Soccer kicks for diplomacy in Saudi Arabia
Maren Hendershot McCrary has soccer in her blood. Growing up in Colorado Springs, she routinely traveled to Denver to play with a more competitive club; then in college for Brigham Young University, and then professionally before retiring after an injury.
But retirement did not mean McCrary stepped away from soccer. She stayed involved in the industry through coaching, teaching and league administrative positions.
McCrary is part of a sports envoy program run by the United States Department of State. The Sports Diplomacy (SD) program is “the best kept secret in the State Department,” stated Ashleigh Huffman, director of the SD division, in a Los Angeles Times story from earlier this year.
Sports envoy representatives travel to foreign countries and connect with local communities to train coaches in classroom settings and on-field practice time. “As part of the SD program, our primary goal is to use sports to foster positive relationships, build bridges of understanding, and enlighten and encourage a better understanding of different cultures,” McCrary explained.
McCrary participated in SD trips to Montenegro in 2022 and to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) earlier this year. Going to KSA was the culmination of four-years work.
In 2019, she was part of a coach-exchange program. Ten coaches from KSA came to the U.S. in partnership with the U.S. Soccer Federation and United Soccer Coaches. McCrary and another coach had planned to travel to KSA in November 2019, but the trip was canceled at the last minute due to changing gender policies – women were banned from attending the clinics and workshops. The past four years have brought a lot of cultural changes for women in KSA. Physical education was introduced to girls in school in 2021.
Earlier this year, McCrary was asked if she was still interested in a SD trip to KSA. She was. Partnering with the Saudi Arabian Football Federation (SAFF), McCrary and the envoy visited three cities: the capital Riyadh, Jeddah and Dammam, with set goals to teach, train and develop the next generation of female Saudi soccer players.
The lack of physical opportunities for older girls presented some challenges for McCrary and her team.
“In our field clinics, we could see the difference in gross motor skills with the younger 12-year-old players versus the 20-year-old players who had no PE throughout their childhood,” McCrary said. “The lack of eye-hand and eye-foot coordination and gross motor skill development meant the older girls needed more time on the very basic skills and drills.”
Another challenge for McCrary and the SD was teaching coaches, with no soccer experience, how to teach and coach kids with no soccer experience. “It is humbling to realize the things we take for granted in the U.S. – like boys AND girls getting to participate in physical education or playing soccer starting at three or four years old,” McCrary reflected.
The trip opened McCrary’s eyes to the misconceptions we often have about others. “I found the Saudis were warm, kind-hearted, non-judgmental, curious, deeply committed, faithful people who were excited to learn,” she stated. She witnessed the SD program working as it was designed to: bringing cultures together for mutually positive experiences.
She was impressed with the recent social growth and equal rights in KSA. “SAFF is paving a new path for themselves when it comes to equal rights and opportunities in soccer,” McCrary said. Male and female national soccer teams get the same pay and at least one female is required on staff for each national team to ensure there is continued mentorship for female coaches.
KSA is slated to host the World Cup in 2034. McCrary is excited for the world to get a glimpse of Saudi soccer as she did, especially the positive social and gender-equality changes. “Teaching soccer coaches in KSA was one of the more interesting and enlightening experiences of my coaching and teaching career. I am grateful I was able to be a small part of it!” she exclaimed.
By Celeste McNeil; photos courtesy of Maren McCrary