The power of human connection

The power of human connection

Over the past five years, thousands of student-athletes, coaches, and sports leaders from Mindanao in the southern Philippines have been exposed to the “MPG effect” — and thousands more will follow. MPG, short for Mindanao Peace Games, is a movement built around the simple assumption that sports facilitates human connection in its purest form, and that through this connection, communities in conflict-stricken Mindanao can thrive and extend a hand to their neighbors. Peace is the ultimate aim, but the road there requires constant work. MPG is laying the bricks in a trailblazing fashion.

Soon after I arrived in the Philippines to join my wife Sophie I was introduced to Mr. Noli Ayo, the ‘MPG Convener’ and University Athletics Director of Ateneo de Davao. I was intrigued by his journey from Luzon to Mindanao, and even more impressed by his mission. I was not familiar with the ecosystem of school sports, let alone the challenges of being a coach. But gradually, as I joined MPG gatherings and became exposed to the values imparted and experiences shared there, I realized that sports has the ability to bring people together and build bridges.

Catering to women

A unique aspect of MPG is that it’s not sports-focused. The student-athletes, coaches, and sports leaders gather to gain leadership skills and engage in dialogues. They are taken out of their comfort zone, school, region, and sometimes even their country. Participants are required to absorb knowledge and then apply it in their communities, for instance by hosting Sports Leadership Forums of their own. That way, MPG is merely the template, meant to be replicated and modified to fit the on the ground situation. They are inspired to work around the limitations — be it financial, material, but also emotional — they encounter on a daily basis. They are reminded of their abilities and responsibilities to go beyond sports to create meaningful change in their life and the lives of others.

The night before the first day of the Discover Leadership Program the group went to “Roses for Ben,” a musical production staged at the Arts Above theater. The performance raises awareness about HIV/AIDS, still a taboo topic blurred even further by high levels of ignorance regarding transmission and treatment.

What also sets MPG apart from typical sports associations is that it almost exclusively caters to women. As is the case in many countries, in the Philippines, women’s sports take a back seat to men’s. This sends the wrong message about gender equity. MPG not only exposes this imbalance, it actively provides women — student-athletes, coaches, and sports leaders alike — platforms to speak their mind, develop their skills, and turn their dreams of doing good through sports into a reality.

Discover Leadership Program

For 1,5 years I’ve had the privilege of witnessing the MPG effect from up close, most recently last week when I joined a group of 16 sports leaders from Mindanao in Manila for the fourth installment of the Discover Leadership Program. The biggest batch so far.

The night before the first day of the official program the group went to “Roses for Ben,” a musical production staged at the Arts Above theater. The performance raises awareness about HIV/AIDS, still a taboo topic blurred even further by high levels of ignorance regarding transmission and treatment.

On day one guest participants from Naga, Cebu and Manila joined the group to learn from the impressive line-up of speakers. I’ve selected a quote from each speaker that resonated with me the most.

– “The best antidote to failure is action.” – Mr. Jeffrey Tarayao (President, One Meralco Foundation)
– “The best way to help your opponent is to be a good rival.” – Atty. Victor Africa (Consultant, PSC)
– “The field of sports is freewheeling, that’s why you need structure behind the program.” – Mr. Paolo Trillo (Team Manager, Meralco Bolts)
– “Female coaches are asked a lot, ‘Why do you do this?’ Because we’re passionate and we’re good at it, that’s why.” – Ms. Isabella Fernando (Head Women’s Football Philippine Football Federation)
– “A simple ‘How are you?’ from your coach can open up new perspectives and help athletes.” – Ms. Faith Nisperos (UAAP Girls Volleyball MVP)
– “When I break down I tell my players, but then I get up again to be a better person.” – Ms. Kyra Dimaandal (Captain, DLSU, UAAP Season 81 Football Champions)

On day two we paid a visit to the Philippine Sports Commission where we met with Mr. William “Butch” Ramirez, Chairman PSC and Mr. Charles Raymond Maxey, Commissioner.

Day two was all about sports exchanges so we went around Manila and were hosted by:

Ms. Gang Badoy, MPG Ambassador and founder of RockEd Phillipines;
Mr. Stephen Fernandez, Sports Director, College of St. Benilde;
Mr. William “Butch” Ramirez, Chairman PSC;
Mr. Charles Raymond Maxey, Commissioner PSC; and
Ms. Marielle Benitez, Sports Director, Philippine Women’s University.

Do nothing, nothing happens

On the third and final day we all gathered to reflect and discuss plans on how to implement lessons learned back in our schools and communities. Ms. Cynthia Tiu joined the feedback session and discussed a range of topics, from her love of basketball to balancing family and career. Tiu is the team manager of the Philippines women’s national basketball team and member of the family behind the Discovery group of hotels and resorts.

In addition to mini-speeches given by selected participants, the send-off dinner again featured an impressive line-up of speakers, including:

Ms. Karen Tanchanco-Caballero, Deputy General Secretary Philippine Olympic Committee
Atty. Rebo Saguisag, Executive Director UAAP
Ms. Rubilen Amit, World Pool Champion
Joe Silva, Head Coach UE Red Warriors

It’s safe to say the collective three-day experience was overwhelming for most of us. It will take time to process, but already we see bonds being forged between the batch 4 participants. There’s talk about visiting each other’s respective schools, co-hosting tournaments, inviting fellow coaches as speakers during leadership forums, etc.

A few of the batch 4 participants in the lobby of Discovery Suites.

To my friends, to the sports leaders of Mindanao, I would like to say the following:

In my 1,5 years living in the Philippines, I quickly learned that if you “do nothing, nothing happens.” By joining the MPG movement you are doing something, now let us make something happen.

Treasure, but most importantly, utilize the bonds and experiences you gained to perpetuate the momentum of change; to keep the wheels now in motion, turning.

From the Netherlands, where I’ll be returning by the end of the year, you will have my support in shining a light on your efforts and achievements.

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