Michelle Abbs knows firsthand how important female coaches can be. Abbs was a promising swimmer growing up in Michigan but quit the sport in high school after a male coach discouraged her. She still occasionally participates in triathlons but wonders about her fate as an athlete had her coach acted differently — or if her coach had been a woman.
“When I was younger, I was swimming less for me,” she recalls. “The practices weren’t for me. You feel like you’re doing it for your coach. The power of that relationship is so important in that time of your life.”
Abbs says there are few better places where girls can learn from women about navigating life than on an athletic field, which is why it's a major problem that there often aren't enough female coaches for youth sports programs in the United States. Now she's the regional director for Up2Us Sports, an organization trying to change that fact.
“There’s something unique about us as women being able to connect with each other and navigate life challenges from a point of understanding,” says Abbs, whose national nonprofit group pairs at-risk kids with coaches trained in sports-based youth development and trauma-sensitive coaching.
Abbs' organization launched the She Can Coach campaign earlier this year to add more female coaches to its roster of more than 2,000 mentors. This Friday, they'll host a free kickball game at Marlins Park to recruit more volunteers. The event will also include additional games, food, giveaways, and live DJ music from the Irie Foundation.
This year, Up2Us Sports in Miami has placed 50 coaches, but only 14 of them are women. More women in the field will mean more positive leadership for disadvantaged Miami girls and will also support women who want career opportunities in the youth sports field, Abbs says.
Abbs, a Michigan-born Miami resident who taught middle school in Liberty City and Overtown before joining Up2Us Sports’ Miami office in 2016, is deeply connected to Miami's youth — a local family welcomed her into their home for her first Thanksgiving dinner in the city.
Her organization points to research that shows how physical activity can mitigate trauma in young adults, whose brains are affected by stress. Trauma can come in many forms, including chronic poverty. What happens on the field ultimately translates into the classroom and beyond.
“We train our coaches in four levels of certification that make sports a healing, safe environment,” Abbs says. “Competition lends itself to these key learnings. If we get this right in adolescence, we can shape a whole group of adults.”
The coaching program, which has placed trainees in many after-school programs, little leagues, optimist clubs, municipalities, and parks throughout Miami-Dade, bridges positive life skills in youth through a mindful pedagogy that includes self-awareness. Sports include soccer, football, swimming, boxing, and even dance.
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“A coach will receive a group of second-graders at the gym and engage them in various fitness activities like kickball or tag racing, followed by sit-down team time where kids talk about their lives," Abbs says, describing a typical afternoon at the Overtown Youth Center. "They own that space.”
Up2Us is fundraising to continue its efforts. In the meantime, anyone can attend trainings, which, Abbs says, also help parents: One Miami father said he’s taking the lessons home for his own kids.
“I want parents to demand a different level of care from coaches,” she says. “It’s more about the long-term impact on their kids versus the winning.”
She Can Coach Kickball Game. 1:30 to 5:30 p.m. Friday, December 1, at Marlins Park, 501 Marlins Way, Miami; 305-480-1300; miami.marlins.mlb.com. Admission is free.