Alternative Spring BAE travelers absorb life lessons in teaching Belizean coaches

Karisa Fuerniss

NIU’s inaugural travelers in the Alternative Spring BAE program arrived in Belize with a good idea that they would learn as much as would the 24 youth sport coaches they’d gone to teach.

What they hadn’t realized was that their true objective that week was to hold up a mirror.

Jenn Jacobs, an assistant professor of Sport Psychology in the Department of Kinesiology and Physical Education who organized the Engage Global trip in March, is most proud of that organic consciousness.

“These are students, right, and you’re asking them to teach a group of adults. They came in with really polished presentations and activities,” Jacobs says, “and when they got there, they had the guts enough to say, ‘Oh, now I know these people, and I know this culture. How can I make my presentation better? Maybe I don’t get to rehearse it for the whole month now, but the value of it is going to be so much greater because it was driven by the people.’ ”

Emma Baumert, a senior Kinesiology major, saw it as she delivered lessons about teaching athletes to develop a “growth mindset that can help them become more victorious on and off the court.”

“One of the things we noticed in first two days was that they had the experiences and the knowledge – and just the relationships with their athletes – but they weren’t aware” of having all of those critical and powerful pieces, says Baumert, from Lake in the Hills.

Lauren Meyers (center)

“It was about taking the knowledge they had inside them and showing them, ‘Hey, I know you know this. This is why it’s so important, and this is why this knowledge you have can help your athletes achieve their full potential,’ ” she adds. “It was more like holding up the mirror.”

Lauren Meyers, a senior Athletic Training major from Elmhurst, agrees.

“I think they almost knew that there was a deficit in what their usual training methods were – but they just didn’t know they had the tools,” Meyers says. “We just had to show them how to use them. A lot of what we do is just empower them: ‘You have the power to do this.’ To see them realize that by the end of the week was probably the coolest thing I’ve ever gotten to do.”

Making the week a fun one also contributed to its success, says Karisa Fuerniss, a master’s degree student in Sport Psychology from Loveland, Colo., who helped Jacobs organize the trip.

Kaya Cattouse, a professional collaborator and personal friend of Jacobs who is a regional sports coordinator at the National Sports Council in Belize City, expected as much.

“She was really adamant about making the lessons active and engaging and keeping people on their feet,” Jacobs says. “Our week was spent laughing and piggyback riding and telling jokes and talking about sports. They just got to see their coworkers as people, and hopefully that’s going to have some positive ramifications on how productive and collaborative they are. Kaya loved it.”

Dwight Lewellen (left)
Dwight Lewellen (left)

Coaches who attended the mandatory National Sports Council event “were expecting it to be a boring training because this was one of their monthly meetings,” Fuerniss adds. “They were surprised by the fact that it was engaging and they were getting practical tools they could apply.”

Training began with a basketball-style introduction of the six Huskies, who also included Dwight Lewellen, a graduate student in Sport Psychology and Sport Management, and Ben Lee, a junior Pre-Physical Therapy major with a minor in Kinesiology.

Lewellen kept the basketball theme alive as he told the Belizean coaches about his first Chicago Bulls game to teach about fan engagement.

“The sounds, the roar of the crowd, the energy, the mascot running around throwing T-shirts, the smell of the food – all of these things kept me there and wanting to see more,” says the Windy City product. “I said that if they can capture that feeling in the first game in every game they have, then they can continue to bring people in.”

Schaumburg native Lee, who coached freshman basketball at his alma mater Schaumburg Christian, also used hoops as a backdrop for his lessons in coaching development.

He spoke of “bringing the juice” – positive energy – and of the pillars of communication, focus, competition and spirit.

Ben Lee (center)
Ben Lee (center)

Later, Lee and Baumert spoke of how coaches can become character-building coaches, and how they can develop themselves as individuals in order to develop their youth.

Perhaps most important, however, was Lee’s final session on burnout.

“I just tied together the importance of what the coaches are doing, and helped them see the amount of power they have to impact youth and the future of their society in their various districts and towns,” Lee says. “They can’t burnout as coaches. They can’t give up on what they do, because it’s so important. The youth that are put in front of them are the future of Belize.”

Half of the population of Belize is younger than 24, Jacobs says. Meanwhile, most of the crime is perpetrated by young adults ages 18 to 24.

Emma Baumert (left)

Some youth athletes can’t come to team practice “depending on where it is because they would have to pass through a rival gang or rival territory. The coaches can’t do anything,” Meyers says. “It’s just sad that walking past another field could bring harm.”

But – true to their rich cultural tradition of developing deep, meaningful relationships – coaches of youth sport exhibit “such passion and heart in caring about the athletes on their team,” Baumert says.

“A lot of them were there to learn, and they wanted to learn,” she adds. “They selflessly wanted to focus on what they can do to improve the athletes on their teams because they care about them as people.”

Fortunately, the visiting Huskies brought their signature philosophy of teaching personal and social responsibility through sports.

Other sessions covered the psychology of injury and caring for the whole athlete during recovery; “BAE-sic” sports medicine such as CPR; first aid; the evaluation and rehabilitation of injuries to ankles, knees and shoulders; and the design of effective warm-up routines.

“They were so attentive,” Lewellen says. “They’re doing it selflessly – altruistically – for youth. They know what they need to do to get them off the streets and get them in a better environment, and the knowledge we shared with them will help them accomplish that goal.”

Naturally, those reciprocal lessons that the NIU students knew were coming already are manifesting themselves. Meyers finds herself sitting in class thinking of the Belizeans and “trying to figure out things I could teach them now, even though I’m gone.”

From left: Dwight Lewellen, Ben Lee, Lauren Meyers, Jenn Jacobs, Emma Baumert and Karisa Fuerniss
From left: Dwight Lewellen, Ben Lee, Lauren Meyers, Jenn Jacobs, Emma Baumert and Karisa Fuerniss

Their strong bonding – the five students and Jacobs laugh easily and loudly as they share memories and inside jokes – validates the pre-trip decision to focus on team-building.

“I think that paid off,” Fuerniss says. “The thing that brought me the most joy in Belize was seeing the depth of relationship in our team and in the people that we interacted with. It was so cool to me that our team was giving each other feedback without prompting, and genuinely enjoying each other’s company.”

And the travelers are aware of their personal transformations.

Baumert, for example, is engaged in “continuous reflection” over her career aspirations to become a strength and conditioning coach or as a trainer at CrossFit AMRAP in her hometown of Lake in the Hills.

“How now do I become a better coach? How do I take everything that I taught in Belize and apply it back here in the States? How do I make our members better athletes, better parents, help their relationships and help them improve their goal-setting?” she asks. “I hold myself accountable. As much as I want them to continue to strive and improve, I want to do that myself.”

Jenn Jacobs
Jenn Jacobs

Lee, who plans to become a physical therapist and is considering NIU for graduate school to continue working with Jacobs, found in teaching the perfect advice for his eventual practice.

“One of my big takeaways on this trip is that no matter who you’re serving, they’re the expert. Even though I’m the clinician, the patient on the other end of the table, or in front of me, is the expert,” Lee says.

“That’s how Dr. Jacobs told us to approach this trip,” he adds. “We’re not the experts. We’re not the great American saviors coming in to save Belize. They’re the experts. They know what problems they face. They know what challenges they have to overcome, and a lot of times, they know how to solve those problems better than we do. All we really need to do is hold a mirror up to them to show them.”

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