Interview with Lesley de Jonge by Matt Goolding
"It's unfair that you can be born in a poor village in the hills of Nepal, or you can be born with a million-dollar trust fund in Manhattan. Where there is richness on one side, there's equal poverty and abuse on the other. This 'lottery of birth' makes me angry, and motivates me to drive real change."
Returning from coaching the Nepalese national volleyball team in 2018, Lesley de Jonge had a mission to tackle imbalance and inequality. That's why he set up Let's Keep the Ball Flying, the Netherlands-based non-profit foundation which drives social development worldwide through the power of volleyball.
"For me, changing people's lives for the better is my purest motivation. That's the thing that underlines everything - and I think volleyball is a great vehicle for making a difference to communities."
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Lesley has big plans for the foundation, which already has the backing of the Fédération Internationale de Volleyball (FIVB) and the Dutch Volleyball Association. But it all comes down to that central mission - tackling what he calls the "lottery of life".
We sat down for a chat, to find out what's been motivating him since the start of his career, and how his coaching in Nepal inspired the foundation. We spoke about what lies ahead, too - and why volleyball is so well-placed to tackle the social imbalances across the world.
"Volleyball has huge potential," Lesley says. "As a sport, it's really just connected to kindness".
From Playing to Coaching: Lesley's Passion for Volleyball
Lesley's volleyball career started early - and, like all young athletes, he wanted to be the best. "From the age of five, until I was 18 or 19, there was no life but volleyball for me," he says. "That's what I did everything for: choosing my high school, my degree - none of this mattered as much as the training."
Yet, it didn't take long for him to see that his real passion lay elsewhere.
"When I was, say, 14, I knew that one day I would be a coach. But, by 18, I already wanted that more than I wanted to be a good player. Although I was nearly at the highest level in the Netherlands, the coaching life became more important to me. I really enjoyed helping my team to improve."
From this point on, Lesley put all his energies into coaching. He studied for training degrees and worked with different clubs in volleyball and beyond. But he took an unconventional approach to his education - and this has helped him build networks within volleyball that now help power Let's Keep the Ball Flying.
"I'd basically ask some of the best coaches in the world if they'd have me in their program. I didn't need to be paid; I'd just be there doing what they wanted while I'd learn. This gave me the experience I needed to work with top clubs and coaches - and ultimately took me to Nepal."
"When you reach out to people directly or dare to ask," he adds, "a lot of good things can happen - as long as you're willing to work for it."
The Nepal Adventure: Lesley's International Coaching Opportunity
At 27, Lesley was invited to coach the Nepalese volleyball team towards the 2018 Asian Games in Indonesia. It would be his first experience leading a national team - and it would test all of the coaching and man-management skills that he'd learned so far during his career.
"When you're working with a national team in a different country, the only thing you do is wake up, eat, train, sleep. Especially when there's a tournament to prepare for. There's nothing really beyond volleyball; the only thing you think about is how to improve the team."
Yet, here, Lesley needed to try a different approach. As he points out, the team wasn't ranked at all with the FIVB when he arrived - and it hadn't been in the Asian Games for 33 years. "It was going to be tough," Lesley explains, "because everybody knew that we probably wouldn't win a single match".
But this laid the foundations for a new mindset in Lesley. Rather than aiming only to win, Lesley focused his training on the team's greatest asset: their love for the game.
"In Nepal, I learned that changing your team's attitude is a crucial part of coaching. That's your real purpose. So, our idea was that we wanted the people of Asia to associate Nepal not just with the sport, but with friendliness and happiness too. Whilst other team coaches were saying 'don't talk to us, we need to focus', we were recognized for our attitude and our gratitude," he says.
"This was a great experience. In the beginning, I was actually quite a selfish person. I just wanted to win, and to be the best at everything. I couldn't stand losing. But, in Nepal, it became a different game entirely. It all became about enjoying the journey, bringing meaning and happiness to people."
Winning the Silver Medal With the Nepal Women's Team
This change in attitude and approach would have lasting effects on Lesley's view of volleyball and the world more broadly. Ultimately, it was this that inspired him to establish Let's Keep the Ball Flying.
"I made the highest level in the Netherlands, but I realized in Nepal that that's not a life that I particularly cared for. Life should be more than that; it should have a deeper purpose. Of course, I still want to be a great coach working with great teams, but that shouldn't be everything," he says.
"Instead, I wanted to try to make sense of what was important in life, not just the materialistic things and status. I wanted to give back, to change society."
To this end, Lesley speaks about his experience with Nepal's women’s team, where he was working to advise the head coach. The team won a silver medal in the 2019 South Asian Games, which was a particularly important moment for him - but also the nation as a whole.
"We had decided to put all our energies into team-building, into bringing the team together, into building bonds and confidence. People never expected us to win the silver medal. But if people believe in something, they get confidence, and we gave a fantastic fight."
"These days, the materialistic parts of success just don't mean so much to me. If I were to win another medal, I'd give it to one of the people who doesn't usually get the recognition - the cleaners, or those who prepare the court. For me, volleyball is now much more about bringing people together."
Using Volleyball to Fix the Unfair Imbalance of Life
It is the togetherness that makes volleyball such a powerful force for driving social development, says Lesley.
"Volleyball has a vast reach, a huge potential, and it's connected to kindness. The volleyball community that we belong to is a special community - in which bonds are naturally built between people across the world through a shared love of teamwork, sport, and fun."
Let's Keep the Ball Flying wasn't just started because Lesley knows the sport. Rather, he knows that volleyball builds valuable communities within teams, and across the sporting world as a whole. And this makes it intrinsically powerful in addressing what he calls the "imbalance of life" in poor countries.
"The biggest thing for me is that there are very rich people in one place and extremely poor people elsewhere. And we have to try to manage that - that's exactly why I built this foundation," he says.
"Once, in Nepal, we met a girl who had suffered abuse and all sorts of trauma - and she was only 13. But when we gave her and the other girls a second-hand volleyball jersey, she said she felt for the first time that she belonged to something. I'll never forget that. It really put into perspective the unfairness of life. And this sense of community is exactly what makes volleyball a great vehicle for social change."
Future Projects for Let's Keep the Ball Flying
Lesley's experiences in coaching made him see the world differently, but they've also given him the contacts to make change happen. These are now playing a crucial role in Let's Keep the Ball Flying.
"Our foundation has a big network, due to my travels and my luck in encountering great people like Giovanni Guidetti, Mark Lebedew, Gabi Guimares, and many others. Now, I want to link this network up with local projects and local ambassadors. There are so many other foundations doing excellent work separately, but I want to connect them with sponsors and bring our community closer together. That's the difference that Let's Keep the Ball Flying can make by using the power of the volleyball family."
One of the foundation's upcoming initiatives is The Happiness Project, inspired by that time they donated second-hand volleyball jerseys from a Dutch volleyball club.
With so much gear stashed in the cupboards of professional volleyball teams in the west, the idea is to use any surplus to tackle life's imbalance. Lesley's belief is that this gear should go to happier homes who need it more - and bring joy to others, just like the jersey did to the girls they met in Nepal.
"I'm so excited about this project. I just want to find communities all over the world - to bring clothes, balls, materials to people who appreciate it, and to let them play volleyball!"
Enjoying the Journey Ahead for Let's Keep the Ball Flying
Finally, we talked about the biggest challenges Lesley has faced while building Let's Keep the Ball Flying.
"Patience," he says, without hesitation. "I wish the foundation was growing and flowing already. But that's my own personal challenge. I have to keep reminding myself that as long as I have patience and work hard, the funds will come, we'll grow, and more people will invest in us to drive positive change."
Lesley's first target is to reach 1,000 LKTBF Dreamteam members before the 2022 Women’s World Championship, which will be hosted in the Netherlands. And he wants to grow initiatives such as the SociaBall Project - designing a volleyball that's easy to make, cheap, and durable. Alongside supporting FIVB's GoodNet Project and other programs, this is the type of work that LKTBF members can expect.
"Lots of top players have told me that they've never done something like this, but that they'd love to. Now, everybody's excited, everybody wants to join Let's Keep the Ball Flying," he says. "At the same time, we need to keep patience. Enjoying the journey is the most important thing. That's the main challenge!"