Building international peace through a love for soccer.
By Adeboye “Richard” Olaniyan, MA’20
When Dr. Lindsey Blom was growing up, women’s soccer wasn’t quite the national phenomenon it is today. It wasn’t until the 1980s, years after Title IX of the Education Amendments Act was signed into law, that participation of women in collegiate sports started increasing steadily.
For Dr. Blom, her love for the game started in a local church league.
“At seven years old, I was playing 11-versus-11 on a normal-size adult field,” Dr. Blom said about her daunting introduction into the game. “I have no idea how I fell in love with soccer because only two people touched the ball throughout the whole game.”
But fall in love she did. Dr. Blom went on to play soccer in high school, college, and at the semi-pro level. She also coached. During this period, she wrote a book to help people with no experience with the sport survive a soccer coaching stint.
Now, through her role as a professor of Sport and Exercise Psychology in Ball State University’s School of Kinesiology, Dr. Blom’s passion for soccer continues to make its mark—even on an international stage.
Building peace through sport
Since joining Ball State in 2008, Dr. Blom focuses her research endeavors on how soccer can be used to promote peace and effect positive social change within marginalized communities. From Tajikistan to India to Liberia, she uses soccer as an opportunity to help children learn crucial conflict resolution skills as well as basic life and empathy skills.
“When people come together for sport, they obviously automatically don’t like each other,” Dr. Blom said.
“But here when we’re training, we really try to make sure that people are working on the skills around peace and conflict. So, when there is a conflict, they can deal with it more productively.”Dr. Lindsey Blom
Dr. Blom—the recipient of the Mid-American Conference 2021 Outstanding Faculty Award for Student Success—incorporates a “train-the- trainer” model of teaching by collaborating with local coaches and youth sports development authorities in specific communities, which ensures that benefits derived from her programs remain after she leaves.
In 2018, the U.S. Department of State, through its mission to India’s Public Diplomacy program, funded Dr. Blom’s project, “Leadership through Sports for Jammu and Kashmir.” The $70,000 grant, paired with nearly $20,000 in support from Ball State, helped fund Dr. Blom and her
team’s year-long effort to assist local sports administrators in Jammu (located within the larger Kashmir region, a disputed geographical area between India, Pakistan, and China) and Kashmir.
The project had two phases. First, a week-long collaborative workshop was held in New Delhi, India. Second, a formal mentoring program was established that included a virtual meeting with coaches from the United States.
The focus of the workshop in the first phase included leadership and training education for coaches and administrators that focused on countering violent extremism, conflict resolution, and building positive relationships with the youth. The second phase focused on improving the knowledge of the administrators in local youth sport development programs.
An athlete, a coach, and a scholar
In the academic sphere, Dr. Blom’s research has produced articles and case studies about the effectiveness of her “soccer for peace programs.” In Peace and Development Indicators in Liberia Youth through Sport for Development Programming, published in 2020 in the Journal of Peace Psychology, Dr. Blom and her co-authors examine the impact of the Life and Change Experienced Through Sports (L.A.C.E.S) program on the youth in three Liberian communities.
The program, according to the paper, “seeks to use sport and character activities to cultivate aspects of positive youth development including social responsibility, personal relationships, peace, and purpose to support the healthy development of Liberian youth.”
A survey conducted for the study showed a slight decline in “attitudes toward violence, and increases social responsibility, purpose, and relationship with coaches,” which could greatly impact the lives of the youth in those communities.
Similarly, in Grassroots Diplomacy through Coach Education: Americans, Jordanians and Tajik, published in 2019, Dr. Blom and her co-authors examined the effectiveness of two sports diplomacy exchange programs funded by the U.S. Department of State Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. The programs, which ran in the countries of Jordan and Tajikistan, were aimed at promoting mentoring and training for local coaches to develop sport and youth development programs.
The authors, while acknowledging the limitations and challenges of such programs, note that, “using soccer within two-way sport programs designed for the common good for all involved rather than for a competitive political advantage can contribute to soft power diplomatic goals because of the global popularity of the game.”
“The Soccer groups mirror what the terrorist organizations offer in a more positive way, such as a group belonging, a sense of pride, a sense of togetherness,” Dr. Blom said. “So we can get individuals to have a positive influence on something that’s similar then maybe the youth would join that opportunity rather than a negative opportunity.”
As violent and extremist groups in some regions of the world continue to recruit vulnerable youth, programs like Dr. Blom’s offer a peaceful alternative of belonging and hope, all made possible because of her love for soccer.