It gives me great pleasure to write this article for Boston Soccer Academy and for my long time friend, Ralph Ferrigno. I would like to ring the clock all the way back to 1985 when Ralph and I first teamed up as coaches at Dartmouth College. We also decided to revamp the Upper Valley Lightning Soccer program and get soccer really buzzing in the spring months in Upper Connecticut Valley of New Hampshire. Self praise, I suppose, is no honor, but I really think we got the program running as perfectly as any youth program in the US. I would possibly go as far as to say we were the best because we hit all the key areas that are important in any youth sport.
We first of all realized that we were not going to be producing a pipe line of All Americans, although some did emerge in time, but that that the first priority was going to be that the youngsters had a good time. First and foremost it has got to be fun. I call it 'serious fun' as it is important that the youngsters learn while enjoying themselves. We wanted to create a soccer learning atmosphere where the youngsters were having a good time. I was told early in my teaching career that when you get people laughing they are also listening, and when they are listening they are soon learning.
We began with an Under 10 Clinic and an Under 12 Clinic with just 40 youngsters, boys and girls, in each, and they came along twice per week. Ralph took the 10s and I took the 12s. The trick was to have the kids playing fun soccer games where the activity taught them skills without them knowing that they were learning. We would always begin with chasing games that had not a lot to do with soccer but it broke the ice, got them running, jumping, dodging, and getting lost in the world of 'tag'. They smiled a lot, made new friends, and once they were sweating and laughing the ball would come out. Again we would come up with fun games where they would learn to conquer the ball, play fighting roosters (or hens), run the river, king of the ring, world cup, pass the squeeze and many more competitive, fun challenges.
The emphasis was very much on mastering the ball. Getting touches, dribbling, turning, bobbing and weaving with the ball. Youngsters cannot get enough touches on the ball. The key of course was good pictures and these were given by the Dartmouth players. We asked both the Men and the Women's players to take turns in coming out to be demonstrators and coaches. We usually had around 6 – 8 of them at each session and they gave wonderful pictures of what a good player should do and, of course, they were tremendous at playing the role of the fun big brother or sister. Obviously other skills like passing, scoring goals, and heading were taught in game like situations but the big emphasis was on dribbling and 1v1 games. Getting confidence with the ball is so important in the early stages. Not everyone has college players to paint the pictures but high school players can often do the same job and they will enjoy the opportunity to be mentors.
We also taught them how to compete. I am amazed when people try to take the competition out of games. Soccer is very much about competing and our job as coaches is to teach them how to compete and how to do so in the right spirit. We want them to try to win, try to be the best they can be, but also to respect their opponent. My first club was a team in Scotland called Queens Park and their motto was Ludere Causa Ludendi – play for the sake of playing. This was a fantastic statement that has stayed with me throughout my life. I was very competitive but I was always reminded from this early beginning that it was okay to compete but that I had to do so in the correct spirit.
Later as our club grew to having an U8 Clinic all 3 age group clinics expanded to 80 kids. In the small Upper Valley area of around 30,000 people we became the show in town. We also had 11-a-side teams at U14's, U16's, and U19's in both boys and girls leagues but we also made a local U14 league within the Upper Valley so there was minimal traveling. We did not have the U10's or U12's playing in competitive travel leagues as we wanted them to play small sided games where teams changed on a regular basis. Only at 16's and 19's did we go into the State League. The last thing we really wanted was to have youngsters spending their time driving all over the state. Rather than have them sitting in cars for long periods of time we would far rather have them playing in local leagues.
We also began an annual tournament on Memorial Day weekend that grew to 120 teams. We had 32 teams in each of the U10 and U12 brackets and the rest at 14's, 16's and 19's. The tournament was called the Dartmouth Cup and the interesting thing there was no cup. There were no trophies. The tournament was very competitive but we opted not to have trophies and glorified the competition not the trophy.
I would add that we had wonderful parents and I never once got the feeling that they were pressuring their sons or daughters, or, for that matter, the coaches. Any player who was out of line was quietly brought to the bench and they soon understood about the spirit of the game. Playing time was allocated fairly and if the team was winning then the stronger players would come out and, if they were losing, then the weaker players would come out. That is life and kids often understand that a lot better than the parents.
It has been fun writing about the wonderful 9 years I spent coaching youngsters in the Upper Connecticut Valley of New Hampshire and one of the nicest things that has happened is that Tommy, my oldest son, now takes a little pick up group with his own kids in a town in the Upper Valley called Lyme and calls his little group the Lyme Wolves. Tommy went to Dartmouth Medical School and runs a HIV Education organization in Africa using soccer as the medium. For those interested the organization is GrassrootSoccer (http://www.grassrootsoccer.org). I am sure that Tommy is playing many of the same games with his young charges and I hope that he, and the kids, have as much fun as we had!