Camper to Coach: Community in After School Programs

From my time as both a camper and counselor, I’ve learned the challenges and rewards associated with joining a small and active community. As a camper, I practiced volleyball on the scorching sand of my camp’s modest court and swam freestyle in a crisp and clean swimming pool under the gaze and guidance of my seriously awesome counselors. I’ve since faced the challenge of filling the shoes of the counselors I so admired; the honor of watching an 8-year-old camper finally master a flip-turn after a summer’s worth of challenging swim lessons, two girls cheer on a new friend in her first race, and countless campers conquer a low-ropes course. I’ve always considered summer camp to be as much a philosophy as it is a physical space: a place where it’s okay to play, make friends, cheer each other on and learn together in a safe and welcoming environment.  From my experience as an After School coach with Girls in the Game, I’m convinced that this organization upholds this community philosophy and so much more. In providing time, equipment, and concerted effort geared toward the development of holistically healthy girls, Girls in the Game provides unique opportunities for coaches and girls alike. Our sports, leadership, and health programming enables Chicago’s girls to be a part of a truly special kind of community: a team.

On most Monday afternoons, this is how it goes: a dismissal bell sounds and the girls flood into the cafeteria all smiles, backpacks, and buzzing, re-surging energy. They sign in and receive their name tags; we transition to the gym and begin. First is a warm-up game, then a leadership activity and discussion, followed by a quick shift into our sport, where girls are given equipment, instruction, and roughly 45 minutes to learn and play. The echoic gym lends itself well to the experience of coaching: cheers, laughter, conversation, and the sweeping scratch of shuffling shoes across hardwood are all telling and rewarding in their own right. As are the successes: first catches, high-fives, compromises, new insights, synchronized dance routines, and swooshing baskets. Hard-breathing and happy, we then circle up to discuss a health topic, enjoy a snack, recap the day’s activities, and award the Athlete of the Day, a highly anticipated moment across the board. On most Monday’s, this is how programming unfolds, and I am grateful for the opportunity to be a part of the fun, the orchestrated frenzy, the friendship.

This isn’t to say that coaching comes without its challenges. There are the unavoidable conflicts, flickers of bickering and noisy side-conversations that I’ve learned are inextricable from the experience of being part of a team. But I’ve also learned that it’s in these moments that some of the best opportunities for learning arise, for participants and coaches alike. Together, we learn to compromise, to take turns and to exercise respect and commitment. I’m convinced that it’s on teams that we learn some of our healthiest human behavior; the stretch of conflict resolution and respectful communication can perpetuate some awesome and important growth. It’s why we use the five-finger contract at Girls in the Game and why we seal it with a high-five instead of a signature: we strive to uphold the values of respect, commitment, teamwork, safety, and fun on an individual and team basis.

My experience with Girls in the Game, though different from my time as a camper and counselor, has reaffirmed my belief in the importance of being part of a team, of learning in a safe and fun environment and celebrating the successes that occur therein. As I watch as the girls flood the cafeteria, I myself am flooded with new energy and enthusiasm for what’s about to occur: the challenges, growth, and fun that emerge when we learn and play together.

-Coach Susannah


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