"We're looking for people to teach kids how to play football" — Project Iskra

What do you think defines a good coach? Is it a person who has achieved great success in sports? Or someone who knows how to channel the energy of their team in the right direction? Or maybe that's a person who can use a variety of training techniques? These points are all true, yet there is one quality that is even more important. A good coach is someone who loves what they do and treats their team with respect. These are the coaches that famous athletes remember fondly. 

Anna Fedorchuk, head of the nonprofit Iskra football project, talks about where to find such coaches, how to support them, why it is important to do this in small towns, and, most importantly, how to make children's lives happier. 

Could you please tell us about the essence of this project as a whole?
Iskra is an international non-profit football project aimed at making children in small towns and villages happier. We are planning to do this through making children involved in football, through physical activity, their physical and mental development.
The essence of the project is very simple: we want to find people who love working with children, love football and would like to train several times a week. The coach is a key figure in our project. It is a person who can create a comfortable, safe and friendly environment, someone who can get the children interested, train them in a way that allows both the coach and the children to have fun. Of course, coach will be paid for their work. 
You don't have to be a football player or a professional coach. The ones we choose will be taught everything. What matters is being interested in football, being good with children and, last but not least, patience. 
Our project is defined by a number of values that everyone has to follow. They are, in fact, very simple. For example, we can't yell at children under any circumstances. We don't give grades either, and we don't punish for mistakes, since it's a normal part of the learning process. And, well, life in general.

The coach needs to create a friendly atmosphere and always remember that it's the process that matters, not the end result. We can teach how to play football and have fun with that sport. We don't care whether or not one of the kids is going to become a professional football player. What truly matters is to be able to approach everyone and show them how important uniqueness is. 
After choosing the best applications from coaches, we look for and rent sports fields where classes are to be held. We buy the necessary equipment and uniforms, accept children that are interested, make a schedule, and that's pretty much it — at that point we can begin. 

You said anyone can become a coach. But this work means interacting with children. What about security?
This question is, of course, the most important one for us, which is why it is actually rather difficult to make the cut. Of all the applications we have received, we only accepted 10 people: 7 in Russia and 3 in Kazakhstan.
I think it's interesting that there's a lot of feedback from fathers of children who want to play football with children and their friends. Applicants have to go through several interviews, where, among other things, we figure out how easy it is to get along with them. We also run them through a security check. In addition, our project includes mandatory supervision with psychologists for coaches, as well as completely open and safe feedback from children and their parents. 

What stage is the project at now? 
We started in April, in Kazakhstan and Russia simultaneously — these are the first countries of the project. The first phase of accepting applications from those wishing to become coaches lasted a little over a month, until the end of May. During that time, we received about 250 applications. There were more responses in Russia than in Kazakhstan, but it could be that not every potential candidate learned about the project and had time to apply. You can now apply again, and I invite everyone to do just that. This can be done via our website 
Coaches selected in Russia have already passed the first part of the training. We bought the uniforms and the required equipment, and started accepting children. We expect training in each selected region to start by early September.
In Kazakhstan, we are still in the process of choosing the locations to be used, because we feel that there is still great potential to be put to use. That is why we are currently accepting participants. Perhaps with the help of this interview, we will be able to attract more people. Everyone is welcome to apply online.

How do you train coaches?
We put together our own program, based on existing methods of training mass football coaches. We place a great deal of emphasis on the goal setting of our classes, telling them how to interact with children, as well as how to grab and keep their attention. 
We share a lot of techniques on how to put together a training plan, how to make each lesson interesting and individualized. There are tons of different exercises, and we teach our coaches to combine them in order to create a fun activity. We explain how to get feedback from the kids and how to process it in order to capitalize on the kids' abilities in training.
In addition to our program, we also offer the UEFA iCoachKids online course. It is a simple and very useful course for anyone who coaches children in the mass football, and it's available in Russian. 

That covers the requirements for coaches, what about the participants? How are they selected? 
Iskra is designed for small settlements with a population of no more than 50 thousand people. This is a rather flexible criterion. If we receive an application that suits all parameters except the number of residents with, for example, 60 thousand people in the applicant's place of residence instead of 50, but this application will be presented by a charismatic coach who is eager to develop children's football, then, of course, we won't turn them away. 
We deliberately chose small communities, where children have far fewer opportunities for development than in big cities, which we find unfair. It's important for us to fix this as best we can. 
We recruit children from 5 to 12 years of age, but, well, if a 4-year-old child comes to us for training with glowing eyes and a clear desire to train, we will not turn them down. We are open to everyone, boys and girls alike; we don't care about nationality, religion, social status, or developmental characteristics. On the contrary, we want to teach children the importance of openness and acceptance. 
The upper age limit is due to the fact that later on children either begin to treat football more professionally and go to special schools, or, conversely, become able to organize games themselves and just play with other kids, which makes the format of a section almost obsolete for them. Also, according to UEFA recommendations, this age is a threshold for splitting everyone into women's and men's teams. We want to stay true to our principle of being "for everyone". 
Coaches can be both male and female — we do not discriminate in this regard, either. 

Why did you choose football?
That's what we started with. It remains the No. 1 sport and an overall great team game. But as the project develops, other sports will become available as well. I, for one, really like running and badminton (laughs). 

So far, everything looks perfect. Do you encounter any difficulties in the process of implementing the project?
Of course, there's no avoiding them. When we first started, we thought that the biggest problem would be finding training sites. But it turned out that they are easy to find. They are all of varying quality and condition, but they are there. 
Now finding people, those active coaches, was the difficult part. Everyone is used to the old school type of training, where the coach is a harsh and demanding professional, who only needs success, no matter the cost. Plus, everyone is afraid of trying something new, of choosing to follow an unfamiliar pattern of work. The systems of children's sports in the U.S. and Europe are very different. In the U.S. dads are often involved with kids, it's very common for parents to get a mass football coach's license and train all the kids in the class. It's far less common over here.

Many potential coaches can't believe that not only will we buy all the equipment, organize everything, give methodological advice, but that we'll also pay salaries. Salary depends on the number of groups and time spent with them, plus we assume that this is not the main occupation for the coach. According to our estimates, we pay twice as much as a sports school for the same number of hours. 
It's very difficult to make people believe you. I still remember some of the candidates that we really liked who disappeared at the final stage — they just stopped picking up the phone. I would really like to call them and ask: Why? What happened?
Hopefully, in the future, when Iskra is operating at full capacity, this distrust will be overcome. 

What plans do you have for development in Kazakhstan, and in general?
Once again, we are currently accepting applications from coaches, and hopefully there will be quite a few. You can apply here
We want to open at least 5 sections in Kazakhstan by the end of the year, possibly more. I truly believe that we have struck gold and that the project will find its heroes. 
In the future, the project will be implemented in other countries of the former Soviet Union and developing countries. We will expand with different, interesting ways to involve children and adults in football and other sports. 

If you had to come up with a motto for Iskra, what would it be?
At the beginning of the iCoachKids program, it says that the coach's main goal is to keep the flame of enjoyment in the kids alive so that it never goes out. When I went through the training myself, I thought, "My God, it's only right that we are called Iskra (which is "spark" in Russian)! What a coincidence." So yes — that's what we are all about. That drive, that love for the sport that football gives. I believe it's truly important that we don't forget those feelings when we become adults.