On August 18, we are inviting parents, guardians, volunteers, mentors and anyone who has direct access to youth to a special conversation with three Olympic athletes about how leaders like Chris are using the power that sport has to help young people understand and cope with adversity. Register today!
In every sport there are different techniques for success, different rules and different expectations. But one thing most athletes have in common? Receiving harsh words from a coach.
Christopher Barfield, who played basketball and ran track as a youth, heard his fair share of sharp words from coaches.
“I had really, really tough coaches,” Barfield said. “Coaches that I idolize but could not adopt their philosophy today.”
Barfield is the Director of Youth Development at Urban Dove Team Charter School in the Bronx, a network of high schools serving under-credited students through a curriculum centered around sports, youth development, and academics.
Urban Dove does not cater to athletes, Barfield said, but instead uses sport as a framework to help young people learn critical life skills and grow into successful, independent adults.
“Somewhere down their educational path, something was missed,” he said. “I don’t know if it was closing the gap on their reading or their writing or their math, but what we do is we meet them where they are when they get there. We do notice when they get there, on the cognitive level, there are gaps so we have specific programs to catch them up.”
In his role, Barfield supervises 15 coaches and oversees two sectors of the school: sports-based youth development coaches and physical education/practice.
While the educational gap in New York City is generally pretty wide, Barfield said the level of trauma Urban Dove’s students come in with is at a higher level than any school he’s worked at in his 20-year career.
“What our program does is really focus on sports-based youth development,” Barfield said, “making sure that our kids have structure, fitness, rhythmic activities to decrease their trauma.”
Prior to joining Urban Dove in 2018, Barfield worked for 11 years as a physical education teacher and coached a variety of sports
Barfield said he was able to bounce back from coaches’ harsh words because of constant encouragement from his mother.
“My mother always told me, ‘You’re going to be the best you can possibly be, and if you make a mistake, you just have to get over the mistake and keep moving, that’s all you can do. You can’t keep looking back, you’ve got to keep looking forward.’ So whenever a coach would get upset with me for making a mistake, I would take it and be like, I’ll try not to make it next time.
But Barfield recognizes that athletes are not an emotional one-size-fits-all, and depending on their life circumstances, people may cope differently.
This became very clear to him when he started his first coaching job fresh out of college.
“I started when I was 23 years old,” he recounted. “I said to myself, ‘I wanna coach like this coach,’ and I was coaching at a school with students that had high levels of bipolar and ADHD, and they taught me my first year of coaching: ‘try what you want to try, but we’re going to make you adapt to us’ and that’s exactly what I did.”
As he progressed in his career, he realized that although there are always non-negotiables with his students and athletes, delivery means everything.
“There are some students I could say, ‘Hey’ in my coach’s voice, ‘Why’d you make that wrong cut?’ Another kid, I’ll come up and say, ‘Hey, you know, next time we need to make sure we follow through with the cut,’ Barfield said.
“So basically just adapting and meeting every kid where they are. Which is the hardest thing possible because you can never always get it right.”
But when it comes to being legendary, Barfield says he doesn’t think a person necessarily has to be the top player on the field or court.
“I would define a legend as a person who was at the top of their game,” Barfield said. “It doesn’t mean they were the best player or the best whatever; top of their game meaning they did everything they could to be the best at what they did and at the same time was helping others grow.”
And helping others grow is something Barfield does every day at Urban Dove.
“The premise of everything I do for the kids is to make them feel safe and loved,” Barfield said.