Mark Mungal

Developing Youth Leadership Through Sport: Mark Mungal

Mark Mungal

Our kids’ coaches and PE teachers all have a unique opportunity. Through sports, they can help our young people develop the skills they need to succeed in life, whether they become sales people, stay at home parents, or CEOs. In this conversation, Mark Mungal, author of Developing Youth Leadership Through Sport, shares the sports program that he’s developed to awaken the confidence and leadership skills for middle schoolers and high schoolers.

Mark is the Director and Cofounder of the Caribbean Sport and Development Agency, and over the last 20 years, he’s facilitated workshops in 13 Caribbean territories and spoken on youth leadership and sports at conferences all over the world, from Switzerland to South Africa.

Mark Mungal: I think I’ve been lucky to have had a lot of really positive childhood experiences in sport. My dad was a volleyball coach. He coached our national men’s and women’s team over the years, and because of that, we always had volleyballs at home. We used those volleyballs for football, we used them for basketball and volleyball as well.

The street was our playground back then, and I think throughout our school life as well, particularly at high school. We had a group of friends and we often got together. It was part of the culture for high school back then.

That high school actually had a sort of embedded culture of leadership as part of what made that school what it was—Presentation College back in San Fernando.

“As a result of that, we had a lot of youth-led type of activities.”

During the lunch times, we would be involved in the class football games—and when I say football, the real football that you guys call soccer.

It was all organized by the students, and I don’t think there was any involvement of teachers for those events. A lot of that at the college, not for football but for other sports and other types of activities including scouts, which I had been a part of as well and which was also organized and led by the students and young people.

I remember maybe I was probably about fifteen or sixteen years old, and one of my brothers and a group of crazy friends that we played with, we started our own little volleyball club. We actually entered a B division competition. It was all just getting together as a group and starting to plan what we wanted to do, and I think probably one of the most exciting things was not so much actually playing but getting our first kit.

Because we couldn’t afford the high-end kits at the mall, we went to a garment factory with our own design and everything.

They were quite unique. They were not branded; nobody had anything that even looked like it.

Having the opportunity, not just to participate but to take on our own leadership responsibility and organize everything ourselves and compete at the competition. I don’t want to tell you, maybe I should, we didn’t have such a good run. But we still enjoyed the experience.

I think they all remain involved in sport, and I think a lot of those experiences added value to the other things that we got in life. I think it’s something that all young people should have an opportunity to experience.

Learning to Value Sports

Mark Mungal: Around 2002, I was lecturing at the teacher’s college in Trinidad. I was so bloody frustrated because my subject was physical education. As you probably are aware, whether it’s in the elementary school, high school, or tertiary ed, physical education is kind of treated as just the little add-on and is not really seen at face value.

I had a real tough time there. Working with some really lovely beginning teachers who were committed to the subject area, the frustration was that, at the end of the day, after spending two years at the teacher’s college and graduating with a diploma, when they got back into the system, it was difficult for them to implement or apply a lot of the things that we would have developed, because:

“The school system didn’t value physical education back then.”

And still, to some extent, now.

Coming out of that around 2002, myself and three of my students at the teacher’s college started an organization. We founded what was then known as the Trinidad and Tobago Alliance for Sport and Physical Education. The acronym that spelled TTASPE.

Some years later, we rebranded because we were working up and down the Caribbean islands, it’s now known as the Caribbean Sport and Development Agency. We founded that organization back in 2002 out of frustration that nothing was happening in the fraternity—we weren’t being respected or valued as a subject area and as a fraternity.

That initial startup was to try to raise the profile of physical education in Trinidad and, by extension, the Caribbean region. That was kind of the start.

I guess if you think about the Caribbean, a lot of people think about the Caribbean as a holiday resort. Sun and sand and sea, festive music and spicy food and friendly people. A lot of people outside the Caribbean in our global community also think about the Caribbean people as kind of laid back. Even bordering on lazy and maybe not so productive and maybe not adding much value to the leadership globally.

Part of that is not just about the global communities, but also ourselves as Caribbean people. We tend to have that kind of inferiority complex.

“I guess it’s part of our own colonial history, undervaluing ourselves.”

As we started working up and down the Caribbean, it really hit us hard that every time we wanted to do something, to raise the profile of physical education to create a new program to do something really well, there was always an intent somewhere along to engage somebody from outside of the Caribbean.

As if in the region here, we didn’t have the leadership or the capacity to do those things themselves. Always reaching out to the proverbial north.

We’d get some support from the Australians or from the UK or from Canada or the US. Always kind of depending on the external or on intellect, if you wish.

Beyond Just Sports

Charlie Hoehn: Had you noticed that before in other areas, other realms in the Caribbean, or was that the first time it really hit you that the mentality was, “Let’s depend on outside countries?”

Mark Mungal: That’s kind of embedded in our ethos. That’s part of our colonial history. That we’ve always depended on and valued more than our own value, the inputs and the expertise of the global north. That is not unique to the Caribbean, either. That’s part of the colonial history across the world.

It is changing. During the time since 2002 and starting that work at a regional level, it really jumped at us. If we were doing work in St. Vincent or Granada, Jamaica, Barbados, any one of the territories we had been working, we had good partnerships with the Australian Sports Commission back then. With UK Sport, with the Commonwealth Games, Canada. We had a good relationship with the International Alliance for Youth Sport out of the US.

Because of those relationships, anytime we were in one of our Caribbean islands, the leadership in those islands recognizing our connections would always ask for help from those partners rather than looking at ways that we could solve our problems ourselves.

That kind of strengthened our commitment and mandate to help our Caribbean people to recognize their own value. To recognize that they could do anything—we can do anything that we want to do if we develop that value.

“Recognizing that we have the potential to do anything that we want.”

All of that has been part of the ongoing journey to show the value of people. Not just here in the Caribbean, because this exists in parts of the world, even in developed countries.

If you think about the challenges that you have in the inner cities in the US for example, people are struggling with all sorts difficulties and thinking that the only way that they could resolve those problems or those challenges is for some big brother to come in and resolve it for them. Some kind of godfather syndrome or something like that.

Even in the education system, when working at a teacher’s college, it’s kind of crazy that I was a student teacher myself back in the ’80s. Then in 2002, working at a teacher’s college as a lecturer. We were doing the exact same content, the exact same curriculum, nothing changed. In fact, that curriculum has been to a large extent and continues to be very declarative content.

That’s okay, we learn about history of education and we learn about the theories and all of that, but we’re not going beyond that, we’re not creating any new history, we’re not creating our own theories, we’re not bringing any added value.

That’s not a way to develop and to grow. If we want to, if we really want to evolve as people and to grow and to realize your full potential, we have to be thinking beyond just that type of education system that says, “This is what exists.”

Instead, engage in a system that says, well, “What can we create? What can we do that’s new and different and do it ourselves too?”

Actually, it’s not that I have anything against collaborating rather than hiring expertise. I have no problems with collaborating with other experts from outside of the region. We’ve had really good partnerships, as I mentioned to you with our colleagues from the Australian Sports Commission, from UK Sport, from Commonwealth Games Federation and other organizations.

“They bring good value, but we also have value to add.”

I think that is where the challenge lies for us and many of the developing countries. Some of the developed countries’ communities that are minorities or that are struggling with their own demons come to feel like they can’t get out of their challenges themselves, and the only way they can get out of anything is if somebody comes in with whatever skillsets that they have, and expertise and intellect that they have to solve all problems.

We’ve learned, during the time that we’ve worked in the region for the better part of two decades, that Caribbean people have amazing value that they can bring to the table.

It’s time for us to step up and share that value rather than sitting and waiting with your hands outstretched and asking for some hand outs and all of that.

This journey has been about helping people, and not just the leadership of the sports sector in the region, but people, including the young people, to recognize that they have amazing value and they don’t have to depend on external sources to help them through anything. That they can add value to anything at the global level, as a matter of fact.

Charlie Hoehn: Sounds like this is a bigger endeavor than simply developing youth through sport.

Mark Mungal: Yeah, absolutely. It has evolved, and because, initially, as I mentioned to you, it was out of our own frustration that people didn’t recognize the value. The value that we saw for physical education and for sport and physical activity was way beyond the very narrow-minded perspective that people still thinks that sport is important mainly for health and all of that.

But there’s so much more that we can harness sport and physical activity and physical education to do, and I think over the last decade in particular, from UN agencies right down to grassroots organizations and governments across the world have recognized the power of sport beyond its inherent contribution to health and wellness.

But also, it’s a powerful tool for conflict, for dealing with poverty for social cohesion, for education, for equity, et cetera, and there are programs all over the world that are actually using sport for those specific outcomes.

How Sports Develop Leadership

Charlie Hoehn: Can you tell some stories where you’ve seen sports develop leadership in our kids?

Mark Mungal: We’ve had our own personal experiences at the organization I refer to now called the Caribbean Sports and Development Agency. One of our very specific areas of focus would have been around developing youth leadership and using sport as a tool for developing and empowering young people.

We actually deliberately worked with young people in different setting across the region and in different ways as well.

In the book, we actually describe one of the stories that I think is a pretty amazing story working in a youth center. Sadly, it’s no longer operating but is a youth center that was known as the El Dorado Youth Camp.

This would have been a space for young ladies who would have fallen out of the traditional school system. Their own challenges based on home situations, based on their own personal issues, and so on.

We developed a simple intervention using the same youth sport leadership model, which essentially gives young people the opportunity to take responsibility for doing and running a simple program on their own. It goes through phases that start with the coaches and the teachers and the volunteers, supporting them but gradually passing on that responsibility to the young people.

I remember my co-director for the Caribbean sport and development agency, Andre Collins, who is good friend as well. Andre and I had visited one of the days. It was a closing event that they had at the youth camp for the girls, and there was an incident that happened.

The young girls themselves were officiating a volleyball game, and while the game was in progress, one of the girls who was on the court reacted really negatively to the referee’s call. She had a history herself of violence.

I think because of the intervention and the leadership responsibility of the young people over the period of time, that situation was controlled really well. At the end of the day, speaking to the leaders, the adults, their response was that in normal circumstances, that situation would have ended in an all-out brawl.

Because of the program that was implemented, and because the young people had developed some leadership skills and capacity to manage situations like that, it went really well.

“It wasn’t perfect, but it did not end up in an all-out brawl.”

In fact, what happened was eventually, the young lady took a time out. She was removed from the game, and she knew what she had to do to get back into the game. The captain of her team consulted with the official, which by the way the official who was herself a young person from the youth camp, and she was returned to the game after and continued playing.

What we do know is that this intervention works, and we’ve seen it working with the Caribbean Healthy Lifestyle Program across several of the countries in the region.

We’ve seen it working in the Kicking AIDS Out project, which is not unique to the Caribbean but which we also manage, and we’ve seen it working across our own youth empowerment program, working directly with the youth. We’ve also seen it working through the intervention that we do via coaches and teachers and volunteers who deliver the program.

We’re not directly delivering those, but in the workshops that we do with those coaches with those teachers, we’ve gotten good feedback about the quality of those interventions in other territories.

All Youth Can Lead

Charlie Hoehn: What is the one idea that you hope listeners will take with them and implement into their lives?

Mark Mungal: I think it will be useful for the coaches and the teachers and the volunteers who serve young people and schools and communities who would read a book like this to really understand the overarching concepts.

A lot of things in the book are actually things that they would probably already know and appreciate and are probably implementing in different ways. I think this brings all of that together to focus more specifically on leadership.

If I had to think about taking something away, I think a key thing would be understanding that leadership is not for any individual who we think might be the one on in the group that has that capacity.

“I’d like them to recognize that all young people have the capacity to lead.”

Some young people would be better at mathematics and science. Some may be better at literature and language. But they all would have an opportunity in the school system to develop their capacity to read and write and their capacity to do math and to do science.

I think we’re missing the boat, because we hand pick people and say, “You’re going to be a leader,” and we don’t give that opportunity to others. A key takeaway for me from this would be, in that sport context, that we need to move away from the kind of token leadership that we give young people.

And we say, “Okay you be the captain, you get to do the coin toss,” which might be a nice experience for them. It is not really a powerful leadership experience. It is kind of a token leadership experience. And we usually give that to the star boy or the star girl or the best player on the team.

I think that a key takeaway from this would be for us to start thinking a little more broadly that all young people have the capacity to develop leadership.

Some will develop it to a higher level than others, but they all have the capacity and they all need to develop leadership skills because they are going to use those in different spheres of their lives at some stage whether it’s in their schools and communities, churches, clubs, et cetera. Even in the work place.

A key takeaway would be for those who work with young people in the sport sector and in other sectors as well to recognize that leadership is not something that should be held back for one or two individuals who you think may develop to be good leaders but that it should be something that all young people should have the opportunity to experience and to develop.

Be Deliberate with Youth

Charlie Hoehn: Are there any other mistakes I guess that you see that just frustrate you that you wish you could tell coaches, “Don’t do that?”

Mark Mungal: Yeah, well first of all I think one of the things that I always like to recognize is that coaches who work with young people bring amazing value, and to a large extent, a lot of the coaches who work not just here in the Caribbean but across the world are really giving a service that I think we don’t value enough.

They serve literally as parents and mentors for young people, and to a large extent, a lot of children have really positive experiences from youth sports programs that add amazing value to their lives. So I want us to be careful about saying that coaches are doing things wrong.

“I think they do things differently.”

Surely, one of the things that we and I am sharing in the book is that if we think about leadership as a skillset or set of skills and we want to develop it, then we identify, okay, these are the key skills, the sub-skills if you wish, of leadership. They’re not going to happen automatically.

We know sport is a powerful medium for developing those skills. Skills like decision making, skills that involve communication. Skills like delegating.

Those are skills that do not develop automatically. In fact, no skills really develop automatically.

If we want young people to become responsible, if we want them to develop goal setting skills, et cetera, if we want them to develop cooperative behaviors, those things must be deliberately done.

So our responsibility as coaches and teachers and volunteers who work with young people is if we want to develop those skills, in the same way we develop the skill of striking the ball with a bat in baseball or catching, we have to design learning experiences that facilitate those outcomes.

We always talk about the power of sport to do a hundred different things but those things are not automatically developed. We have to design them and experiences that lead you to develop those skills, whether they are sport skills or leadership skills or just generic life skills, the responsibility of coaches is in the same way that they plan a program to improve your catching and your hitting and your running, et cetera. They have to similarly design a program that includes experiences that develop those leadership skills.

Leadership is Inherent in Youth

Charlie Hoehn: So what do you want people to know about the importance of reflection and listening?

Mark Mungal: As part of my own journey and understanding that whole process of—as I refer to in the book—not so much learning as awakening. I prefer to use that term and suggest that all people, young people that we are targeting in particular, already know pretty much everything that they need to know. It’s already inside of them.

So to a large extent our responsibility as coaches and teachers and volunteers who work with young people in the communities is not so much to teach as it is to awaken the knowledge that they already have.

Just think about it, if you bring together a group of young people and have them sit around the table and ask them to tell you of what do you think would be some of the things that would make you a good leader—you leave them for about 15 to 20 minutes, they will come up with the same things that you’ve read out of Covey’s book or any of those leadership gurus.

Because as long as you give them the time to think it through, it will come to them. Our responsibility is to acknowledge what young people already have. We do that by designing learning experiences but also giving them an opportunity not just to participate in the experience but to reflect on it.

“There’s a mantra that we use in the book that “we learn best by doing when we reflect on what was done.””

Oftentimes, and especially in the sports sector, we do a lot drills and activities over and over, but we’re not sure if we are really learning anything if we are not thinking about it.

Giving the young people the opportunity to reflect on what they do helps to facilitate a better understanding and a richer understanding of that entire concept or principle that you are trying to bring across.

Creating Leadership Experiences

Charlie Hoehn: So you are giving them experiences where they’re set up to do something well, and then you encourage them to take a moment to reflect on it and discuss what went right, what went wrong.

Mark Mungal: Absolutely, and how they can do it better and that reflective process is as much about embedding the concept and the principles so that they really understand it really well, but it is also about creating new ideas and looking at ways that they could have done something better.

So in a situation where they would have made a decision and, at the end of it, they reviewed how that decision was made and what decision was made, not only would they better understand their own process of decision making but they will now start to think, “Oh maybe we could have done it this way instead, what if we did this?”

It’s also about innovation and creating new ways of doing things better.

When we run up a simple tournament and you have the kids involved in officiating and scoring and doing a little bit of sports journalism on the side, when you reflect on that on all of that at the end of it, it also helps us to think about ways of improving what we did.

And not only improving but just ways of being more innovative or more efficient. That reflective practice, that idea of doing things and then reflecting on what we did is not just about reinforcing on what we are doing and reinforcing what we learned. It’s also about thinking about new innovations and more effective ways to do things, et cetera.

Delegation as a Priority

Charlie Hoehn: You have a chapter on delegation. Can you expand upon what this chapter is about?

Mark Mungal: Yeah, I think delegation is just one of several leadership skills. Again, just to go back to the broader picture, we don’t directly teach leadership in the school context. So one of the worries I have about the education system across the world, even though they are some of the more forward thinking nations that are doing different things to a large extent, we are still stuck in a lot of content that’s not moving our children beyond what we did 50 years ago.

They are doing a lot of the same things, the same math and literature and science and so on. We’re not addressing some of those skills that I think that are skills that we need now, to solve problems that we don’t even know what problems exist 10 years from now.

If we’re still focusing in on problem solving for existing content and we’re not developing innovative thinking et cetera and leadership, how are we going to solve the problems that we don’t even know about?

“How are we preparing our young people to solve those problems that we don’t even know about?”

Delegation is one of the sub-skills of leadership that we address in this book, and it comes out of my own personal experience with the team that we have worked with over the years. That CSDA team because initially, we were a small group and were doing everything ourselves and as the group grew larger, we had more things to do. Obviously, we couldn’t do everything ourselves.

And that was a learning experience for us, and of course, we learned the hard way. And the hard way meant that we passed on tasks to some staff. Some of those tasks were kind of…menial tasks or some of them were not clearly communicated, and when we delegate in a way that is not effective and is not efficient, if you keep giving somebody on your team only the menial tasks to do, they start to feel undervalued or unvalued and so that’s not going to help them. And they are not going to then put any effort into doing whatever you need them to do as a team.

If you delegate tasks to someone without clarity—so they are now really clear about on what they have to do—then that also leads to some challenges. So in that skillset of delegating, there are several things that we address. What and how to do that delegating effectively and efficiently so that you get the results that you want and how do you do that as a leader without shirking your responsibility as a leader but at the same time not holding hands with the team member but making them feel valued.

So we give some examples of how we could do that in the sports setting and in the real sports setting. I think that’s a really valuable skill.

As we say on our team, our responsibility whether you sit on the chair at the highest level or as a sub group of the team is not to do anything necessarily, but rather to get things done. In order to get things done, sometimes means you delegate to other members of the team.

“That sub-skill of delegating is a critical one for leadership.”

Just think about that in the broader context of the work space and so on too. That is in the corporate sector, if you are a leader, you have tasks to do, you have a team to work with. You can do everything yourself or you could delegate some of those tasks to others.

The book gives you some guidelines about how to do that to maintain the quality of what you want as you manage the relationship between the team leader and the other members of the team and all of that.

That could be a bit complicated dynamic. Again, the book gives you some simple guidelines to follow to help you to develop that and hone that skill of delegating.

Transformation from Youth Leadership

Charlie Hoehn: What is your personal favorite transformation that you’ve seen of a youth, a teenager who’s use or who’s gone through these sports leadership development programs? Does somebody stick out to you?

Mark Mungal: There are some stories, but there’s one that jumps into my head right now of a young man who was actually part of a youth program run in the Caribbean and I think who would have benefited from that entire youth leadership experience. I think he benefited more than others because he was given more opportunity and one of the things that we had set up early on in the organization is learning from our colleagues out of Canada and Australia in particular.

The Canadians had a program that was a leadership program, and they would take university students and give them an opportunity to participate in some voluntary work all over the world, particularly in developing country contexts.

We actually hosted several of those Canadian youth leaders they were called at the time, and we saw the benefit of that model. Here you have young people immersed in really authentic experiences applying their leadership capacity in real settings.

So this is not in the classroom setting where you have a paper-pencil exam, and you figure you know the correct answers about leadership.

“This is not about leadership—this is leadership.”

So we borrowed that model and were able to provide opportunities for young people in the Caribbean to have similar experiences. We hosted a young guy from Guyana some years back as our first volunteer intern. So he was immersed in our organization as a young person and had the opportunity to apply the leadership skills that he would have gained from participating in what was called the Caribbean Healthy Lifestyle Program.

He just evolved as a real champion…it’s a combination of things obviously…he brought a lot to the table as he brought his own passion and commitment. I think the reason why I say it’s an amazing transformation is because I saw him evolve from a young passionate athlete into a strong academic. He is lecturing at the local university here.

I think that the opportunity that he got really helped him to further develop not just his leadership capacity but his capacity in general.

And now he is giving back in a very significant way to young people, not only through the university system but also through his work with our organization. I think he is already a champion, having seen him grow through that Caribbean Healthy Lifestyle Program, serving as a young volunteer in our youth leadership program.

Now he’s taken on a leadership role both in academia at the university here, but also through the volunteer work that he continues to do.

A Challenge from Mark

Charlie Hoehn: So what is one thing that our listeners can do or try from your book this week that could have a positive impact on their life?

Mark Mungal: I think to be honest, I throw this out to the coaches and the teachers and the community volunteers who work with the young people, it’s often a difficult challenge for them, but it’s a start.

If we want to develop real leaders—in other words we are empowering the young people, giving them power—then we have to give them the opportunity to make choices.

That is one of the most difficult things for a lot of coaches and teachers, because we tend to want to be in charge of everything.

We make all of the decisions, we are the ones who run this program, we are leaders. So it’s often difficult because of our very nature as coaches and teachers—our own inherent leadership natures. It is very difficult for us to give up that decision making process and pass it on to the young people.

A key challenge that I’d throw out to coaches and then teachers and those volunteers who work with young people: create some opportunities where you don’t make the decisions.

“Give the young people the opportunity to make the decision.”

So you don’t decide; give them the opportunity to decide. But to do that, you start in a controlled way, and as they develop and their decision making skills improve and you give them or you help awaken their decision making skills, you allow them to make those choices in a more and more open environment.

You might start off, the choice might be, “Okay class,” or, “Okay guys,” or, “Ladies, we have an option today, we can either do this or we can do that. You choose, are we going to do A or B?” That’s kind of a controlled option.

We want you to move to that level where you don’t even have to give them A or B or C or D. You let them decide, and they come to you and say, “Coach, today we’re going to be practicing this,” or “Coach, today we’re going to be in a practice game against this,” or “Coach, today we’re going to be doing a classroom session.”

You want to move to that point where they make the call on these decisions themselves. The book gives you some options to do that as well. Let them decide, for example, what format the competition will be, whether it will be a round robin or whether it would be knock out, et cetera.

Give them the opportunity to make choices. The reality is, we’re not empowering young people if we don’t give them choices. A key part of this empowerment…a key part of that is decision making. If you keep telling them what to do, we’re not empowering them, we’re not developing their leadership skills.

If we really want to do that, a key part of it is giving the young people the opportunity to make decisions. Let them decide. That’s a challenge I throw out to the teachers and coaches as a key takeaway.

Charlie Hoehn: Mark, how can our listeners potentially connect with you or follow you in your journey?

Mark Mungal: As of now, the main form of contact will be email. You can email me at [email protected].