Terps, including a legend, help use sports to impart life lessons on summer campers

U.Md. summer camp helps middle schoolers with life lessons through sports

A summer camp hosted at the University of Maryland is trying to make playing sports more accessible for lower-income kids with a focus on important life lessons.

The program, LiFESports, started at Ohio State University and is replicated at other colleges around the country. It provides middle school students with four weeks of free summer camp, with transportation and meals included, and introduces them to a different sport every day. This is the program’s first year in College Park, and it’ll be hosting about 30 kids from Mount Rainier.

“What we’re trying to do is teach them, essentially, a curriculum on ‘SETS’ — which is self control, effort, teamwork and social responsibility — as a way to help build their resilience through their formative years,” said Dr. Jay Goldstein, a senior lecturer at the School of Public Health and the director of the LiFEsports initiative at UMD. “What we do is we teach them in a classroom for ‘chalk talk’ and then we actually supplement them through nine other sport-related activities.”

There are a variety of sports for the kids to play, including soccer, lacrosse and even pickleball.

On Thursday, the Terrapins and NBA legend Walt “The Wizard” Williams joined the kids on the basketball court and even offered a lesson on the “effort” in SETS. He told them as charmed as his life has been since making it to the pros, it wasn’t always like that.

“I didn’t even learn shooting on a real basketball court. I was shooting off the monkey bars,” Williams told the kids. “The monkey bars are really big at the bottom — these squares all put together — it got smaller and smaller. At the top, it was just this one square and I used to shoot at that thing all day.”

He recalled that he practiced “not missing” because when he missed the ball would roll down the hill of the playground and he’d have to run after it: “I mean, it was a long run if you missed.”

Williams explained how the first organized basketball team he ever played on was in high school, where he started off as the team manager because he skipped a day of tryouts and was told the team was already set. He credited his older sister with making him go back.

He joined the team halfway through, when most of the other players became academically ineligible and the team needed bodies.

“That’s how I got my chance to play basketball,” said Williams. “I understood right then — ‘Oh man, because I can’t say I just like love schoolwork.’ I’m not going to tell you that. But I understood this right here, in order for me to play basketball, I needed to get my schoolwork done.”

The curriculum used in LiFEsports is one backed by science, said Goldstein, but he already sees it anecdotally.

“You see their behaviors change, and they start making those cognitive choices,” he explained. “When doing the right things when nobody’s looking, being a good friend, being a good teammate, being positive. We hope that they take that back to their homes, to their communities.”

Some of the boys in the program say that’s already happening.

“On the weekend, when I went home, my brother wasn’t doing so good. So I cheered him up,” explained Douglas Rodriguez Alvarado, a student at Hyattsville Middle. “I remember how to use SETS to cheer him up. Then, when we were playing soccer in my backyard, and he wasn’t doing too good and I encouraged him.”

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John Domen

John started working at WTOP in 2016 after having grown up in Maryland listening to the station as a child. While he got his on-air start at small stations in Pennsylvania and Delaware, he's spent most of his career in the D.C. area, having been heard on several local stations before coming to WTOP.

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