As competition continues at the Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia, the world has turned its attention to sports. Christy Macy sat down to talk with Matthew Breman, IYF Program Director for Africa, who’s an avid soccer player and coach and strong proponent of sports as a tool for development. Prior to joining IYF last year, Matthew worked in West and Central Africa programs at Chemonics International, was Peace Corps Country Director in Cape Verde, and Catholic Relief Services (CRS) Country Representative in Angola.

What has been your personal experience with youth and sports?

I’ve worked with young people and soccer teams formally and informally while living and working abroad. I helped coach soccer teams in Sierra Leone in ‘98. In Angola, when I was with CRS, I played and coached local kids from a partner organization, as part of an organized league. As a Peace Corps volunteer In Guinea-Bissau I was a teacher at a boarding school established for orphans, located deep in the country’s interior. I was also their soccer coach.

I learned that all young people want a caring adult in their life. At the school, the students were looking for some sort of guidance and support, and frankly they didn’t get it. A lot of the teachers didn’t role model. I was still young, at 24, but I was disciplined enough with showing up to class on time, having expectations, helping the kids with their homework. I still keep in touch with a former soccer player [from the school in Guinea-Bissau] who’s now studying in Northern Ireland.

Why do you think sports can be a powerful development tool?

Playing sports equips you for life beyond the playing field. It’s about grit, perseverance, time management, respect, and working in teams. A lot of it’s about humility; you’ve got to be gracious in both victory and defeat.

As a development tool, it’s about actually using discipline and time management and routine and setting goals in other aspects of your life. Part of it is getting young people to see how important those skills are and how you get rewarded for following the rules. Rewarded not just in terms of playing time, but in terms of being respected, viewed as a leader, and getting a better position maybe on the soccer field but also in life.

We—society—are starting to see how sports and training and those skills you develop through sports can directly relate to success in the workplace. I’ll be honest: I look for former athletes when I hire.

Last week, you joined a meeting at CSIS on this topic called “More than Medals.” What did you take away from it?

Tom Dolan, an Olympic swimmer who was at this meeting, talked about how the high-profile athlete often doesn’t have time to think about the impact he or she can have on young people. It’s only as you get older that you start seeing more clearly the linkages between teamwork, perseverance, and discipline and jobs. For me, this highlighted the importance of IYF’s core life skills work, and finding ways to help young people translate the skills they learn on the field to success in life. 

How does this focus on sports-related skills connect to our work at IYF? 

IYF has been promoting youth development through life skills-building and job preparation for almost 25 years now. Within the last decade or so, organizations like Peace Players International and Grassroots Soccer have been leveraging the skills developed through sports to promote social change—from HIV/AIDS prevention to peace-building. Now, people in the life skills arena are starting to talk about how sports can prepare young people for jobs. It’s an emerging field, and I’m excited about the opportunities to build the linkages between what we’re doing in life skills and the application to sports. The opportunities are endless.