Their triumphant smiles are eternal and not simply in the photograph, but in their young memories. Their little legs and minds had accomplished the unthinkable. These kids were never ‘supposed’ to win soccer tournaments. A trophy? Collective success and well-placed pride? Never. Not for them, not for those kids.
If I must choose a highlight to my four month study abroad experience in Oaxaca, México, the moment that stands out is when I received a picture via email from my internship supervisor, Bonifacio. In the picture nearly all the boys and girls I had been coaching every afternoon stood with their PE uniforms and a beautiful trophy; they had won their annual soccer tournament. Bonifacio had informed me before I began my internship as a PE teacher at the school located in Zaachila, about half hour south of Oaxaca, that in previous years the children had lost every game. The simple reality was the other teams had access to good fields, shoes, teachers and coaches.
To paint you a picture, the kids in Zaachila played on a dusty, rocky field with balls that often popped upon impact. There was no such thing as a real pass. The school of around 40 kids sat literally in the shadow of a landfill and the kids’ parents made a living, for the most part, on separating the recyclable items from the garbage. Most of the kids’ shoes were from the landfill. What kind of strength would you need to live on what everyone else threw away?
Needless to say, morale and confidence were lacking when it came to the annual soccer tournament. Many of the kids expressed to me they didn’t feel like they belonged in the tournament, even though they were from the same area. “No es un secreto, los ricos siempre ganan.” Those eight words from a 5th grader named Santiago have stayed with me for these past three years. “It’s not a secret, the rich always win.” He was just referring to the soccer tournament…right? His expression indicated otherwise as his blank stare found the landfill and he sighed.
I was nobody to try and change their minds, but I could definitely offer some passing and dribbling drills, relay races and other games to get them excited. My goal was only to get them more enthused about playing the game and I showed some juggling tricks to keep their attention, as well as some clapping and dancing. Trust was earned rather quickly because there was no language barrier between us. Wherever I could I would tell them they indeed could play soccer well and that if they purposefully practiced anything, they would improve at it. I challenged them to think of it as their only option, that only success could happen because, at the end of the day, they had learned how to correctly pass a ball or they could shoot with laces and not their toes. The landfill was real, yes, but it could not define them or their abilities as students or athletes.
The trophy was theirs but the lesson, as always, was that soccer is an added bonus. Injecting confidence where it hasn’t been able to flourish before is monumental and those children will never forget the day they stood much, much taller than the landfill that dictates their lives.
About the Contributor
Jake Taylor M. is a youth soccer coach, Spanish teacher and aspiring author. He has lived, worked and coached in Colombia, Mexico, Ecuador, Panama and Washington state.