For Israeli coach and educator Gon Tzuri, sports are not just hobbies. For the young people he coaches – at home throughout Israel’s Negev region, and, more recently, alongside local coaches and teachers in Cameroon – sports can be a powerful tool for personal growth.
“Sports makes them feel better,” says Gon. “For kids, for people with special needs, for anyone really, it can be the best thing… it’s like a therapeutic treatment.”
Gon should know: he himself has been a lifelong soccer player, as well as a gymnastics and swim instructor. When Gon’s father passed away last year, he turned to sports for solace and strength. And he has made his life’s work teaching young people to use sports as a tool to transform themselves and their communities.
For the past year, Gon has combined his multifaceted sports background and his passion for informal education through his work as a coach for Mifalot, an Israeli non-profit that uses sports as a platform for social change. This summer, he had the opportunity to expand his local work into the global sphere.
“My boss called and told me, I know you are good at sports and education; we want to give you a chance to go to Cameroon and teach a seminar there.” Two weeks later, Gon and his colleague Yaniv Zilber packed bags full of soccer balls, basketballs and field cones, and boarded a plane to Cameroon.
Mifalot’s four-day seminar, run in cooperation with the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the United Nations Development Programme, was offered to 47 sports teachers from communities throughout Cameroon, who specialize in judo, karate, basketball, and soccer. The seminar participants, referred to as “delegates,” each came with a unique set of rich coaching experience, and at first, Gon felt that they regarded the seminar with skepticism. “In the beginning, it was intimidating to stand in front of them,” he recalls.
It was important for Gon and Yaniv to emphasize that they had not come to challenge the expertise the delegates already possessed. “I remember my first sentence: ‘we came all the way from Israel not to make you better trainers, but to teach you how to take sports and use it as an educational tool.’”
Rather than seeing sports as the end in and of itself, Gon worked with local coaches to identify and highlight the lessons sports can teach students about living well. “To succeed in sports, you need to cultivate the same values as you do to succeed in life,” he explains. “Cooperation, hard work, time management, for example… this is what we try to [teach].”
The seminar explored themes such as women’s empowerment, leadership, and finding your place in a community. Over the course of the four days, Gon recalls, even the most suspicious of delegates began to warm to the Israeli trainers.
One of the delegates, a seasoned teacher in his 50’s, had remarked to Gon early on, “you’re a kid – what do you have to teach me about life?”
“I said, I know you have a lot of experience in your community – I need you with me. Let’s do a lesson together in this seminar.” This joint lesson blossomed into a fruitful partnership. “He gave me feedback, I gave him feedback,” says Gon. “At the end, he said, ‘Kid, I learned a lot from you.’”
Collaborations like these, which allowed Gon and Yaniv to adapt their training to local culture and communal needs, were key to the success of the seminar. The Israeli trainers, for example, had brought lots of equipment with them for the trainings. “One of the delegates said to me, ‘Mr. Gon, you came here all the way from Israel and brought cones and balls – but those are things not all of us have.’ So the next day we planned a day without equipment.” The adjusted training used resources available even to those teachers whose communities had little access to equipment: “We played with empty bottles of water, grass, leaves – and catered the training especially to them. I learned a lot from that experience.”
One of the delegates said to me, ‘Mr. Gon, you brought cones and balls – but those are things not all of us have.’ So the next day we planned a day without equipment.
One of the major changes Gon noted in the delegates’ teaching style over the course of the seminar was what he calls “distance.” The teachers from Cameroon maintained strict boundaries with their students, which struck a dissonant chord with the Israeli trainers’ style. “When I spoke to the kids in Cameroon, I got down physically and looked at them in the eyes – like a brother, not as a commander in the army. Israelis are warm people – we joke, give hugs [to our students] – we don’t have lots of ‘distance’ with the kids. I believe they’ll respect you either way.” As a result of the training, some of the delegates told Gon they were interested in shifting toward this more casual, familial way of relating to their students. “I got very good feedback on that,” he says.
Gon himself learned a great deal from the seminar delegates and from his time in Cameroon. “It was my first time in Africa. I had never seen that kind of poverty… they really need [the world’s attention].” The most moving part of the experience, he says, were the people he encountered. Despite the challenges the delegates faced, he said “they are always singing, laughing, smiling — they appreciate the small things. It changed my point of view.”