Can Sport Change A Life?

Derek Poon — Head of the Intermediate Division at Upper Canada College

A true story about the impact of sport. By Derek Poon

Written By Stephanie Rudnick

“You changed my life coach!”

I was on auto pilot as I drove home from our UCC alumni event, and I couldn’t stop thinking about this comment.

It made me ask myself several questions: “What is it I really do?” “Why is this student telling me that I changed his life?” “Is it really possible to change someone’s life through sport?”

I have been a Phys-Ed teacher, the Head of Phys-Ed, and am now the Head of the Intermediate Division. During that time, I spent 3 years running baseball camps and then 20 years running my own tennis camp. In my 33-year career I have seen thousands of young men experience the good, the bad, the ugly, and the amazing aspects of sport. I guess after all this time, though, I am still amazed when a student tells me I somehow made a difference. Me, Derek Poon, a guy who never played a high-level sport.

As I to merged onto the highway I started thinking of my own sports journey. How was my passion for sport created? Suddenly, I was not on the highway at all; I was in Trinidad, or at least my mind was. I could see myself playing soccer on the fields back home. I played many sports but none of them were organized. I chuckled to myself as I remembered my two sisters and my older brother always on my case for being so emotional when I played sport. I hated losing — still do!

Despite growing up watching cricket and soccer, my cousins and I wanted to learn one thing when we landed in Canada: hockey. We spent our first winter learning how to skate, and then we just played shinny hockey whenever and wherever we could.

Sport was mostly pick-up games where I grew up. It was only when I moved to Canada at the age of twelve, along with a bunch of my cousins, that I got my first glimpse of team sports. It was hard to start playing organized sport so late in the game. In fact, I did not play any organized sport until Grade 11 at Harbord Collegiate. I remember the feeling of shyness and lack of confidence that I had back in my high school days. Even though my parents wanted me to focus completely on my studies, I did go out for the baseball, track, and hockey teams, thanks to one exceptional, caring teacher who pushed me to participate.

As I pulled off the highway it struck me that as a phys-ed teacher I had not only dedicated my life to sport, but I had also set out on a silent mission to push the kids who lacked the confidence to play organized sport to get involved. I don’t think anyone can say with 100 percent certainty that they can knowingly change lives. I know that I simply wanted to give kids the push they needed to try new things. In fact, the kids who did not play organized sports were my favourites because I knew they needed sport more than the others. That is why I structured all of my phys-ed classes like team practices, giving non-athletes the sports team experience through gym classes. My goal for class was always to make sure kids were sweating…and smiling as they sweated!

As a guy who grew up in Trinidad and then moved to Canada, I feel like I’ve been learning new sports throughout my entire life. You could say that I never excelled in any one sport but that I loved to learn and master as many sports as I could. And I know I owe my love of sport to that one push from one that great teacher. I inherited from him this mindset of helping kids find their love of physical activity and giving them the chance to learn the life lessons sport has to teach.

So, I guess it is true: it is possible to change someone’s life through sport.

As I eased my car into the garage, I realized that I could not remember the drive home; all I could remember was my reverie about sports. Suddenly I had a burning desire to look up my old teacher and tell him that he had not only changed my life but had also shaped my career, and in doing so he had touched the lives of so many young students.

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