Ugandan coaches visit U for training program

U fellow co-founded exchange program that hosted its first Ugandan delegation.

Max Sanders

On the surface, they couldnâÄôt be more different. Geographically, the United States is nearly 8,000 miles from Uganda . Economically, the difference is even vaster. While the United States experiences its worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, it pales in comparison to Uganda, where unsteady political guidance and economic mismanagement have left the country among the worldâÄôs poorest. More than half the countryâÄôs population lives below the economic poverty line. Despite the differences, at least one commonality exists: a love for the worldâÄôs most popular sport. It has created a bond that rises above all social, class and economic differences. Now, through the International Sport Connection, an organization co-founded by a University of Minnesota NIH postdoctoral fellow and a Ugandan soccer leader, soccer âÄî or football, as itâÄôs known in Uganda âÄî is being used not only to instill on-field skills but wisdom, knowledge and life lessons off the pitch. Why Uganda? While Jens Omli was working on a doctoral degree in kinesiology at the University in 2008, he met a woman from Kampala, the capital of Uganda, at a church in Edina. A football player in her home country, she invited Omli to travel to Uganda. It was there that he met Stone Kyambadde, who led the Wolves football club in Kampala. âÄúWeâÄôve spoken at length about the power of the ball in bringing people together and the power of sport in connecting people,âÄù Omli said. âÄúEspecially connecting children with caring adults and filling the gap where they may not have parents at all or may not have parents that are able to care for their needs.âÄù Three more visits by Omli to Uganda helped forge a relationship that created the ISC. Upon completion of his doctorate, Omli worked with his adviser, Diane Wiese-Bjornstal , and received a $212,000 grant from the U.S. Department of State Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs to create an exchange of coaches between the United States and Uganda. âÄúIâÄôm very engaged with [Omli]; weâÄôre a team,âÄù Wiese-Bjornstal said. âÄúHeâÄôs the one with the experience, the expertise and the contacts to pull it all together âĦ what I bring is a shared interest in coaching education.âÄù What do they teach? Kyambadde, vice president of the Federation of Uganda Football Association, and three other Ugandan youth soccer coaches were chosen by their colleagues to make the ISCâÄôs first trip bringing Ugandans to Minnesota. They were supposed to arrive last September, but when the grant funds arrived, visa and paperwork issues delayed their arrival until this month. Led by Omli and Kyambadde, the coaches participated in an eight-day tour and training program that ends Tuesday. They gave presentations both at the University and Macalester College, met with youth programs in Duluth and toured youth and collegiate training facilities. âÄúOne of the things that really thrills me is the opportunity to kind of get people from Uganda and the U.S. together to trade knowledge,âÄù Omli said. âÄúIn the U.S., with technical and tactical training, we have a lot to give Uganda, and I think our friends from Uganda have a tremendous amount to give us in terms of using sport for youth and community development.âÄù A goal of the program is to help Ugandan coaches earn their E Certificate, an entry-level license in the United States for soccer coaches. âÄúOur first step this year will be to deliver content tailored to the unique needs of Ugandan coaches who donâÄôt have access to the same resources and expertise that we do,âÄù Wiese-Bjornstal said. The Ugandan coaches also learned from meeting with experts in fields such as physiology, child development and nutrition, Omli said. âÄúRight now weâÄôve just been to a psychology class, which has been so good,âÄù Kyambadde said. âÄúBecause even though we work on the physical [parts of the game], our players need the mental side in order to be balanced.âÄù While the Ugandan coaches learn new techniques, theyâÄôve also shared with the Minnesotan contingency their knowledge of the game and how they interact with the youth they coach. âÄúWeâÄôre sharing with them, but they are sharing every bit as much with us,âÄù Wiese-Bjornstal said. âÄúWhat impresses me is that they are experts in mentoring, which is a piece that is really lacking in U.S. youth sport culture.âÄù As part of the exchange program, Omli, Wiese-Bjornstal and a group of Minnesota coaches will head to Uganda for 10 days in May. âÄúWe hope to preach a vision thatâÄôs so clear that it spreads throughout Uganda and creates a culture of coaching in which coaches would teach, train, manage and mentor young men and women to make a lasting impact. Not just in developing football capacity in Uganda but developing children, families and communities throughout the nation,âÄù Omli said. On the trip to Uganda, the Minnesotans and Ugandans will be part of what Wiese-Bjornstal calls a âÄútrain-by-trainingâÄù method. The Minnesota delegation and the four Ugandan coaches will train 160 coaches who represent various regions of Uganda. They in turn will teach their individual communities. âÄúKids whoâÄôve been traumatized, who are homeless, the full gamut âĦ the attraction of sport is what brings the kids very naturally to these coaches,âÄù Wiese-Bjornstal said. âÄúOnce they get them there, they have all kinds of life lessons that they can teach them.âÄù WhatâÄôs next? The grant is approved for two years, and both sides of the organization intend on doing another round of exchange visits next year. Wiese-Bjornstal said she hopes to have the Ugandan coaches return in September, and she and the Minnesota contingency hope to follow with a trip to Uganda next January. Through all the logistics, though, the impact of the program has already been felt by all sides. âÄúIn very clear ways, IâÄôve seen the power of the ball and the power of sport in bringing people together,âÄù Omli said. âÄúIt can be difficult in the U.S. and Uganda to get people to work together, but when theyâÄôre joined by the love of the game and the passion for football, people are much more eager, I think, to work together towards a collective game.âÄù