Volume 76, Number 16 | September 6 - 12, 2006

Back to School

Sports

Soccer program’s goal is to increase school sports

By Judith Stiles

School bells are ringing as kids are loading up backpacks with as much as 40 pounds of textbooks that they will stoically haul around on their undersized bodies, day in and day out. You can bet kids are grumpy because this kind of heavy lifting is just about the most exercise they will get during school hours, with physical education classes being cut back in New York City to as little as 50 minutes a week. Fortunately, the new Central City Initiative has introduced an exciting free physical education program to several Downtown schools, in which a supply of free soccer balls (courtesy of SCORE soccer gear) is given to the students, and professional licensed coaches teach what they call “the world’s game” of soccer.

President Bob Russo of the Downtown United Soccer Club founded this program.

“Soccer is a dynamic, fast-paced team game requiring physical and mental agility and the ability to solve problems,” says Russo. These same skills also translate into what children need to excel academically.

Program director Coach Dave Lovercheck and several DUSC coaches ran successful clinics in P.S. 1, 2, 3, 11, 41 and 212 last spring, and they will be expanding to reach more schools this fall. Lovercheck tailors his instruction to a variety of age groups with different levels of ball work and motor-skills development that are age appropriate. With the first- and second-graders he has been struck by their tremendous need to just run around in order to release all the tension from hours of sitting in the classroom. With a group of 20 to 30 students in a session, he begins with a warm-up, asking simple questions, such as, “Who can run and jump? Who can run jump and spin as you are jumping?” When the class moves on to using the ball, Lovercheck tries to re-create what is called “street soccer” with small-sided games, a lot of touches on the ball and little or no intervention from the coach.

“I see a huge social shift for city kids who want to play ball and it is so different from when I was growing up,” says Lovercheck with a touch of wistfulness. He adds, “City kids never have unstructured play, unlike when I was a kid and we would just disappear to play ball in the park with our friends. City kids are confined to organized sports and then they go home to be confined in their tiny apartments.”

Coach Lovercheck is not only a coach and a teacher, but he is also a student himself at Hunter College, which gave him the opportunity to visit South Africa in July where he played soccer with the CUNY All-Star Team. Traveling and playing soccer in different cities enabled him to compare different ways young people learn the “world’s game.” In Cape Town and Johannesburg, very few children learn soccer through club teams or organized programs. Lovercheck observed street soccer and saw how this kind of free play allowed the children to be more creative and inventive in their style of play.

“It is amazing because many of the South African players who were brought up on street soccer are technically extremely good and have great ball skills, especially a midfielder known as The General, who was incredible,” says Lovercheck. When he shook hands with one of The General’s teammates after a match with the Wits Club, Lovercheck looked down and saw that the player’s cleats were falling apart and were taped together. The player timidly asked him if the Americans had any extra cleats, at which point Lovercheck went back to his hotel and gave Coach Lloyd Tuffney of the Wits Club an extra pair to pass along to the player the next day.

From his experience, Lovercheck brings back to the Central City Initiative fresh ideas.

“With the children and even with my team of 16-year-olds at Downtown United, I see that soccer teaches these young people so much, especially about accountability and responsibility,” says Lovercheck. The universal language of the ball is something Lovercheck hopes sparks the interest of the youngsters in the Central City Initiative, which in turn just might inspire school administrators to allocate more hours toward physical education.

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