September 06, 2007
Ben Boehm: 'The big lie in coaching'

Out of New York City youth club BW Gottschee have come a U.S. World Cup captain, U-20 World Cup players and a slew of pros and collegians -- but its director of coaching, Ben Boehm, says:

"The big lie in coaching is we produce players. I can honestly tell you, our club has never produced any player. The players have developed on their own.

"It doesn't mean we haven't created a little bit of an environment, but 95 to 99 percent of what that kid has done comes from within. And if you don't recognize that, you've got a major problem."

I wrote about Ben Boehm and Gottschee in the August issue of Soccer America Magazine:

Gottschee Embraces New Era

Members of the U.S. Soccer Development Academy for its inaugural 2007-08 season are mainly suburban clubs that grew out of the late 20th century's youth soccer boom. But New York City's BW Gottschee has been fielding youth teams for 50 years.

By Mike Woitalla

Ben Boehm isn't your typical Director of Coaching. He doesn't earn tens of thousands of dollars a year. In fact, he's never earned a penny from Blau-Weiss Gottschee since he arrived at the New York City club four decades ago.

He doesn't have a coaching license. And he won't brag about all the players his club has produced.

"The big lie in coaching is we produce players," says Boehm. "I can honestly tell you, our club has never produced any player. The players have developed on their own.

"It doesn't mean we haven't created a little bit of an environment, but 95 to 99 percent of what that kid has done comes from within. And if you don't recognize that, you've got a major problem."

Out of the Gottschee environment have come a U.S. World Cup captain, U-20 World Cup players, a slew of pros and collegians - and even Pele's son Edinho wore the blue and white when dad was playing with the New York Cosmos.

BW Gottschee is the oldest of the U.S. Soccer Development Academy teams. It was founded in 1951 in Ridgewood when that neighborhood in the Brooklyn and Queens boroughs was heavily populated by German immigrants and Gottscheers, who hail from a German-speaking area in what is now Slovenia.

"It was primarily known for its knitting mills and its bars," says Boehm, a retired junior high teacher. "There was a bar on almost every corner. It's where people went to congregate in those days."

Another major social activity revolved around soccer. The ethnic social clubs fielded teams in the German-American Soccer League and paid their top players.

Boehm, whose parents had emigrated from Germany's Pflaz region, was born in Brooklyn in 1938. At 14 he started playing for Pfaelzer SC in the German-American Junior League, which later became the Cosmopolitan Junior Soccer League. By 17, he was on the club's senior team.

Boehm and friends - including Dietrich Albrecht, who played in the NASL in the late 1960s - would also spend summers playing pickup soccer at Highland Park.

"We'd walk about a mile and a half to save the bus money so we could buy ice cream or something," he remembers. "We'd play from 9 in the morning until it got too hot at about 1 p.m. Then we'd go back at 4 p.m."

On Tuesday and Thursday evenings, for a few dollars they'd rent a classroom on the fifth floor of Ridgewood's Public School 77 that had been converted into a mini-gym and play small-sided games.

"It'd be like 3-on-3," he says. "The whole wall would be the goal, but you couldn't score unless you were a half yard from the wall."

At Pfaelzer SC, when he was 15, Boehm started assisting his father coaching the club's youth teams.

"My father was never a guy who told the players, 'Do this! Do that!," says Boehm. "The key thing I learned from him is he was never overbearing on the players."

When Boehm, now 68, began coaching the Gottschee youth in 1967, the club still filled its teams mainly with players from the German immigrant community. But that source eventually dried up and a new wave of immigrants came from Latin America.

"I credit Ben for breaking the ethnic barrier," says longtime Gottschee coach Milton Espinoza Sr., an Ecuadoran immigrant whose sons joined the club in the early 1970s. Espinoza and his son Milton Jr. now serve Gottschee in administrative capacities.

"It wasn't a super big issue," says Boehm, "but there's always some sort of grumbling when things start to change."

Espinoza Sr., however, recalls being turned down flatly when he approached another club about giving his kids a look. And the Espinozas credit Boehm for Gottschee's ability to evolve from an ethnic club into a mainstream youth club that welcomed American children who emerged from the youth soccer boom and kids from new immigrant groups.

Other ethnic clubs that didn't make the transition faded away when immigration patterns changed.

"Ben is the reason this remains a true club," says Espinoza Jr. "He's always on the field. He's why everyone on every team knows that we're all connected."

Espinoza Sr., who became a volunteer coach when his boys joined Gottschee, remembers the early influence Boehm had on his coaching approach.

"We had a young team that couldn't get the ball out of its own half," he said. "We had a sweeper with a big kick and I was about to have him start booting the ball down field. Ben said, 'Be patient. Be patient.'

"He explained that we wanted our kids to get comfortable with the ball, to emphasize ball control. It didn't matter if they were stuck in their own half or if they lost at that young age, because we were giving them a chance to figure things out on their own, which is how great players develop.

"Sure enough, it wasn't long before they turned into an excellent team."

Gottschee won the 1985 USYS U-16 national championship with a team coached by Boehm and Martin Petschauer.

Players from Gottschee's youth ranks include 1990 U.S. World Cup captain Mike Windischmann, Dario Brose, a member of the USA's 1989 U-20 World Cup fourth-place team, and U.S. Soccer Hall of Fame goalkeeper Arnie Mausser.

Gabriel Ferrari, a member of the 2007 U-20 World Cup team who plays for Italian Serie A club Sampdoria, played for Gottschee, as did Matthew Uy, who's in the U-17 residency camp in Bradenton.

When Boehm looks back on a half century of American players, he says: "We see many, many, many more good players. But you don't see as many players with flair, with soccer brains."

That the USA doesn't produce more exceptionally skilled, creative players despite the enormous popularity of youth soccer is something Boehm blames on overcoaching, the fact that youngsters spend little time playing soccer on their own, and the emphasis on winning at a young age.

"Kids are overcoached," he says. "We try to stop that. What we tell our coaches in the early ages is, 'You're never going to make a player. Chances are you're going to harm a player. Let them play.'"

Boehm sees the U.S. Soccer Development Academy, the new national league for U-16 and U-18 boys' teams, as an important step in putting the emphasis at youth clubs back on player development.

"You see creative players, and then within a two-, three-year period the kid fades away and you wonder why," Boehm says. "And the answer is simple. There's too much pressure from age 9 or 10 - whether you win, did you score, this type of nonsense."

The idea is that by fielding Academy teams at the older age groups, a club's younger teams will focus on skill development rather than trophy-collecting.

"The theory behind the Academy is good," says Boehm. "To a certain extent youth soccer has become dysfunctional and the Academy is set up to bring it back into balance.

"But I'm still worried about the winning angle. Of course, it should be competitive, but the clubs shouldn't be judged on how many games they win. They should be judged on whether there is a kid who can handle the ball, who can handle the pressure. Is he more than just a hard-fighting digger? Can he play with flair and he can he play at a higher level?"

(This article originally appeared in the August 2007 issue of Soccer America magazine.)