Sliding Towards Success in Chicago, by Taylor Harris

By May 29, 2017Uncategorized

For the current generation, watching TV is a vastly different experience now than it once was. Years ago, families would sit in front of the TV, and “flip” through the channels and decide on something to watch. The family came together and communicated during TV commercials, enjoying their shared experience. As a teenager in the 90’s, I recall coming together around a TV show called Sliders, where a group of people traveled to similar (but alternate) realities solving problems, avoiding catastrophes, and trying not to interfere in that reality’s course of events. It’s an interesting concept to ponder, and one I want to consider more as it relates to the influence lacrosse can have in people’s lives.  What would life be like if certain things went differently? How can the game of lacrosse transform people’s reality, and help avoid alternate catastrophes?

To help me answer this question, let me quickly share two personal “a-ha” stories from a rural backyard in northern Virginia. As a young boy who had challenges in and out of the classroom, and was often told that I had attention and hyperactivity issues, I was in desperate need of an outlet. Thankfully, my older brother Jake started playing high school lacrosse, and brought home all the lessons he learned at practice. Lacrosse was new, fun, unique, and most importantly- a way we could spend quality time together. Jake was an excellent teacher, and one of the best lessons he taught me was to practice with my left hand more than my right, so that I could use both hands equally well. My first lacrosse life lesson: improve your weaknesses until they are your strengths.

My younger sister’s entrance to the game soon followed. We came home and worked together on the net in our backyard, just as Jake and I had done before. Starting with tennis balls at first, and then progressing to lacrosse balls later, Amelia soon blossomed into an exceptional goalie with lightning fast reactions, and an edge that demanded respect. I recall vividly attending her first recreational game- the one where she let in 13+ goals. After the game, I asked her what went wrong out there. She simply replied, “The balls were going too slow.” I immediately thought of the valuable lesson my brother taught me, and smiled as I realized my sister was learning the same lesson. My second lacrosse life lesson: skills and life lessons can be passed amongst others through lacrosse.

By merely playing lacrosse with my siblings, two critically important life lessons were given room to grow in my psyche. This is the beauty of sport- it can reinforce valuable lessons that are being taught in the classroom or at home. And sometimes, in the most brilliant of ways, sport can actually introduce valuable life lessons that can be applied to other settings. Concepts like teamwork, confidence, and sacrifice all are organic to sport, but not always in our everyday lives. Returning to the aforementioned Sliders TV show from above, imagine if we could wholesale life lessons across contrasting realities through sport. Would such a transfer always have a positive result, or could it cause a disturbance?

This is the question we seek to grapple at OWLS (Outreach With Lacrosse and Schools). In 2016 there were 779 homicides and over 4,000 shooting victims in the city of Chicago. Since 2011, OWLS has established 5 project sites in the heart of these embattled neighborhoods, providing a positive option for hundreds of at-risk youth through academic enrichment, service-learning, and the sport of lacrosse. Using lacrosse as the medium through which we “slide” across cultural and socio-economic demographics, we aim to instill valuable life lessons in our participants that will enrich their lives. We feel that by using sport as our interactive medium, these life lessons can be absorbed more organically by our participants, rather than using a more direct head-on approach. And while our efforts have yielded amazing success stories over the past several years of operation, there are certainly areas that have given rise to pause and reflection.

The notion of “plugging and playing” might be commonplace to the world of tech, but we should be cautious when trying to use this term in the human domain. Life lessons have attachments and experiences and viewpoints native to the individual; and are lost when attempts are made to relay to others with differing experiences, viewpoints, etc. We have experienced this hardship first hand in the sports based youth development arena. Children of varying backgrounds and experiences view our messaging differently as they individually process our programming themes. Through this discovery process, we’ve learned some best practices on how to connect with our participant base, and maximize each individual’s potential growth and development. We’ve learned that as we “slide” across various differing contexts, we need to first take time to understand our environment fully, and then recognize what accommodations need to be made in order to provide the most fertile growth environment possible.

Organizations like OWLS, who have been actively practicing this “sliding” and discovering loop for some time, are on the forefront of advancing optimal practices and procedures for our participant demographic. Serving the communities of violence-torn Chicago through the game of lacrosse has taken tremendous personal commitment, drive, resiliency, and dedication across the years. And as Frederick Douglass said, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.” OWLS aims to achieve continued success in enriching the lives of our participant base, by embracing the struggle of transferring valuable life lessons and skills through the game of lacrosse.

So when we seek to answer the question if there are both positive and negative implications of sliding life lessons and skills from one reality to another, it seems the answer resembles more of a symbiotic relationship than a simple “yes or no.” Whereas lessons are ported from one area to another, both the lesson bearer and receiver seem to have influence on the final product. As this iterative process repeats itself over several practices per week, and several months of training per year, organizations such as OWLS develop a keen understanding, or systems learning, of the problems we face and solutions to implement. The systematic issues that face our participant base are complex and vast, and the barriers of entry to lacrosse that exist in Chicago are equally voluminous. But we are thankful that our participants have imparted great life lessons and skills on us over the years, just as we have in them. For without these valuable lessons, we’d miss improving upon our OWLS experience.

And so as we look to continue our efforts in “sliding” valuable life lessons and skills to future generations of Chicago children through lacrosse, we accept that traveling across the various cultural and socio-economic realities will have ripple effects that reverberate in both progressive and reflective directions. This is the cost of doing business in the world of sports based youth development- you must open your vault of valued life lessons and skills and allow for new entries to be stored, just the same as we ask of our participants. This symbiotic system of growth and change does not occur quickly- instead it is the result of weekly tactical victories that ultimately lead to large scale operational wins.

And so who are the “sliders” of OWLS? We seem to have played the role of coach, mentor, parental-figure, friend, clinician, researcher, life coach, and vault owner. But as we soldier on into the future, our proudest moments don’t come from the personas we assume, but rather the amazing young people we interact with as we slide across our Chicago realities.

Taylor Harris currently serves as the League Director and Director of Coaches/Officials Training for OWLS. Prior to joining OWLS, Taylor worked on the nationally recognized collegiate lacrosse staffs at Northwestern University (women) and Tufts University (men). Taylor also served six years in the United States Marine Corps as both an intelligence officer and scout sniper platoon commander. In those six years he deployed three times, once to Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF). He played collegiately at the United States Naval Academy from 2003-2006, and is originally from Clifton, Virginia. Taylor holds a Master’s in Education in Physical Education and Coaching from Boston University, and currently works in the Special Education department at a Noble Network charter school in Lincoln Park, Chicago.