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Making Life’s Lessons Fun

An afternoon practice with West Philly Soccer Club

When Marco Ruella, MD, an assistant professor of Hematology Oncology and scientific director of Penn Medicine’s Lymphoma program, moved to the United States in 2012 as a post-doctoral fellow, he used soccer to help him connect with other post-docs and graduate students at the University of Pennsylvania — not only from his native Italy, but other countries, as well. Their mutual love of the sport provided a strong bond but, early on, they decided to “take it beyond leisure,” Ruella said. “We wanted to use soccer to give back to the community.”

Wanting to work with young kids (grades 1 to 3) from underserved communities, the group reached out to the University’s Netter Center for Community Partnerships with a plan. Thanks to the support of the Netter Center, in 2015, the West Philly Soccer Club (now Philadelphia Open Soccer) kicked off with 13 volunteer founding coaches — including Ruella, Andrea Contigiani (now at The Ohio State University) and Jim Fouracre, PhD, from Penn’s department of Biology. In the program’s first year, 30 children at two elementary schools in the West Philadelphia community participated. Today, after only four years, the after-school initiative has doubled, with 30 coaches (almost all of whom have a Penn connection) and 60 kids at three elementary schools — B.B. Comegys, Henry C. Lea and S. Weir Mitchell — taking part. 

The program comprises two 12-week sessions, which run in the fall and spring. At each hour-long practice/clinic — once a week at each school — coaches not only share their love of soccer but also teach the children the game’s many values, including teamwork, fair play, respect, and tolerance. “We use soccer to deliver a lot of messages,” Ruella said.

The practice starts with warm-ups, and then onto learning basic drills: passing, maneuvering around the cones, and shooting. And it finishes with a scrimmage. “In the beginning, this cloud of kids just chases the ball [and often grabs it with their hands],” Fouracre said, smiling. “But by the end of the 12-week session, they’re thinking about passing and spreading out.”

The coaches also incorporate lessons into each class. For example, during the warm-up, kids learn the benefits of stretching and also the names of the muscles they’re using. In naming the different player positions on the team, “we talk about the captain’s role on the team, asking them what values they would bring to the team if they were captain,” Ruella said. They also weave in the importance of exercise, good nutrition, and a generally healthy lifestyle.

The kids are also learning life skills and social skills, said Paulette Branson, director of UACS (University-Assisted Community Schools) Sports, Fitness & Health at the Netter Center. For example, how to win and lose, and how to work with people you may not like to reach team goals. “Coaches support these conversations.”

Soccer is the most popular sport in the world so talking about well-known soccer players segues into learning about different countries where the sport (frequently called “football”) is played and their cultures. And the coaches themselves provide a peek into different nationalities. One coach is from Japan; another is from South America. Fouracre, now the program’s director, comes from England. “When they hear my British accent, they ask, ‘Why are you speaking funny?’,” he said, laughing. “And two girls named London can’t quite grasp that their name is where I come from!”

While all children in first through third grades can participate, the coaches reach out to the schools for input on which students might benefit most. “There’s always someone from the school — usually a teacher — at each of the sessions.” Girls now comprise about half of the group. Ruella said that while initially a little shy about playing, over the course of the session, the girls become excited and gain confidence. In fact, “the girls often seem to play better than the boys.”

Marco Ruella, MD

At the end of each year is a fun, round-robin tournament at the Kingsessing Recreation Center for the participants and their families. The students are divided into several teams, each choosing which country they want to represent, and sporting a t-shirt to represent that country. Here’s where some additional life lessons come into play: Each team consists of kids from all three schools. Fouracre said that there is always a little grousing about not being with friends, but “the kids are generally more attentive.”

At the end of the celebration, each player is called up individually to receive a medal and a “well done.” “The focus is on everyone being a winner,” Fouracre said.

Each year, the program is fine-tuned based on feedback and questionnaires given out at the beginning and end of each session. For example, “we’re learning if a drill was too complicated or didn’t work for some other reason, and if so, we change it to make it more effective,” Fouracre said.

Not surprisingly, the feedback from parents and kids has been mostly positive, but the coaches love it too. “It’s so rewarding for us. Interacting with the kids is amazing and we learn so much,” Ruella said. “As much as they get from us, we get from them.”

Fouracre said they’d love to expand the program to more schools, “but there’s a balance between the number of kids and the number of coaches you need. The more coaches we can get, the more kids we can reach.” He stressed that while a volunteer coach needs a basic knowledge of soccer, “you don’t need to be a good player!”

Ruella, who these days has less free time to actively participate in the sessions, now plays a more administrative role, looking for partnering organizations, grants and other fundraisers to help them pay for equipment, T-shirts, and other expenses. His recent Penn Medicine CAREs grant, which supports the volunteer outreach efforts of employees, helped buy equipment.

While they love teaching the kids to play soccer, Fouracre said they’re more interested in developing confidence and working on the benefits of teamwork and healthy living.

“If we can do that, it’s a success.”

Click here or email to learn more about the program, or to apply to be a volunteer coach.


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