top dog: competition + gender

One of the great things about alumni groups are the events offered all over the country for former students. Georgetown University has one of these amazing programs – GEMA: The Georgetown Entertainment & Media Alliance. This group organizes events and facilitates lectures open to all Georgetown graduates in major cities like New York and DC. Last Wednesday, February 20 I had the pleasure of attending a book signing and discussion of the book Top Dog, co-written by a Georgetown alum, Ashley Merryman.

Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing

This discussion was absolutely fascinating and I found myself translating everything to apply to a coach’s perspective. The book involves sections explaining the competitive nature of humans and the difference in the way boys and girls deal with this force. This element of the discussion on competition was eye-opening and basically suggests that coaching should take on different styles depending on the gender of the players. In a nutshell here is a general snapshot of how boys and girls approach competition:

  • Work better in groups
  • Generally overconfident in own abilities and skills
  • Join competition despite low probability of positive outcome
  • Excel more at finite games – sports


  • Work better in pairs
  • Competition becomes personal, based on comparison
  • Generally underconfident in own abilities and skills
  • Assess risks involved in competing and choose to enter competition accordingly
  • Excel more at infinite games – education, careers

So in other words, while boys may seem more competitive, their attitude isn’t driven necessarily by the desire to win but merely by the desire to participate in an attempt to prove their strengths. In the meantime, girls carefully choose competitions that suit their style and may not enter into a testing situation if they don’t see a chance of success. This behavior unfortunately becomes stereotyped and generalized and brands girls as less ambitious and less capable of competing. But that simply isn’t the case. Boys and girls just exhibit different priorities when approaching competitive environments

maré em foco videos

After 2 months teaching the youth media course, we ended up with some amazing documentary videos! In late July, we held a film screening for the community where we screened 7 short films documenting the lives of each student with an emphasis on an aspect of play in their life. Each kid filmed most of their material and directed the structure of the film, while the teachers came in at the end to do the editing.

The idea of play takes on many meanings – from its literal definition in boxing and judo, extending to theater, video gaming, religion, and more. In these videos, it becomes very clear how sports can change a person’s life and how it provides strength and hope in times of difficulty and stress.

Check out our students’ documentaries and the work we did with them this past summer on the Maré em Foco Blog page. Most of the videos are still in Portuguese but will be subtitled in the very near future so stay tuned!


JOGAR = to play

This summer, I’m working with other students in the International Field Program from The New School in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. One of our projects is conducting a youth media class in the favelas, to teach media/filming skills to the kids of these communities. My group is working in the community Nova Holanda, in the Complexo da Maré. It is about an hour van ride from Copacabana, and is a fascinating favela, still un-pacified.

We are working with youth (13-17 years old) who are part of the organization Luta Pela Paz. We have met with our students about three times now, and there is a lot of potential there! Our objective in this program is to teach them the basics of shooting and editing  documentary films. Throughout the course, they will watch clips from documentaries, learn how to use the equipment, and have a chance to make their own mini documentary.

In this final video, we want them to work off of the theme “JOGAR” which means “to play”. In the first lesson, we workshopped this word, to explain that it can have many interpretations. It is our hope that these students take this idea and explore what it means in their lives in a way that is transformative and thought-provoking. Already we have started to see how different forms of play have affected their lives – judo, boxing, theater, etc.

youth documenting / documenting youth

An important part of a youth media program is media literacy – the goal isn’t simply to have kids make movies and documentary films, but to have them consciously choose a technical style and to form a plan of how to transmit their message. Likewise when adults make films about youth, the style chosen becomes the means of representation. In Introduction to Documentary, Bill Nichols lays out various documentary modes that can guide a documentary film.

An overarching theme in the work with youth is participatory media – in that the kids are doing the filming, as a form of citizen journalism. This type of media is extremely eye-opening because it is made by the people as an alternative to the dominant mainstream media. This is how someone can take control of their story and tell it exactly how they want, rather than having a film crew decide what to film and how. Youth media programs like the ones at Reel Lives aim at equipping students with the technical skills and vocabulary for them to then navigate the world of media.

A few traditional documentary styles are observational, expository, reflexive, and performative. Any subject can be filmed in any of these styles and more, but there are definite benefits to some over others. As I work on a mini-documentary about a youth sports program, I’m taking a mixed expository/reflexive approach. This means my film will have a narrative voiceover commenting on the action and arguing in favor of sports as a positive force for youth development. Meanwhile, since expository styles are more manipulative, I want to balance it out with a reflexive component in which I recognize the filmmaking process as a barrier between myself and the action. From the start of the planning process I knew I wants to have my “voice” come through in the film, literally and figuratively. When working with youth, I think media needs to go beyond the observational format and be more engaged with the subjects.

With sports, however, a documentary film could also be more performative in nature, especially if the focus is on the physical action and the game preparation. My focus is more on the transformations that comes about by being involved in youth sports programs, so a commentary is very useful in analyzing the images. The Media That Matters film festival is a great place to see some youth media and the work of young filmmakers who experiment with various documentary styles.

empowerment through participation

This week we read Teaching to Transgress by bell hooks and connected her objectives with those of Paulo Freire’s from a couple weeks back. They both emphasize the need for participatory education. There needs to be a moment where students can be vulnerable and honest when sharing their personal experiences to connect with the larger pedagogical model. hooks and Freire mention the need for desocialization, the breaking down of dependencies on traditional authority and power figures. By giving a voice to each and every kid, and valuing what they contribute, we as educators teach them that they control their education. Participation is key.

Meanwhile, youth educators hold an extremely important position in that they can ignite the curiosity in these kids. The joy of learning follows the joy of teaching so the students look to their teachers as role models. We need to love what we’re doing and to have a passion for it. In sports, it goes beyond the intellect, we are responsible for teaching the student as a whole – mind, body & soul. Education is about being, physically in the world, not just thinking about it. As Freire agrees, theory is useless unless accompanied by action. Education is about liberation, about having the access to materials and skills to achieve this change and social transformation. If the youth of today aren’t impassioned to pursue anything or to change their situation, then progress isn’t possible. Coaches, teachers, mentors – any role model – they all need to care for the child and genuinely want to see them succeed.


This attitude is clearly reflected in the Girls Rock Camp in Portland, OR. The women use music to connect girls and to reach them. They use the power of being in a band, of working together writing a song, and of performing as a method of empowering young girls to develop into confident women. This rock camp is a safe environment for girls to be expressive, to be themselves, and to not apologize for anything. This program, like many others focuses on an all-female group to bring forth this notion of a “safe space” to encourage uninhibited participation. In the same way, PowerPlay NYC empowers young girls through sports and works to make each girl feel competent, confident and connected. These educational, active environments take  an affirmative approach to youth education, starting with a positive element – “the right to rock”, “the right to play” – and through these activities, they bring up larger issues at play.

heroes to fight violence

Violence is a very serious and prominent issue plaguing the youth of today. It is a national crisis. In Fist, Stick, Knife, Gun Geoffrey Canada talks about his childhood growing up in the Bronx in New York and the constant presence of violent confrontations. Canada states that violence is a learned behavior but it serves as a coping mechanism. From a very young age, kids in dangerous neighborhoods all over America learn to depend on fights and guns to gain status and respect and ultimately to survive in a harsh, violent world.

To get a sense of the dire situation, one need just look at the violence surrounding the  New York public school system – where security has increased drastically since 1991 transforming the school space into a prison-like area. This security culture has since brought upon several consequences such as issues of representation, liability, and changes in behavior by the teachers and the students. What has happened is a sort of school lockdown where the freedom of movement and ability to be social has been stripped away from every student. During this time, the teachers changed. They were no longer interested in teaching the whole student, but became solely focused on the mind – the cognitive faculties. In order to not get involved in fights, teachers started depending on security guards and police to deal with the physical, aggressive side of things. This disconcern for the body and for the physical development created a big void in youth education.

Transformative projects are attempts at bringing back the magic into these kids’ lives, to fill the vacuum left by the inadequacy of the educational system.  Since nothing is actually happening in the schools, kids need other spaces for learning – which can be found in youth media projects, arts, sports, music, most anything really. Education needs to become holistic once again and treat the child as a whole being – body, mind and spirit.

Geoffrey Canada realized that one need not completely dismiss the aggressive, physical reactions that surface in fighting but rather to use those instincts in a more productive way. He began to teach martial arts to kids as a way of defense and discipline. His goal was to steer these youth away from the danger of weapons and guns and to instil in them a sense of confidence and pride. Martial arts has been used all over the world to promote social change – like this collaboration between the UK and Brazil in their initiative Fight for Peace / Luta pela Paz. It has been argued that one of the reasons why violence has grown exponentially is due to the loss of neighborhood mentors, of positive role models on the streets. Which is why coaches and mentors can become influential individuals in the lives of young boys and girls. Canada ends his book by saying that “If we are to save our children then we must become people they will look up to. Children need heroes now more than ever because the poor children of this nation live with monsters every day” (178).

Anyone can be a hero in a child’s eyes – athletes, coaches or teachers – they just have to be there and show they care.

transformative media

We often underestimate youth. We underestimate the power of self-mobilization and self-education that they possess. Kids are very much aware of what is going on and many times they can understand and articulate these experiences better than adults. For this reason, youth media projects can be liberating and empowering because they instill some trust in this power, in this ability. When watching a media project directed by youth, we can begin to realize just how much these kids are engaged in society.

Reel Lives is a non-profit organization based in New York City that aims to educate marginalized youth through filmmaking. This youth-based production center focuses on teaching foundational technical skills to these students who then create documentaries from start to finish. These films are their stories, many times starting as personal narratives and expanding out into larger world issues. Many of these stories revolve around topics of immigration, self-identity, and interpersonal relationships. Karim’s story involves his passion for soccer and how that has shaped his integration into American society.

The concept of giving youth a voice through a lens is a powerful medium for youth development. Film has tremendous transformative power and can help children express themselves in creative, alternative ways. Give a camera to a child, give a little guidance, and see what happens…

sports education for social change

Our task this week was to build a youth media curriculum using Noddings’ centers of care and spiraling from the self out to the world. One of the biggest challenges in such an activity is incorporating this concept of care and compassion. In other words, getting youth to tap into their personal lives and find what they care about and why – how it relates to the world they live in and the world they aren’t immediately connected with.

Paulo Freire and Myles Horton talk about education and social change in their book We Make the Road by Walking. A key point they touch on is using education and literacy to foster participation and citizenship. Freire & Horton’s main point is that critical consciousness is emancipatory. That when children or adults get to the point where they see a problem and start to create change, they are taking their education to the next level and making it their own. In these youth media projects, sometimes all that is needed to jumpstart this process is asking the question “Is there anything you would like to change?” Afterall, one of the best ways to educate is to ask questions. Keeping the question open so that each kid can answer in a way that is relevant to their lives and that gets them thinking critically about their surroundings.

By learning from others and being interested in what’s going on around us, there will always be something new to explore. Freire & Horton say that a good teacher never stops being surprised, and in the same way a good student never stops discovering new things. The same philosophy applies in sports, the coaches know a certain amount of technique and rules but they will always be learning from the players and from the sports community. If people are motivated by finding ways to be useful and serve, according to Freire & Horton, then sports truly offer a great platform for this need. A coach is a teacher and a mentor and the players are the students. This is an environment of sharing and respecting each other’s knowledge and talents – an environment of education.

Education should be a transformative and liberating process, enabling each and every student to realize their potential and to realize their worth in society. Education doesn’t end with school. It is a process that spans an entire lifetime and adult education can be just as important and emancipatory as youth education. Some things are easier when learned at a young age such as languages but there is never a cutoff period if someone is truly motivated. The same goes with sports. We put a lot of emphasis on youth sports to build character – getting kids involved in ballet, soccer, swimming, anything active. But when we’re adults, we disregard this need for communal and physical activity. It is just as beneficial to play sports as adults as it is when we’re young – because there is always something new to learn and maybe sports is the educational tool that best speaks to you. There are countless examples of organizations that use sports education for social change, check out the links to the left under “Youth Sports Organizations”!

care for physical self

The problem with education is teaching to a test. This model will never inspire students and will rarely keep them engaged. Teachers and educators need to impart their passions and create occasions for students to care. Nel Noddings writes about this new pedagogical model in The Challenge to Care in Schools. In order to make a difference, the element of care needs to be at the center of any educational/pedagogical model, it needs to replace the static disciplines of the old system. At the end of the day, the school’s goal should be to promote the growth of students as healthy, competent and moral people – not just straight As and high SAT scores.

The challenge then is to teach kids how to see the magic in everything and the value in life, to incite an intellectual curiosity. So how do we get youth to care? We start with their personal lives, their inner-circle. We need to capitalize on what students are passionate about. We need to figure out WHAT students want to learn, and help them to find their talents. This alternative curriculum focuses on allowing students to actualize their uniqueness and their talents, to foster these capacities, rather than force them to learn subjects they have no interest in. In other words, we need to match the education to the student, not the other way around.

The idea of “care” is key in all of this. Students need to feel cared for. They need to care about themselves, their neighbors, the world they live in, and the ideas they think about. Among these centers of care, there’s an emphasis on care of the physical self. In a school context, this comes in the form of physical education which should be presented as an open discussion on issues of fitness, health, exercise options, etc. Noddings writes that “It is important for all young people to discover what refreshes and renews them. A well-integrated life includes intervals of activity that energize and make us feel whole” (89). The physical development of a child can’t be overlooked as less legitimate than intellectual development. Sports engage the power of the community for support, with parents and fans attending sporting events and friends playing together in an example of healthy competition.

Youth also need outlets to show the world what they care about. Media provides an opportunity for youth to tell their story, it provides a platform to disseminate the story of their lives and what they prioritize. In the movie Chain Camera, we see Winfred, a high school boy passionate about football but struggling to practice the sport he loves because of poor grades in math. Through this edited video, Winfred uses the camera as a stage to express his desire to be accepted and his identity as a football player. As media educators, we can then take the issues that youth care about and expand them to fit into the larger system and make them relevant to the rest of the world. Caring about sports and physical development is so much more than just a hobby, and it should be given equal weight in youth education.

the new classroom

Teachers and educators have the challenge of transforming the classroom into a dynamic space for change and possibility. Classroom in this sense means any space where learning occurs – schools, community centers, homes, sports fields, art centers, etc. Youth education is a messy field and the text Critical Pedagogy attempts to outline the methods teachers can adopt to educate and mentor their students. This primer emphasizes the role of education and schooling in building the future: “Schools and the everyday classroom should share in the building of the social order of the future” (204).

An example of putting this teaching philosophy into practice is seen in the work Tim Rollins does with the group K.O.S. – Kids Of Survival. Rollins uses art workshops and transformative media projects to connect with youth in the Bronx and instill in them a sense of pride and responsibility in their own education. Rollins subscribes to the idea that teachers are guides, they are resources, not all-knowing gurus. He creates a curriculum based on art and creative expression but he is aware of the limitations of his educational system: “Art can’t undo years of abuse. But it can be used to tap into the hurt and make the pain better”.

Teaching youth is as much about the process as the product. Kids learn in different ways so a fixed rigid curriculum teaching to a test isn’t going to work for most people. Education should occur as a space for youth to explore their identities. A proper education equips youth with the tools to make their own way, to take responsibility for their own career and life. When using creative forms of teaching, through art or sports, the students feel a sense of accomplishment and can show off their progress to an audience. Public forums are extremely valuable to a child’s development – debates, spelling bees, art shows, athletic tournaments – they all provide an opportunity to show off the products of education.

Another key point in the Critical Pedagogy method is creating a curriculum with an emphasis on the collaborative process of learning. Students teach each other and teach the teacher, it is a constantly evolving process that benefits all involved – not simply a top-down method. As humans we are social beings, we do not go through life as isolated individuals so youth need to learn early on how to play and work with others, and cultivate those solid relationships that foster teamwork and respect for others. Even though sports don’t fit into the traditional schooling pattern, they are undoubtedly a space for education and a new type of classroom.

sport as safe space

This week we read Studying Urban Youth by Greg Dimitriadis, a primer that tries to get at the heart of what it means to study youth, and how it should be done. The history of youth studies focused on youth as part of a location. Dimitriadis challenges this notion and posits that place is a constantly evolving platform rather than a static site. While the home and the school are where youth spend most of their time, they aren’t solely defined by these places. There is a 3rd space at play – the community.

This is where youth development happens and where kids follow their passions and develop their personalities. Which is why Community Based Organizations (CBO’s) do such critical work by providing a safe space for children to explore and enjoy their youth. In this primer on studying youth, art is set forth as a safe space, at work inside and outside school. Likewise, sports also represent a safe space and can be found in gym classes,  after school programs, club teams, and beyond. Sports in this sense create a community within a community and they satisfy this human tendency to be social and to connect with one’s peers.

As researchers, educators, and/or media creators, we have the responsibility to understand the youth to the best of our ability. But they aren’t our subjects, they’re our partners in this field of study – they are our greatest resource. In doing fieldwork and collecting data for media productions, we should approach these events as encounters, not assignments. We should constantly strive to observe and participate, and to do so from within. In the realm of sports, a great way to integrate into these safe spaces is by taking the role of coach and mentor and truly trying to understand where these kids are coming from – what their background is, what they are learning, and how they are developing.

In all this, there is a safe space I’m keen on exploring: girls in sports. Dimitriadis discusses the concept of postsubcultures, a concept of moving away from the traditional concept of subcultures. In other words, playing with the traditional criteria for being part of a group – now punks can wear cardigans, intellectuals can enjoy chick flicks, and women can be jocks. The concept of a safe space is that everyone is welcome, and through this attitude, young children realize that they can choose their future and excel in it.

beyond bearing witness

The People’s Movement for Human Rights Education divides the various human rights guidelines into categories. This organization lays out the general themes that human rights and media activists tend to focus on in their work. The documentary filmmaker is no longer a removed outsider who captures an aspect of life on film with not other involvement. Nowadays, media activists who look at human rights related topics bear witness in such a way that causes systemic change. These films are not solely for the dissemination of information but rather they constitute forms of education that empower the victims or subjects to create their own change. So what is the role of the human rights activist and the media educator in the framework of sports and youth development?

In class we talked about the 2 core ideas of human rights: Dignity and Integrity. While dignity refers to the sacredness and worth of life, integrity is the idea of the wholeness of life – of developing and nurturing the physical, intellectual, and aesthetic elements. In the PDHRE under “Development“, the following is included as a universal right: “The human right of the child to live in an environment appropriate for physical and mental development.”Through and with sports, children around the world can create their own change and protect their integrity. Sports teach a set of principles and values – perseverance, teamwork, respect, etc. – that will then translate to other aspects of their future lives – professionally, economically, and socially.

In all of this, we encounter the idea of “politics of representation”. How are we as media educators supposed to represent children suffering through difficulties we’ve never experienced? And through a sports lens above it all. As youth workers we are given the power and privilege of representing another person – of representing a child whose life is sacred and unique and whose rights have been violated. Despite the difficult living conditions, children tend to highlight the positive things in their life, on the things they are proud of and want to share with others. Scoring a goal, assisting in a crucial play, running a mile – these are all things that can give kids hope and build pride in themselves. So these physical/athletic achievements end up meaning so much more to a child who doesn’t have much to begin with. Throughout all this, the filmmaker’s responsibility goes beyond simply bearing witness and becomes an attempt at capturing the change that happens through aspects like sports in the lives of youth.

article 31

Article 31 (Leisure, play and culture): Children have the right to relax and play, and to join in a wide range of cultural, artistic and other recreational activities.

We shouldn’t need the Convention on the Rights of the Child to tell us that children have a right to be children and play. It’s pretty obvious. But in so many parts of the world, children are dealing with hardships and sufferings, and issues that they shouldn’t have to worry about. One’s youth is a precious, limited time and should be consumed with explorations and aimless adventures – not with financial concerns and political struggles.

One way kids can regain control of their childhood is through sports. By discovering a game that they are passionate about – be it soccer, baseball, rugby, anything active – they create a positive dream to strive towards. Sports become this magical part of life, where everything else is forgotten and the only thing that matters is the intensity of the game in that moment, scoring that goal, playing as a team. Personally, I think it is incredibly important to focus on sports and physical activity in the work on youth rights. Sports have the ability to transform, and when the response moves towards transformation, that’s when positive peace begins. Obviously sports can’t resolve hunger and poverty but they can heal part of a child’s soul, a child who has endured all sorts of violence.

As we talk about human rights focusing on the youth of today in the Global Youth Media class, I will try to take a sort of “sports therapy” approach to many of the issues discussed. In this scenario, media acts as the channel or vehicle bringing the sport to the child – the championship game on TV or the radio that inspire the child to pick up the sport. The power of media and the magic of sport can change a child’s life.