Moving when you’re 12 years old is hard. Moving at any age is hard, but especially when you’re 12. Moving over 5,000 miles to a new country with a new language, to a town that most Americans can’t pinpoint on a map - that’s more than hard. That’s a 12 year-olds worst nightmare.
Sally Nnamani did it when she was 12 and she survived. She overcame the nightmare. How, you ask? Basketball.
Basketball was a sport Sally played from a very young age, and it became a major part of her identity. After moving from Enugu, Nigeria to Warwick, New York - a suburban town 60 miles north of New York City - she continued to play the game. Not only did it provide comfort as something familiar to her in a foreign place, but it gave her the confidence she needed to find happiness in her new home despite severe culture shock. “I knew I’d always be connected to it,” Sally said matter-of-factly. Basketball helped her through the often-difficult middle school years and through the grind of high school, where she was exemplary on the court. So exemplary, in fact, that college recruiters came calling and she ended up committing to play Division-III basketball at Lehman College in New York City. After an outstanding four years, Sally graduated with honors and as a three-time captain of the women’s basketball team, who she helped lead to their first-ever appearance in the NCAA Division-III tournament in 2007.
Two years later, after receiving her graduate degree in International Development from The New School, Sally discovered PowerPlay NYC, a nonprofit dedicated to inspiring and educating girls through one-of-a-kind sports and academic enrichment programs. A fellow alum from The New School worked there and told Sally of a part-time coaching opportunity, which she saw an a chance for professional development: “I got into coaching because I wanted to improve my public speaking skills and I figured why not tie that to my element, which is sports.” Quickly, she found she enjoyed coaching, and was good at it. After a year of coaching she was asked to stay on for another year, but this time through a program called Coach Across America (CAA), run by a nonprofit - Up2Us Sports. “I had never heard of CAA or Up2Us Sports, but I thought this might be a great way to plug into the sports world and get my feet wet because I really loved coaching.”
“I didn’t think I would like it, honestly.” This was Sally’s thought before heading to Boston for her first National Coach Training Institute. What could this program teach her that she didn’t know from a lifetime of playing basketball? She knew the game inside and out, had already spent a year with the girls at PowerPlay NYC and they loved her. She knew she was a good coach. But thanks to three intense days of workshops with emphasis on a trauma-sensitive approach to coaching and in-depth explanations on the difference between an SBYD-trained coach and a regular recreation coach, Sally had the tools to be a great coach. “I was really, really excited after Boston,” she said. Back at PowerPlay NYC, she told the staff about the training and they immediately began implementing lessons and strategies she had learned. “I pretty much revamped our curriculum to fit the SBYD approach and it’s been a great experience ever since.”
One of the largest changes in curriculum that PowerPlay NYC implemented was adding more play, particularly to the “learning” portion of their programming. PowerPlay NYC has two tiers in the program - a healthy living [youth development] part and a play [sports] part. Sally shares that “during the healthy living part, we would talk to the girls about topics like self esteem, peer pressure, issues that girls that age are dealing with. A lot of times, the girls would ask ‘when are we going to play?’ and I felt bad because I felt like I was lessening their play time because we had to get them through this healthy living discussion before we moved into play.” Altering the healthy living curriculum to have a sports-based youth development (SBYD) approach, the girls were now learning WHILE playing, instead of doing one and then the other. “We made sure the healthy living part incorporated aspects of sports and made sure the theme for the day resonated for the entire day - from informal time to team time all the way to the end of the day - we were constantly reinforcing the theme for the day. And it resonated more than simply reading a story out of a book. Less talking, more participating. And the girls just loved it.”
In addition to implementing curriculum changes at PowerPlay NYC, Sally picked up on some very important strategies that she was able to implement as a coach. One of these - using “shout outs” - helped Sally connect with Pamela at PS 33 in the Bronx, who was struggling with the recent loss of her father. The first few weeks of the program, Pamela was very quick to get riled up, oftentimes for seemingly no reason. She was always upset and at a certain point began to be disrespectful to those around her. After speaking with her co-coach, Holly, and discovering the news of Pamela’s father, Sally understood why she was acting out. This was her way of grieving. Sally had learned in Boston that when kids experience great trauma or loss, their brains can be altered and their attitudes are severely affected. Over time and implementation of trauma-sensitive coaching methods, Pamela began coming around. “We started incorporating something called ‘shout outs’ at the end of the day, where we would give all of the girls compliments on something they had done that day. I kept giving Pamela shout outs, even though they were small improvements, I would always tell her and try to encourage her. I knew that pointing out even the tiniest of victories would seem like something enormous to her.”
Sally finished her term as a CAA coach in 2015 and at the end of the year embarked on another 5,000 mile move to a new country. This time, she moved to Northern Ireland to start her new role as a Fellow at PeacePlayers International. Unlike her younger self, Sally - now 28 - knows this move won’t be as hard as it was when she was 12. She’s equipped with two degrees, a decade of experience living in one of the world’s biggest cities, and a lifetime of confidence, which was built up through playing - and coaching - the game of basketball.
Stay tuned for more from Coach Sally in the coming months as she reports back from Northern Ireland. In the meantime, check out this blog she wrote after her first month at PeacePlayers.