The power of sport and meaningful competition

Sport has a potential beyond what happens in the field of play. It can be the mechanism to cope with and ultimately overcome tragedy and grief. If the sport structure provides meaningful competition for participants, it can open the door to opportunities that they wouldn’t otherwise have. When the God’s Lake Narrows First Nation School’s girls’ basketball team flew to Toronto in April 2017 to take part in the IEM Basketball Tournament, the team’s coach, Kishma Davidson, hoped the competition could do both of these things for her team.

Prior to the 2016-17 school year, the girls who attended God’s Lake Narrows First Nation School in the remote, fly-in community of God’s Lake Narrows in northeastern Manitoba had never had an opportunity to play organized basketball. In September 2016, some of the girls heard that Kishma Davidson, the junior high math teacher who had come to the school, had played college basketball. They asked her if she would coach them. She agreed, and so began the God’s Lake Narrows First Nation School’s girls’ basketball program.

By late September the girls were practicing once a week. However, many of the students at the school come from low-income families and lack basic equipment like gym shoes and basketball clothing. Davidson began discussing with some of the girls and another staff member about sponsorship options that could cover the cost of appropriate equipment and maybe even provide an opportunity for the team to attend a tournament in outside of their community.

Then, on November 20, 2016, one of the girls on the team who Davidson had been considering these ideas with – 14-year-old Harmony Okemow – took her life. This tragedy motivated Davidson to ensure the girls would have a chance to travel to a large city and experience life outside of their community.

“What I wanted them to get out of this was that, although our reserve is beautiful with a low crime rate and lower suicide rate than many reserves, I want it to be a choice for them,” says Davidson. “I wanted them to know that as long as they put their education first, they’re allowed to choose their path.”

Davidson chose the IEM Basketball Tournament in Toronto because she wanted the girls to experience a diverse city with many cultures. “Most of them had never been outside of Manitoba, and a few had never left the reserve,” she says.

For competition to be meaningful, it has to be developmentally appropriate. Herein lay the challenge for Davidson. Despite her team ranging in age from 12 to 14, none of the girls had ever played an organized game with the rules or a referee. When she explained the situation to the tournament coordinator, he opened another division and promised to find other teams of the same age and similar skill level.

The team fundraised locally, shared its story widely, and started up a GoFundMe page that raised more than $17,000. Many of the girls wrote in their sponsorship package about how they wanted to attend this tournament for Harmony. In the months leading up to the tournament, the team increased its practices from one to three times per week, including a few hours on Saturdays. They held weekly meetings with the players and their parents. “I wanted them all to know that this trip was a privilege and that school had to come first. They couldn’t skip class or anything like that,” says Davidson. “They all showed a big improvement and eight or nine of them ended up making the honour roll.”

By the time the girls arrived at the tournament their fundamentals had improved. They could pass the ball, most of them could complete a layup, and they moved around the court efficiently. But they didn’t know anything about the rules.

“The first game was really hard for them, but the coaches and referees were great. They would blow the whistle and stop to explain why,” says Davidson. “They did that throughout the tournament, and just by the second game our girls understood the rules way better. It was great to see that progression.”

Despite the fact the girls from God’s Lake Narrows didn’t win any games, their performances improved and the score lines got closer throughout the tournament. Davidson attributes their sharp learning curve in part to the physical literacy they have developed through taking part in other sports and physical activities back home. “A bunch of people commented on their athleticism,” says Davidson, “now they just need some more practice with the rules and regulations.”

One aspect of meaningful, quality competition is that the event schedule allows for participants to get out into the community in which they are visiting and experience the culture. The girls from God’s Lake Narrows, who competed on only two of their six days in Ontario, had this opportunity in abundance. They met and had a training session with Corey Joseph from the Toronto Raptors, and then attended a Raptors playoff game. They toured a Canada Goose factory, visited Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada and the CN Tower, and spent a day at Niagara Falls. They also attended a musical – which caused a few of the girls to break out in tears. “They thought it was the most beautiful thing they had ever seen,” says Davidson. “I knew they’d be ecstatic to meet an NBA player and see things like the Falls and the CN Tower, but I had no idea they’d have such a positive reaction to the musical.”

Davidson acknowledges that these kinds of experiences can have two effects: on one hand, the girls might see this new city and all its cultures and opportunities and be motivated to work hard; on the other hand, they might see all the things they don’t have in their lives and think negatively about their future. She talked to the girls everyday about their choices and made sure they understood that, by committing to their academics and athletics, they would give themselves the option to pursue whatever path they choose.

Since arriving home, Davidson says the girls are even more keen to keep training. Another coach has joined the team and they now focus on more technical and tactical components of the game. Davidson has been motivated to advance her coaching knowledge as well. “Some of the girls have told me they want to play college ball,” says Davidson. “They loved the tournament and the sport so much that they want to pursue it now.”

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