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Obstinate obstacles

September 28, 2021

Even though sports provide a sense of comfort and unity for ELL students, there are many barriers that make it difficult to get involved. Of the 30 ELL students surveyed, 70.4% of the students wish they played a sport, but 50% believe that it is difficult to join a West high sports team. Something as simple as completing the proper forms to practice presents a unique challenge for some ELL students’ families. 

“[ELL students] miss the tryouts because they didn’t get the physical, or they didn’t know whom to contact,” St. John said. “A lot of people don’t know how to navigate those things.”

An even bigger challenge is that, unfortunately, not all students feel comfortable even trying a sport. 

“There’s a lot of kids that don’t do sports because they probably don’t speak English, and they’re scared,” Nkolobise said. “They can’t express themselves.”

Gali Flores ’22, who helped guide an ELL student through this past soccer season, has a similar opinion from an outside perspective. 

“I think that for someone who doesn’t speak English, it’s much harder to join clubs and get out there,” Flores said. “They feel like they won’t be able to communicate with others, make friends or … fit in.”

I think that for someone who doesn’t speak English, it’s much harder to join clubs and get out there. They feel like they won’t be able to communicate with others, make friends or … fit in.”

— Gali Flores '22

Since communication is one of the most crucial aspects of playing a sport, a language barrier can prove to be challenging within the game. Flores used her Spanish to help guide an ELL teammate this past soccer season. 

“I definitely feel like it was hard for her and the other teammates because they’d [give directions], and she wouldn’t understand,” Flores said. “That was another challenging part of it.”

There are also more challenges to fitting in that extend beyond language. 

“When students come here from another country, they’re already like, ‘Oh my God, I feel different than everybody else,’” St. John said. “They don’t realize that they have the possibility to join a sport.”

For many sports, tight-knit communities already exist within the West team. Joining from the outside can make the process even more intimidating. 

Ben Nkolobise ’22 eyes the ball looking for a steal against Liberty on April 13. (Owen Aanestad)

“Many of [ELL student’s] teammates have grown up playing together,” Harding said. “It’s a challenge trying to break into some guys that are very familiar playing with each other and not so much familiar with you.” 

Being on a team extends beyond competing on the field. Group activities and spending time together are crucial to building the sense of community that brings teammates together. However, as Flores looks back on helping her teammate, she believes it is especially difficult for ELL students to get involved in team bonding.

“I definitely feel like she missed out on some stuff like team dinners and photos and such. Just gatherings that we would have because I feel like no one would really reach out to her on the team. So that was another challenging part of the language barrier through sports,” Flores said. 

Participating in sports comes with added responsibilities that can put stress on other aspects of student life. Nkolobise notes that school can be harder to manage when you’re in season, especially while also trying to learn a language.

“When you have sports after school, it might be hard to manage [learning English] and focus on school,” Nkolobise said. 

Along with academics at West, he has even more responsibilities that take up time and effort outside of school. For Martinez, finding this balance has been difficult but rewarding.

“I have a lot of siblings that I have to take care of, and there’s a lot of homework to get done. I have a lot of responsibilities,” Martinez said. “I found out how to manage that stuff and now I’m going to be able to play this year.”

Although participating in a sport can come with great challenges for ELL students, War believes it is worth it in the end. 

“It was scary at first… but throughout the season, you get comfortable with people,” War said. “It’s welcoming, and you can be yourself.” 

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