Leading the way: Fulbright scholar Carrie LeCrom to pilot a soccer coaching program in rural South Africa

Oct 19, 2018
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Carrie LeCrom and 8-year-old Liam of the Fire Fighters Football Club in Khayelitsha near Cape Town, South Africa (Photo courtesy VCU Center for Sport Leadership)

Soccer has been called the universal language. Carrie LeCrom, executive director of the Center for Sport Leadership (CSL) at Virginia Commonwealth University, understands firsthand that a person can step onto a soccer field in any part of the world and immediately communicate with other players, even if they don’t share a spoken language, religion or political ideology. For more than a decade, LeCrom has run international coaching programs that teach soccer but also impart skills that can make a difference in the lives of young people —such as leadership, teamwork, time management, and good decision-making in the areas of health, wellness and education.

LeCrom speaks with passion of these initiatives and the people all over the world with whom she has developed working relationships. One of the programs of which she is especially proud is Ubuhle Bendalo, an effort to prevent teen pregnancies in Alexandra, outside of Johannesburg in South Africa. The brainchild of two local women, Busisiwe Papale and Mokgadi Ramatsokotla, this program coaches girls in soccer and netball, a sport derived from basketball, but it’s essentially an empowerment program that provides girls with unconditional support as they commit to avoiding pregnancy in their teenage years. LeCrom assisted the program in South Africa in 2016, and Papale and Ramatsokotla were part of a delegation that visited Richmond in 2015. “This program is definitely having a large and positive impact on the lives of these girls,” LeCrom says.

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Children at play in a dirt parking lot. They are members of a Stellenbosch soccer club, Lynedoch United. (Photo courtesy VCU Center for Sport Leadership)

She will again have the opportunity to work in South Africa with teen girls, as LeCrom has been granted a Fulbright U.S. Scholar award to create, pilot and assess a soccer coach training program in Stellenbosch, a farming community east of Cape Town. For 11 months, LeCrom will work with girls at risk due to high levels of gender violence, lack of access to education and limited employment opportunities.

“There is a need for job skills training for girls in this community,” LeCrom says, “and so we came up with the idea of teaching teenage girls to be coaches. Through this we will teach them job skills such as communication, time management, dealing with conflict and goal setting. These are all skills that can be transferred to the workplace.”

The teens will then coach elementary-school-aged girls, who are also underserved, and in doing so the program will generate after-school opportunities in an area where these are hard to come by. To create the program, LeCrom will partner with colleagues at Stellenbosch University’s Center for Human Performance Sciences. The university’s Center for Social Impact will help roll out the initiative in the community.

LeCrom says that girls haven’t historically been exposed to soccer coaching in South Africa, although this has started to change in recent years. This is one of the reasons she chose the sport for this effort. “A lot of programs find success when there are no preconceived notions,” LeCrom says. She hopes the girls will be interested enough to try the program, and then she hopes that they will find it empowering to participate in a sport that has traditionally been male-dominated.

LeCrom’s experience internationally, though, has taught her the importance of being flexible: “If the girls decide they want to play netball or something else, then we will change.” She says that it’s important to respect a community’s local traditions and ways of doing things and not to go in with fixed ideas.

One of her goals for this project is to involve more people from VCU’s Center for Sports Leadership. “Global-mindedness is a core value at CSL,” says LeCrom. “We try to bring global focus to the classroom every day. If I can bring VCU students to Stellenbosch, it would take this to a whole new level. I’m looking into it, but nothing has been set up at this point.”

She says that sports has become a global industry, which means that for CSL students to be able to succeed, they need to understand cultural differences. In her words, “They need understanding rather than judgment.”

LeCrom is hoping that her experience in South Africa will also show her ways that CSL can have a greater impact in Richmond. “There is a high need for sports development programs in our local community,” she says. “Normally we partner with people in Richmond, but this work in South Africa will help me understand the process of developing programs versus being a partner.”

LeCrom is one of over 800 U.S. citizens who will teach, conduct research and provide expertise abroad during the 2018-19 academic year through the Fulbright U.S. Scholar Program.

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