Time at the Right Time – Lou explores the importance of making time for all the young people in the activities we run and that the right time might be during the formal programme or informally outside of the programme. This got me thinking of the Namibian Sport 2 Life programme where the right time to discuss life skills issues with the young footballers was after the football practice. After they had undertaken physical activity, burned off energy and were more calm and ready to be reflective. It also reminded me that even when you are coaching a team or squad, you are coaching a group of individuals and we need to make time for each individual player.

Making Time for young people leads to you getting to Know Their Story. This is important in all youth work if you are to help that young person get the best out of themselves. It is also vital in a coaching sense, if you do not know your individual players then it will be unlikely that you can help them set realistic goals and support them to develop their full potential.

The chapter on Believe They Can Succeed is especially pertinent for coaches working in a sports context. It is packed full of great advice on how to encourage young people and resonates with good coaching practice.

One aspect of coaching practice that is often missing in youth sport is that important opportunity for group discussion where the young players can reflect on what they have learned and can contribute their thinking back to the programme. As coaches we talk about being athlete-centered but often forget to engage our young players in conversation and receive their valuable feedback. Lou talks about this in the fourth of the Vital Connections – Making Vital Conversations and there is real food for thought for sports coaches in this chapter.

Facilitating Connections with other Caring Adults made me think of my long time mentor Frank Dick’s “The Three Things You Must Know“.

  1. Know what you know.

  2. Know what you do not know.

  3. Know someone who knows what you do not know.

In life we can not know everything, the important thing is knowing when we do not have the answers and helping the young people we work with to connect with the right people who can help and support them. Lou talks about reaching into the community and building a Support System for young people. That again resonates with the sports coaching experience. The young players at the centre of the programme that is lead by a competent coach surrounded by a network of support personnel that provide the services that are key to supporting the young players achieve their goals.

Just as Lou suggests that the role of the youth workers is to facilitate that network of caring adults to support the development of the young person, the sports coach needs to build a support network that will include professionals such as physiotherapists, doctors, nutritionists, strength and conditioning experts, but also volunteers who can act as chaperones, help with administration or raise funds.

Lou’s final Vital Connection – Intervene When They Need You Most – suggests that sometimes we should go the extra mile to help a young person in their development. In other words going beyond what would normally be expected of you in your role in working with young people. Lou suggests three situations where a caring adult might wish to intervene. The first is a launch scenario where you can guide a young person toward an experience or an opportunity that will most likely put them on a significantly better trajectory in some area of their life.

A young person from Cape Town’s notorious gang ridden Cape Flats was recently offered a place in a College in the USA where he could study and play collegiate soccer. A friend had agreed through his business to sponsor the young person’s studies in the USA but his dreams came crashing down when he was refused a study visa. This was a time when I decided to intervene using my connections with the British High Commission to make a connection with the US Consulate. This led to direct talks with the sponsor and a better understanding of the opportunity for the young person who is now getting a first class education and playing a good standard of sport. This would be Lou’s sixth Vital Connection in action in a launch scenario.

The other two situations where Lou suggests an intervention may be suitable is a preventive scenario where you are directing the young person away from an inherent danger or a rescue situation where they are already in a damaging situation and may need rescued.

This approach made me think very much about the safeguarding of young people in sport. The situation where a coach needs to exercise their moral or ethical duty of care to prevent or stop a young person being subjected to abuse, harassment or exploitation.

Lou Bergholz Vital Connections is not intended to be a sports coaching book, but is certainly a book that I would recommend to any sports coach. As Lou shares his experiences he tells some interesting stories that make the book enjoyable to read, but he also sets out some clear principles which coaches can follow to enhance their work with young players.

Vital Connections: Harnessing the Power of Relationship to Impact the Lives of Young People is available on Amazon.

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