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Upper Ninety Uses Soccer to Equip Teens with Life Skills

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Lifelong soccer player Kaitlin Swarts creates leadership and community opportunities for students through her Upper Ninety soccer nonprofit. 

Story and photos by Brianna Caleri

Upper Ninety - Kaitlin Swarts

Students at East Austin College Prep and Reagan High School don’t have to try out to play soccer; they do have to come ready to do some self-work. Upper Ninety, a community-based youth-development program led by Kaitlin Swarts, offers coed soccer for all skill levels using practice, games and field trips to promote social-emotional learning for students in low-income areas. 

Explaining the need for coed sports, Swarts says, “It’s really important that teenage girls have that constant reminder that you are strong and you can take on the boys—and you can beat the boys.”

Soccer is thought to be universally inexpensive, but the costs of official school leagues add up quickly. On top of that, students who don’t meet certain grade targets can find themselves on academic probation. Instead of providing an incentive to perform better in school, this structure often discourages kids who need sports as an outlet. 

Swarts, a lifelong soccer player who received her master’s degree in education from Harvard University, uses practice to address common stresses off the field. Her training in restorative justice helps her lead the team, especially in addressing tricky situations in which students have likely seen or suffered harm. 

The other adults involved are Program Manager Jordan Johnson, Head Coach Pepe Rangel, a few University of Texas social-work interns and some volunteers. The kids see them as coaches, not counselors, and they generally feel comfortable opening up. While some mindfulness exercises are hidden in soccer metaphors, some of the talks and check-ins might seem very forward for an 11-year-old. The players have shown an impressive willingness to meet Swarts’ efforts earnestly and transparently. 

“If I’m telling them, ‘You have to do a couple extra things to play,’ ” Swarts says, “they just want to play.” Practice starts with a warmup. One afternoon this season, the first warmup was both a mind game and a soccer exercise: One player tossed the ball and said, “Head it,” or, “Catch it,” and his or her partner had to do the opposite. After warming up, the players formed a huddle to discuss a takeaway. They concluded that in order to perform some tasks, they have to give them their full attention and be fully present. 

Later, during the team circle, the adults split up and sat down with portions of the team to discuss a topic. Early in the season, they ease into the activity with uncomplicated soccer-related questions. This time, they talked about drugs and alcohol. Nobody had to talk, but most players managed to mumble out a few thoughts while rolling around the ball during their turn. Rangel’s group was full of players grateful to have a bilingual environment, most of them choosing Spanish to answer the more personal questions. 

They wrapped up with a scrimmage, a breath and mindfulness exercise, and an opportunity to offer praise. Rangel praised a young member of his circle for being brave and sharing, and one player praised another for showing up, even though he didn’t bring any soccer clothes. 

Because team circle isn’t enough to follow up with each member individually, social-work intern Adrienne Walk is developing a program called FaceTime, which invites students to meet regularly with the interns to follow up the circle topics, complete worksheets and play games meant to spark conversation. Sign-up was optional, but Walk is proud that very few declined to participate. 

Players who show special promise can be nominated by the coaches to receive training in restorative justice and “circle keeping,” which allows them to lead team circles and to more deeply understand the purpose of sharing. Swarts hopes as the program expands to other schools, community leaders will run it, whether they are volunteers, interns or self-made successes who found their potential with Upper Ninety out on the field. 

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