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Kick-starting social change

Concerns about women’s empowerment are a major public health and policy issue around the world. Using the sport of soccer as a catalyst for leadership development, a group of WVU researchers aims to change all that.

Abstract image of a female soccer player in a large stadium

CPASS faculty members Jack Watson, Gonzalo Bravo and Peter Giacobbi, along with Cheyenne Luzynski, faculty member in the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences, have received an award grant through the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Center at the University of Montana as part of the U.S. State Department’s Sport Diplomacy initiative. Using a community-based approach, anchored by the globally popular sport of soccer, the team hopes to literally kick-start social change in rural areas and expand women’s empowerment. The group plans to use this sport to increase leadership skills, diplomacy and confidence among the participants, something that could, given time and effort, have a ripple effect across whole communities. It won’t be easy. But it will be worth it, Watson believes.

“The program is designed to use the most popular international sport, soccer, to develop person-to-person diplomacy, while promoting social change,” says Watson, principal investigator.

Connecting through sport

As a highpoint of the project, the WVU team has coordinated a cultural exchange between the U.S. and Mexico. The WVU contingent traveled to Mexico this past May to launch the partnership.

Through an ongoing partnership with the Universidad Autonoma de Nuevo Leon (UANL), located near Monterrey in the state of Nuevo Leon, the group has reached out to Mexican youth and coaches. The program selected participants from the town of Mina, located 43 km (26 miles) north of the UANL campus.

Since 2010, Bravo, CPASS sport management associate professor, has worked and collaborated on numerous projects at the School of Sport Organization at UANL. Bravo’s work with UANL will enhance the direct network of contacts with schools and officials in the region.

“Faculty and personnel at UANL are not only very well connected with the local community in Monterrey but also are extremely well equipped to participate in a project of such characteristics. We could not ask for better partners. It is through UANL that we will be able to reach and identify our target population in Mexico, who will then travel to Morgantown in the summer of 2019,” Bravo says.

Program administrators coordinated plans to send 20 individuals to Mexico, including youth, coaches and other leaders. As a follow-up, 24 representatives traveled to Morgantown in July. Partner organizations in the US will involve nonprofit soccer organizations, including local and regional soccer associations. The group has contacts in Morgantown, Wheeling and Charlottesville, VA, to help create a positive experience.

“We hope to use connections with WVU Women’s Soccer to help develop a positive program. This connection could help to develop an effective program while the Mexican delegation is on campus,” Watson says.

“The grant team intends to learn more about each other by using the common language of sports,” says Peter Giacobbi, CPASS associate professor.

Leveraging expertise

In addition to Watson, Giacobbi and Bravo, three other specialists will provide insight. As a coach, Luzynski has combined sport leadership skills and curriculum with performance training and has led an international sport exchange program to Nicaragua with volleyball athletes. Sofia España Perez, born and raised in Mexico City, is pursuing a PhD in sport, exercise and performance psychology at WVU. She teaches with an emphasis on diversity in sports. Her research interest focuses on the cultural differences in athletes and use of sport psychology. Adam Hansel, sport, exercise and performance psychology PhD student, played soccer in college and teaches soccer in the WVU basic instruction program. Hansel has international experience in promoting leadership and health through soccer with youth in Africa.

As a local partner who has provided initial support for the program, Laurel O’Neal Thornton, will provide an additional angle to the team. Thornton specializes in sport performance while leading an emotional wellness team at Whole Brain Solutions, based in Morgantown. The project group will study levels of engagement and participation, while evaluating self-esteem, satisfaction and learning.

“We are confident about our ability to tap into all sport, technical expertise, knowledge and infrastructure needs to provide a positive program,” Giacobbi says.

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