Nurturing Children's Mental Resilience through Sports!

FC Tokyo Smile Caravan brings smiles to children through sports with soccer professionals such as Ishikawa Naohiro and Kujirai Kenta. We interviewed them to learn more.
Photo: iStock

Programs Delivering All Kinds of Play and Education through Sports

What kind of initiatives for children are you currently running?

Kujirai Kenta (FC Tokyo): FC Tokyo has been running the FC Tokyo Smile Caravan. This initiative is mainly conducted in schools within Tokyo. Its primary aim is to provide children with enjoyable experiences of movement and play through physical conditioning exercises. Additionally, it seeks to convey several important life lessons. These include the significance of dreams and goals, the value of hard work and friendships, and effective ways to confront failures and setbacks. Smile Caravan consists of four programs, each with differing participants and contents.

The first is providing classes on physical conditioning by FC Tokyo's outreach staff, using the Aoaka Drill (the Blue & Red Drill), a physical education textbook distributed to younger elementary school students. This program teaches the four basic movements—balance, moving the body, operating equipment, and testing strength.

The second program is a soccer class delivered by FC Tokyo professional coaches who visit elementary schools. Not all children participating in the program will necessarily already enjoy soccer or be good at it. This is why the first objective of this class is to get the children to enjoy soccer. To ensure that all participating children enjoy the program, its first objective is to build familiarity with the ball through such activities as tapping it and bouncing it around, which gradually progress to passing and dribbling the ball.

Children learning how to move their bodies using a soccer ball.

The third program is a career education program that provides children with opportunities to think about possible future careers by hearing about work from actual working people, including FC Tokyo's professional soccer players, professional coaches from the outreach and PR departments, trainers, and nutritional advisors, etc. Using FC Tokyo as an example, children learn about the professional sports environment and the various people involved in it, encouraging them to think about the connection between working and jobs.

Ishikawa Naohiro (FC Tokyo former professional soccer player): The fourth program is the "Aoaka (Blue & Red) Dream Classes" initiative, which aims to nurture children's future mental resilience by sharing with them the experiences of former professional soccer players. In these classes, drawing from my own background in the soccer world, I show children how to cultivate dreams, seize opportunities, and handle difficulties and setbacks, all in an approachable way. The children are then asked to imagine that these were their own experiences, and to present what they would do.

— Through the Smile Caravan, you provide opportunities for creating smiles and shaping children's dreams!  Could you tell us about the history, reasons, and inspiration for starting this kind of children's program?

Kujirai: Initially, there was a discussion within FC Tokyo about whether we could work with local governments to create opportunities for children to smile and experience joy. In this context, we launched the Caravan Squad, the predecessor program to Smile Caravan, and we developed physical education classes for children in Fuchu City, Chofu City, Kodaira City, Koto City, and other parts of Tokyo.

Subsequently, the four programs mentioned above were each launched to meet the needs of local governments and schools, but last year we suggested packaging these programs together as the FC Tokyo Smile Caravan, uniting them into one. At the moment, schools and boards of education that want to offer classes to bring out the best experiences and interests of children are asked, "Which of the four programs would you like to take?" Framing them as a menu makes it easier to choose from among them.

Ishikawa: The J-League and the various clubs have been working to strengthen ties with the community and society, and so FC Tokyo launched this initiative with the desire to deepen the ties with the community and with children. In addition to the professional soccer players and coaches, FC Tokyo has specialists in a wide range of fields, including sales, public relations, management, outreach coordination, and more. The club has been thinking more broadly about what it can do to take advantage of this abundance of human resources, which has led to its current efforts.

Connecting with Children and the Community via Two-way Communication with Professional Athletes and Coaches

— What are the strengths and points of appeal of these programs?

Ishikawa: I think the programs' strength lies in their capacity to convey the attitudes of individuals who have pursued sports as professionals, as well as those of professional coaches, regarding their approach to opponents, their work, and their perspectives on opportunities and challenges, all within easy reach of children. The Aoaka Classes involve not only children but also their parents and guardians. I believe that one of the key points of this program is that it allows people to build mutual relationships through face-to-face communication.

Kujirai: During Aoaka Dream Classes, I give lectures that the children will find relatable, and I emphasize the importance of respecting the opinions expressed by the children. Rather than one-way communication, two-way communication makes the children smile and feel connected with their parents or guardians and the community. I believe that one of the program's attractions is that not only children but also the teachers who collaborate in designing the classes can enjoy and benefit from it. This leads to new connections, creating a cycle of meaningful interactions.

Two-way communication between Ishikawa and children in the Aoaka Dream Class.

What obstacles or difficulties did you encounter, either before or after starting the project? And how did you overcome them?

Kujirai: In expanding our cooperation with local governments, when we developed new initiatives in areas where FC Tokyo was not heavily involved, we sometimes had difficulties because people weren't yet familiar with FC Tokyo's initiatives. In the future, we aim to further reinforce our external PR so that more people will become aware of FC Tokyo's initiatives, enabling us to develop them more widely.

Ishikawa: One difficulty of the Blue & Red Dream Classes was that the children who had prior experience playing soccer easily understood what I was saying, but the children with no experience had trouble understanding. So I used not only the soccer angle, but also other approaches that children would understand, asking them to reflect on the game using such phrases as "I was smaller than the other players and so it was difficult for me," or "My opponent prevented me from making the kind of play I'm good at," and so on. This both helped the children to understand the story and encouraged them to speak up. The greatest challenge is that the children's willingness to listen makes me want to talk more, and time is always running short!

What kind of impressions or opinions have you received from children actually taking part in the program?

Kujirai: Well, children who had always enjoyed soccer said it became more fun for them. We also received feedback from children who did not necessarily enjoy soccer or exercise, who said things like, "The classes helped me enjoy soccer and exercise a bit more," and "It was the most fun physical education class I have ever taken." A school teacher said, "After the program, the atmosphere in the class was more energized." The next time I saw a child who had attended a class, he told me, "I went to Ajinomoto Stadium (the home stadium of FC Tokyo) to watch the soccer the other day!" I was really happy to hear that.

Ishikawa: One thing I heard from the children that made me really happy was, "I realized that not being able to do something is not necessarily bad. So I'm just going to keep doing what I can, step by step." That's the overall feeling I got. And when I see them writing their impressions after the class, I know they've understood the message, that they've made it their own, and it makes me want to connect with children even more.

It must feel great to hear feedback like that! Have you seen any changes in your staff after taking part in the program?

Kujirai: Well, it is rewarding for the staff participating in the program to see how the children grow to love soccer, the stadium, and the club through physical exercise and contact with FC Tokyo. As a member of the outreach program, I hope that through this initiative, the children not only come to love sports and become good at soccer, but also grow as human beings. We encourage our staff to promote this, and in fact, when our staff speak enthusiastically to the children, they in turn respond with enthusiasm, saying "I want to do this, I want to be like this," which is very rewarding. Through the Smile Caravan program, I feel that a certain awareness has taken root within our organization—that while technical improvement is important, it is also important to see children as human beings and approach them in unique ways.

Children experiencing soccer with the Smile Caravan.

Helping Bring Smiles to Children's Faces through Sports by Expanding the Program Even Further

Could you tell us about your vision for the future; for example, further improvement or expansion of the initiatives currently offered?

Kujirai: We hope to expand the current Smile Caravan to more municipalities in Tokyo. Before the pandemic, we conducted about 150 sessions a year, reaching around 10,000 people, but when COVID-19 happened, attendance really dropped off. Now that the situation has settled somewhat, we would like to proactively extend our programs to more children in more areas, so that we can bring smiles to more people.

In addition to the current programs, could you tell us about any new programs you are planning to implement?

Kujirai: The Smile Caravan is currently being implemented for children, but in future, we will also devote our efforts to training school teachers as well. At the moment, we already provide opportunities to learn our methods, expertise, and approaches for running physical education classes, not only for school teachers but also for boards of education. Through these opportunities, we hope to pass on the expertise of professional coaches and lay the groundwork for teachers to keep providing better physical education classes to children. The need for FC Tokyo to provide more specialized instruction will increase as club activities are outsourced to the private sector. We wish to create connections between teachers and FC Tokyo, which in turn will lead to further connections and a further expansion of our efforts.

A professional coach conducting training for school teachers.

Continuing Efforts so that Children can Learn the Importance of Respecting Others and Learning about Themselves in the Process

Finally, do you have a message for children and other companies or organizations?

Ishikawa: What we prioritize as the basis of the Smile Caravan, especially in the Blue & Red Dream Classes, and what we want children to prioritize as well, is respecting others and learning about oneself in the process. We want children to learn to respect their opponents through sports. We hope that through sports, they will grow into their own unique, individual selves. We will keep doing our best so that in the future, their lives will become richer and more fun after taking part in the FC Tokyo program.

Kujirai: I would like to encourage companies and organizations to make the most of FC Tokyo's efforts. We want to collaborate with companies and organizations that share our desire to create laughter and fun times for children through soccer and other sports. It can be difficult to create something from nothing, but if we work together, we can overcome this difficulty. If there is anything we can do together, we would very much like to pursue it!

— Thank you very much for such a wonderful message!

FC Tokyo's efforts to bring smiles to the faces of local children through sports and exercise with its professional soccer players and coaches demonstrate how a professional soccer club can truly be an integral part of the Tokyo community.

FC Tokyo

Tel: +83-(0)42-444-2630

Translation by Amitt

*This article was originally published on "The Tokyo Metropolitan Government Children's Smile Movement" (Feb 24, 2023).