I recently saw a television commercial for London's 2012 Olympic Summer Games. It was a montage of Olympic athletes in their pursuit for glory with the familiar "Olympic Fanfare and Theme" music playing with intensity. A caption read: "This Summer... The World Will Come Together in London." I love the Olympics, not just for the competition, but for the idea that countries around the globe put aside their differences to unite for the love of sport and a chance at glory.
During the Opening Ceremonies, each team from every country comes together in one stadium to kick off two week of events. Every participant in that arena has their own unique story of how they climbed to the top. Often, they overcame adversity and relentlessly pursued their dream to compete for their county. This is their moment. In many of the faces, you see this realization register for the first time as they circle the Olympic track, surrounded by their teammates, waving to the crowd.
Although their individual stories are different, a familiar theme is central to most of them: their commitment to their sport and team has allowed them to reach greatness and define who they are as people.
Sports are great equalizers. A universal love for a game can make someone different completely relatable. Sports foster connections that provide a catalyst for a lasting bond. One DoGooder Spotlight, Mark Kabban, knows this to be true. He grew up in civil war-torn Lebanon. After his uncle's family was massacred, Kabban's family left everything they knew and relocated to San Diego, Calif. New to the United States, it was initially hard for Kabban to assimilate into the culture because he didn't speak the language. He felt isolated. It wasn't until he discovered sports that he gained the confidence to feel comfortable in his new home.
Kabban recognized a whole new generation of refugee children were immigrating to the U.S. after a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan and figured many were feeling the same kind of loneliness he felt years ago. He launched Youth and Leaders Living Actively (YALLA) to empower refugee youth to build a sense of community through soccer, eco-therapy and education.
Kabban found, despite language and cultural barriers, the love for soccer was universal. "If you put a soccer ball in front of a kid, no matter what language they speak, they know what to do with that ball," Kabban says. Soccer captures their attention and motivates them in school. In order to play soccer, all YALLA scholar-athletes are required to participate in the tutoring program twice a week, providing 25 hours of one-on-one tutoring. Starting with one team, the program has grown to serve more than 200 kids in just 19 months.
Robert Herzog is another DoGooder Spotlight who exemplifies how sports can unify individuals to build a sense of community. Herzog was a high level executive at an insurance brokerage firm located on the 96th floor of North World Trade Center. He usually would already be at his desk by 8:45 a.m., but on the morning of September 11 he was running late. He arrived moments after a Boeing 767 deliberately imploded into his office building.
Cheating death, Herzog found himself wondering why he survived and began to re-evaluate his life and purpose. In the weeks following 9/11, he took solace in the sense of community he felt in New York City. Herzog saw New Yorkers become incredibly altruistic and supportive of one another. Guessing this unity likely wouldn't last forever, Herzog wanted to capture the sentiment and help New York City heal.
Revisiting his childhood passion of sports, Herzog launched ZogSports in the spring of 2002 with a 26-team football league. ZogSports organizes co-ed sports leagues that bring young professionals in their 20s and 30s together while incorporating social good. "We connect people through what young professionals want to do anyway," Herzog explains. "They want to meet people, hang out with their friends, and promote charity/social action."
The company's motto is "play for your cause," so every team chooses a charity to support. The hope is that ZogSports participants will spark conversations about causes that are important to them. ZogSports encourages people to think about the world beyond themselves and donate a tangible profit to charity.
"It truly is a social entrepreneurial venture for me because I believe organizing a kickball/dodgeball game and donating some money makes the world a little bit better," Herzog says. "People might disagree, but I think the more all of us feel connected to our community, the happier we are."
Both Kabban and Herzog teach us the valuable real life lesson that by joining a team you can build a community that not only helps you win games, but in life. As social creatures, most of us find individual happiness when we belong to something bigger than ourselves and invest in what is real: our relationships.
Unhappy and lonely in his new surroundings, Kabban was able to build a life through the relationships he built on the sports field. Although he initially thought it was impossible to find friends because didn't speak the language, he could connect with his teammates through a shared love of the game. Those friendships built on the playing field gave him the confidence to learn the language and build a happy life in the U.S.
Likewise, Herzog used to be a "glass half-empty" type of guy until he built a community with others through intramural sports. By cheating death, he quickly gained perspective and discovered life's value. It is your relationships that define your life, not what you have or haven't achieved. Herzog now devotes his life to helping others find that same sense of community though sports teams. By joining a team of some kind -- whether a sports team, volunteer team, political campaign, or acting troupe -- you are given a community and a chance to invest in what is real.