A couple weeks ago I had the privilege of experiencing first-hand the impact a sporting hero can have on our young ones as I accompanied footballer Stern John to the St Monica’s Preparatory School on Dundonald Street, Port of Spain.
This was all part of an initiative of the Stern John Legacy Foundation which John had the desire to set up for over a year, and finally came to fruit after tedious planning and setting up by co-founder Shalini Beharry and myself.
With it being literacy week, we thought it would be the ideal opportunity for John to pay the school a visit and share some of his experiences with the kids.
We seldom recognise the influence sporting personalities and heroes can have on our kids and it was obvious based on what we subsequently encountered at the school.
Close to 200 students turned up at the drama hall in very orderly manner to meet the former Birmingham City forward. Now while John has had his fair share of success, we have to be honest that he is not actually the most successful current day athlete when compared to some of our recent Olympic athletes and regional cricketers. But I was shocked by the response of the kids, most or all who would have been between ages one and three in 2006 when the footballer appeared at the 2006 World Cup in Germany.
Still, there were loud cheers and lots of oohs and ahhs when John was introduced as the country’s top goalscorer and member of the 2006 World Cup team. Several of the young ones seemed aware of the 2006 experience and were thrilled to receive among other books, the Legacy of the Soca Warriors biography and bookmarks bearing John’s profile and information on the foundation. I think even John himself was taken aback by the response. This was more than just showing up for an autograph session, giving away sporting gear, or posing for photographs.
This more meaningful approach produced a positive result as a role model initiative. So it is difficult to understand how these types of opportunities are easily overlooked. In my experience, many athletes or other type role models have been pigeonholed into celebrity type appearances or award presentations.
We must realise that sporting role models have so much more to offer. They have a very unique position to educate and influence. Through our scheme, we want to put across the many depths and attributes of what it takes to be a world class athlete and break these down into a variety of settings. Each athlete has an individual story to tell and these often relate to experiences that young people are facing every day. Key themes that our athletes explore are things like maximising potential, following your own aspirations (not just in sport), the importance of diet and physical activity, behaviour, lifestyle, self-discipline...the themes go on and on.
On the heels of our 2012 Olympic success, that of our Twenty20 cricketers and even our 2006 World Cup team (though it now seems so long ago), we must see that the importance of sporting role models has never been more relevant and it is such a fantastic way to bring the two together to really make a difference.
John responded to questions from a couple of nine-year-olds about his upbringing.
“I was just like you at one stage in my life. I never liked reading too much, but my mom always tried to ensure that I at least read the newspaper every day. That helped me a lot because not only was I playing football everyday, but I was able to read and understand things that were happening out there. I was able to read about people who I wanted to grow up and be like.”
He urged them to keep reading and try to learn a little bit more every day.
“As a young kid, I wasn’t the best footballer but I had a bit of talent and I think I worked really hard. I had to do more than some of the other players but it paid off because I was able to make a career out of it and now I can hopefully make a contribution towards kids like you who want to be successful in life.”
In closing, I’d like to share something which made me appreciate the value of following the exploits of role models. In 1989, at the tender age of eight, I followed every match of the 1990 Road to Italy World Cup qualifying campaign. To this day, I still have autographed team posters and player photos. I was amazed at the joy those times brought to all those around me.
I kept in touch and I kept following. Seventeen years later, I accompanied the same Dwight Yorke and Russell Latapy to one of the World’s greatest sporting stages in Germany as their Media Officer.
Keep following and keep believing!