December 23, 2011
'Put best coaches at youngest ages' (Q&A with Mustang's Fred Wilson)

The Youth Soccer Insider continues its interview series with youth club leaders by talking with Fred Wilson, the Boys Coaching Director of Northern California's Mustang Soccer, a club-slash-league with nearly 5,000 players under its umbrella.

Interview by Mike Woitalla (from Soccer America's Youth Soccer Insider)

SOCCER AMERICA: What do you look for in coaches?

I think the first rule, which we all believe in at the club, is -- good for kids first; good for soccer second. And when you can find both, you’ve hit a home run.

There are a lot of guys out there who have a great deal of experience in the soccer world, but being with 10- and 11-year-olds proves to be a big challenge for them.

We look for people who understand children, understand what helps kids enjoy learning.

If somebody has just some soccer experience, we can work with that piece of it more than we can with someone who has limited experience dealing with kids. The soccer part of it, we can educate, we can work with them, there’s courses out there.

But I think it takes a unique individual, an inspired individual … people who played soccer and they go into teaching … I think about a third of our staff are teachers in some capacity and I think they’re some of our best coaches because they had experience in the game and they know how to relate to the kids.

For those people who have that quality and have that ability – I think they recognize that it’s not difficult to help kids have fun and enjoy doing something. I think people who don’t understand that quality have difficulty.

We look at their soccer experience, we look at their soccer expertise, no question. But more importantly we look at their experience with kids and how that has translated over the years.

SA: We seem to all agree that the key to becoming an exceptional player – and the main ingredient of teams that play good soccer – is individual skill. Optimally, the skill would come from children playing lots of soccer on their own, but because that’s not the case in general, how do coaches balance skill training with ensuring the kids are having fun?

You have to find that balance – and that’s why you put your best coaches with the youngest ages. Those coaches know how to run a practice where the kids are learning but their minds are on how much fun they’re having.

There are a hundred fun exercise games you can play with littler kids. Tag games. Games with the ball at their feet. Coordination drills mixed with games.

You’re not trying to create super dribblers at age 7, but to inspire them to have a love affair with the ball. Everything is about a love affair with the ball, a love affair with the game.

Maybe it looks silly to some people watching, but when they’re playing freeze tag with the ball -- and part of the requirement is to keep the ball at your feet -- the comfort with the ball becomes something.

SA: There has been a lot of talk, action and investment from the U.S. Soccer Federation to improve player development. But what else is needed?

The Academy is a great step, the directions from the Federation are great steps. All those things are the right things.

The one thing I want to see more is that it’s not just about trying to change soccer at the older levels, it’s a culture we’re trying to change at the younger levels.

My job with our grass-roots programs, which I would love to see more of a mandate from the federation at all levels, is to get 5-, 6-, 7-, 8-year-old little boys to love soccer so much that at the end of the day, they say, mom, dad, this is all I want to do. I just want to play soccer. I don’t want to do anything else.

I don’t ever want to say to them, “You have to give up other sports.” I don’t want kids to not be able to kids.

But it’s a cultural change we’re going through in this country and I think anything we can do at the grassroots level – and a lot of youth clubs understand that -- to help promote the culture in that regard will pay off in the long run.

SA: Mustang Soccer is a club-slash-league with nearly 5,000 youth players under its umbrella. What are the benefits of the “full-service” club model?

The benefits are the number of good people who are involved and the club culture that develops -- people wanting to a part of it regardless of what level they’re in.

We have a place for every kid to play if they want to be a part of our club.

SA: And the challenges?

The sheer volume. The 2,200-plus home games during the regular season. The management of so many different people and personalities -- and getting them to buy into a single philosophy.

Where that makes us better as a club and makes us strong is we’re consistent in our message from our board of directors down to our coaching staff to our directors on the field about coaching education and player development.

(Fred Wilson, Mustang Soccer’s Boys Coaching Director, has coached at the Northern California club since 1990 and is also the Manager of the San Jose Earthquakes’ U.S. Soccer Development Academy program. Wilson, formerly a high school english teacher at Cal High, coached the Monte Vista High School boys soccer team in 1998-2005.)

Youth Soccer Insider Interviews 2011
Tim Schulz (Rush Soccer)
Charlie Slagle (CASL)
Cony Constin (Westside Metros)
Tab Ramos (NJSA 04)
Hassan Nazari (Dallas Texans)
Tom Howe (Woodson City Rangers)
Theresa Echtermeyer (Colorado United)
Miriam Hickey (Vardar East)
Wilmer Cabrera (U.S. U-17s)
George Kuntz (AYSO)
Brad Rothenberg (Alianza de Futbol)
Joe Cummings (NSCAA)
Claudio Reyna (U.S. Soccer)
Tad Bobak (So Cal Blues)
Manny Schellscheidt (U.S. U-14s)
Richie Williams (U.S. U-18s)
Derek Armstrong (Nomads) Part 2
Jurgen Klinsmann (U.S. Soccer) Part 2

December 14, 2011
Tackling gay issues in sports

The hardships faced by gay teens inspired the coming-out of former University of North Carolina star David Testo after nearly a decade of pro soccer in MLS, the USL and NASL. We contacted longtime soccer coach and journalist Dan Woog, the author of five books on gay and lesbian issues, to comment on the importance of pro athletes coming out and to offer advice for coaches on how to combat the homophobia that can torment gay and questioning teens.

Interview by Mike Woitalla (from Soccer America's Youth Soccer Insider)

SOCCER AMERICA: Last month, David Testo became the first North American professional soccer player to come out as gay. He cited among the reasons for coming out reports of suicides among gay teens. What was your reaction to Testo's coming out and his view that more professional athletes doing so could help "normalize this issue?"

David Testo's coming out was a very important step. We've seen athletes in individual sports (swimming, tennis, golf, etc.) come out; we've seen athletes in team sports in other countries come out (rugby, Anton Hysen in soccer, etc.). We've seen Rick Welts come out as an NBA executive, and the reaction when Brendan Burke, the gay son of NHL executive Brian Burke, died.

But David Testo is the first male athlete in a major American team sport to come out. We're still waiting for the first active player -- in one of the "bigger" sports like football, basketball or baseball -- to come out. But this is another big step on that road.

As for his view that professional athletes coming out "normalize" the issue: absolutely. Sports is the very last "closet" -- we've got openly gay politicians, entertainers, actors, teachers, clergy, you name it. The only segment of society where gay people are still not open is professional sports.

"Normalization" is crucial -- for everyone to see that gay people are everywhere. It's not good, it's not bad; it's just a fact of life. And that "normalization" is important not just for gay youth -- who need positive role models -- but for straight people (especially young people) as well.

They will grow up and live in a world with all kinds of people around them. To realize that some of their sports heroes are gay is an important message to straight kids too.

SA: The bullying of LGBT teens sparked the creation of the "It Gets Better Project." Among the professional sports teams – including baseball's Giants, Cubs, Dodgers, Phillies and Red Sox -- that created videos for the campaign, was D.C. United, and the Seattle Sounders took part in one. How important is it for pro sports to be involved in this campaign and for soccer teams to be a part of it?

Hugely important. For better or worse, youngsters take many of their cues from sports. If they hear fans chanting "Yankees Suck," or hear sports figures talking smack about opponents, they think it's OK to do that in high school (or below).

Conversely, if they hear (or hear about) teams taking a stand against anti-gay language -- or hear sports figures telling all kids who are bullied (for whatever reason) that "it gets better," that makes a bigger impact than most adults imagine. The key, of course, is getting those videos -- or those remarks -- in front of young people.

SA: Testo mentioned he "heard tons of gay slurs" when he attended a game at his old high school in North Carolina. What impact does it have on a gay teen, or on teens unsure of their sexual orientation, to hear those words?

There are two parts of the answer. The first is, it has an enormous impact on gay or questioning teens. Wow, they think -- I can never come out. My teammates would hate me. They won't trust me. I'll ruin the team chemistry. I won't be able to play any more. And they start thinking -- worrying -- about that, and as a result they can't concentrate on what they should be concentrating on, which is the training or game or school or whatever.

The second part is, those words have an even greater impact when they are accepted as "part of the culture," or when they are not addressed. First, the gay or questioning kid thinks (subconsciously, or even consciously), "Wow, the coach doesn't let anyone use the n-word, and he even got mad when someone called his girlfriend 'my bitch.' But he doesn't say anything about 'faggot' or 'homo' -- so I must really be a bad person.”

And the message that gets sent to straight players when no one addresses those words is: "It's OK to use them. You can't say 'nigger' or anything else bad, but you can say 'faggot.'" That's a very subtle lesson -- but it's a powerful one.

SA: What should a coach do when he hears gay slurs from his players?

He should not make a huge deal of it. He should just address it in his own style. Some coaches can use humor: "This training session is gay? Does it really like other training sessions?"

Some can use a teachable moment: "Hey -- I don't want to hear that anymore. You know we talk about respect all the time. You never know who you might be offending -- the bus driver, someone with a gay uncle -- it doesn't matter. Knock it off."

Some can use a personal example: "You know, my sister is a lesbian. I love her very much -- and she's a better soccer player than you'll ever be. Please don't use that word around me again."

Many coaches are afraid to address it, because they worry what players will think: "Is he gay?" Well, they don't worry that players will think he's black if he stands up against the n-word, or a woman if he doesn't allow anti-female slurs, or a dog if he stands up for animal rights!

SA: Is homophobia a problem in youth soccer?

I'd call it "homo-ignorance." By that I mean ignorance on the part of adults that many athletes are gay, and ignorance about the power of anti-gay language. They're ignorant because they don't see gay athletes at the pro level, and they don't realize kids on their teams are gay, questioning, or have gay friends or relatives.

Which brings us back to the point of David Testo's coming-out being so important.

SA: Is there more homophobia in sports than in other sectors of society?

I think there's more overt anti-gay language, and less recognition of gay people and gay issues. That's partly because sports has been very male-dominated in the past; any sign of weakness is looked down on, and homosexuality has in the past been associated with "male weakness."

It's also because sports is hierarchical -- you do what you're told by the coach, and when you become a coach you coach the way your coaches coached -- though that is changing rapidly.

SA: Do you think gay or lesbian teens should come out to their teammates?

Every situation is different. Many gay youth -- far more than most people realize -- are out to at least a few teammates, at the high school and college level. But many are not yet ready to come out -- the climate is unsafe, they worry about family reactions or the climate at school or what opponents will say if the word gets out -- and those are valid concerns.

I always tell players that they will know when they are ready to come out, and they should come out for the right reasons -- not because they feel pressure to. Interestingly, no player has ever come out to me while he's been on one of my teams -- and that's normal. After graduation, they do come out to me.

SA: Suppose a coach notices a player is depressed and suspects it’s because the player is struggling with the issue of sexual orientation, should the coach ever broach the subject with the player?

No. If something is going on with a kid, I might say, “You don’t really seem to be yourself. … You seem really distracted …” or “You’re not smiling the way you usually do. … Is there something I should know about?" That’s all.

When I think a player is depressed or distracted, I’m not going to say, “Are your parents getting divorced? … Does your father have cancer?” or anything like that. Even if I knew it, I would never say it.

I would never put a kid on the spot like that. It’s what we talk about a lot at the youth group I work with. I’m a facilitator at GLBT youth group, and kids say, “My mother asked me a year ago if I was gay and I freaked out. I wasn’t ready for it.”

Coming out, whether it’s to a parent, a friend, a coach or a teammate, really should be on the kid’s own terms.

SA: What is it that can make life so difficult for gay or questioning teens?

I think the term “in the closet” is very apt because nobody lives in a closet. You live in your bedroom, your living room, your kitchen. In the closet there’s no light, no ventilation, spiders in the corner. ...

Being gay is this thing you’re carrying around, you’re trying to figure out, “What’s my life going to be like? ... Am I ever going to meet anybody? …” You’re going through all that and you’re worried at the same time, in the athletic context, “Oh God, everybody’s talking about the team and we all have to rely on each other. What if somebody finds out about me? Will they turn their back on me? Will they tease me? Will I be the one who disrupts the whole team?"

And you have nobody to talk to about it really, because you can’t point to this gay coach, or these gay athletes, or this guy on the team last year who’s gay. You can’t point to anybody unless you find Outsports.com or read about the very few David Testos of the world. There’s no way of reconciling your gay identity, which is important to you because it’s who you are, with your sports identity, which is important to you because that too is who you are.

(Dan Woog is the head coach of the Staples High School boys soccer program in Westport, Conn. The Wreckers have won four league championships in the last six years, and their 12th state title overall in 2010. An openly gay man, Woog has written two books on gay athletes, the “Jocks” series, and currently writes a nationally syndicated column on gay sports, “The OutField.” His web site is danwoog.com.)