College of Education and Human Development - George Mason University

Mason Brings Global Communities Together through Sports Visitors Program

July 2, 2012

Imagine having the opportunity to get your photo taken with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton or shake hands with Major League Baseball Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr.

Imagine having the opportunity to get your photo taken with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton or shake hands with Major League Baseball Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr.

This is exactly what some lucky youth baseball and softball players from Japan had the chance to do last year when they visited the United States as part of a partnership between Mason's Center for Sport Management and SportsUnited's Sports Visitors Program.

SportsUnited is a division of the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. The Sports Visitors Program is just one of its many programs that bring global communities together by giving young athletes and coaches, often from underprivileged countries, the opportunity to engage with their overseas counterparts.

Mason professors of sport management, Bob Baker and Craig Esherick, and professor of special education Pam Baker began working on a $2.2 million cooperative agreement with SportsUnited in February 2011. Since then, they have welcomed more than 300 coaches and athletes from all over the world to the United States and to Mason. The groups have included Chinese basketball coaches, Japanese baseball players, Palestinian volleyball players, and Russian hockey players, among others.

"Through our partnership with the SportsUnited program, we are making great strides in gaining recognition of sport as a way to promote greater tolerance and understanding of diverse cultures," says Baker, who also directs Mason's Center for Sport Management. "This program exemplifies the power of sports as a universal language, with the ability to strengthen relationships among various countries and introduce new cultural experiences."

U.S. embassies overseas choose the coaches and athletes who participate in the program. Once the selections have been made, Pam and Bob Baker and Esherick step in to assist with all of the programmatic, logistical, and administrative components of each group's visit. In 2011, they handled the visits of more than 18 groups to the United States. This year, 12 more groups will visit.

Program host Socrates Manuel, BS Sports Management '08, has worked closely with representatives from the State Department and is involved in nearly every aspect of the groups' visits.

"Having the opportunity to be involved in this program has been amazing, and I am grateful that professors Baker and Esherick chose to include me," says Manuel, who has worked as a program host for a year. "The long hours that this job requires are well worth it because I have been able to travel to some incredible places across the United States and have met people from all over the world."

When the groups arrive on American soil, Mason is one of their first stops. During their visit, they use Mason's athletic facilities, including the Recreation and Athletic Complex (RAC), and they visit the EDGE, Mason's challenge and team building course on the Science and Technology Campus. They also spend time working with and learning from coaches and athletes from the university's numerous men's and women's sports teams. Mason administrators and faculty have also made presentations on injury prevention, nutrition, and sport psychology to the visitors.

The visitors even eat lunch almost daily at one of Mason's dining facilities. Sometimes, they'll dine at a local hangout or spend an evening at Esherick's home.

Soon after, the athletes and coaches are whisked off to participate in a variety of clinics, which are usually held in the Washington, D.C., area, but they have also traveled to Nashville, San Antonio, Los Angeles, Orlando, and Williamsport, Pewnnsylvania.

Working with their American counterparts, coaches have the opportunity to learn everything new in coaching, from techniques to equipment and how to develop players. In addition, athletes are able to get more hands-on experience by participating in various drills, honing their skills and learning the differences in their sport in America.

"An important component of this program is to dispel any preconceived notions the participants may have about the United States," says Esherick. "Just as we must adapt to the cultural differences of each group, it is also important that we help them better understand our culture and way of life. By the end of the trip, many of the coaches and athletes are amazed at how hospitable and kind Americans can be."

The program hosts also make it a priority to take their groups to sporting events such as wheelchair basketball, sitting volleyball games, and Special Olympics, which are played by athletes with physical and intellectual disabilities.

"It's very important to us that we expose the visiting coaches and athletes to these kinds of activities for disabled persons because it's something that is often very unfamiliar to them," says Pam Baker. "In many of their home countries, disabled persons are not typically able to play sports. We want them to understand that participating in sports is an opportunity that everyone can and should enjoy."

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