• SLM Daily: New Soccer Program For St. Louis City's Public Middle Schools Strives For A Grassroots Approach

    MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 16, 2013 / 8:49 AM

    soccer ball

    Soccer at its base is simple, cheap to equip, and, if pursued correctly, emphasizes a level of fitness and teamwork that other sports often only suggest.

    For those reasons and others, a new soccer program is planned to start this school year in the city’s 13 public middle schools. Travis Brown, director of athletics for the city’s public schools, expects  boys to play this fall and middle-school girls to have a league in the spring.

    “We look at it in various ways—it’s not just about soccer,” says Brown, a former principal of Beaumont High School. “When students participate in interscholastic activities, they tend to do better in school and do better all around. I’m a believer that sports will help the student-athlete become a well-rounded individual.”

    At a time when the district is provisionally accredited and faced with many demands on limited resources, the idea is that soccer is an economical option for students during a transitional age, providing another reason to work toward the next level of school and sports.

    Middle schools in the city currently offer flag football and basketball, and Brown hopes to begin track in the spring. He admits the inexpensive cost of soccer—beyond balls and uniforms, there isn't much required—was an incentive.

    “It’s easy to provide the equipment. It’s a fun game. It’s a team sport. And it’s simple,” says Brown.  “And with all the running, you’re talking fitness, which includes diet, health, and nutrition.”

    He also points to the increasing number of immigrant students in the city. “We have a very diverse population in our schools,” Brown says. “Soccer is said to be a universal language.”

    For those city students who haven't been exposed to the game, an added advantage is that the sport’s kick-and-run premise and lack of complicated rules at this entry level give beginners easy access.

    To make sure the uninitiated get a good start in the game, Brown has been in touch with a group of the area’s leading soccer coaches, who plan to help train and assist the middle-school coaches.

    “We want to make sure the middle-school coaches are fundamentally sound,’ says Brown. “We want to make sure the proper techniques are implanted in the coaches.”

    Brad Wos, vice president and international director of the Sports Outreach Group, has met with Brown and Martin Jenkins, the city schools’ athletic coordinator, to discuss the new soccer program. Wos, who worked in South Africa for 12 years in an outreach program that involved soccer, is using a model that the Dutch soccer team Ajax uses in its development of players.

    “We want to present a small-sided model with inductive coaching that will make the beautiful game be the teacher for the kids,” says Wos. “Our goal is to empower the coaches with a long-term strategy that will coach the whole person to build community and renew our city.”

    That means practices that include three-on-three or four-on-four scrimmages, with players getting a lot touches with the ball. The emphasis is on skill development more than game outcomes.

    To help train the coaches, Wos has involved a list of area head coaches that looks like a who’s who of St. Louis soccer, including Joe Clarke of Washington University, Scott Hartwig of Harris-Stowe State University, Ed Hueneke of Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, Carl Hutter of Lindenwood University, Terry Michler of Christian Brothers College High School, and Pete Sorber of St. Louis Community College–Florissant Valley.

    Michler has more career wins than any other high-school coach in the nation. His brother, Tom Michler, is the founder and head of New Dimensions Soccer, a nonprofit that's dedicated to bringing soccer to the underserved urban and immigrant populations. New Dimensions has had an after-school program at Mason School for five years. Tom sees the need for a middle-school soccer program in the city. “There is a very large demand for the game of soccer, and there are a growing number of SLPS personnel who recognize the value of the game, in terms of providing a healthy outlet and activity for the students,” he says. “Some of this is being driven by the influx of immigrant kids, who come from cultures where the game is revered.”

    Tom says he's been encouraged by the emphasis that Brown and Jenkins have put on “the need for quality coaching education,” and he says that New Dimensions will assist in any way it can. New Dimensions has managed low-cost, 4-vs.-4 and 8-vs.-8 leagues in the city for years, with outreach to local immigrant communities and segments of urban youth not often involved in soccer. 

    “Too many kids simply aren’t given the opportunity to play because of where they live, and we see the gap that exists in our area,” Tom says. “There is too much pay-to-play, especially at the youngest ages. We embrace a grassroots approach that emphasizes making the game available to all. The second component to a grassroots approach is that the game has to be fun. When parents are paying significant fees to play, many want to see their kids win, and we do not believe that money and early development coexist very well.”

    New Dimensions’ after-school program at Mason goes beyond soccer. It's divided into three parts, with separate groups meeting in a classroom, the gym, and the playground. A theme, such as “protecting the ball,” is demonstrated in the gym, practiced in a scrimmage on the playground, then discussed in broader terms in the classroom, relating it to how students need to protect their reputation, friends, or beliefs.

    While the immigrant students represent a group that already has an interest in soccer, Tom knows from his group’s work at Mason that there are also many interested city public-school students who historically have not been thought to be partial to soccer. “We see the SLPS as a sleeping giant for the kids, the game, and the city,” says Tom. “First of all, we’ve encountered some amazingly talented kids who have the raw ability to become very good players with just a little instruction, and they are very hungry for the game.”

    A long-standing criticism of the sport in the United States is that soccer has not been inclusive enough in urban settings and ends up excluding many African-American and minority children who too often do not get early access to play and training. That has been changing in recent years, as more African-American players are making their marks in high-level games.

    A clear example of the shift occurred in the recent USA national game against Bosnia-Herzegovina on August 14.  Three of the four USA goals in the 4-3 victory were scored by Jozy Altidore, a Haitian-American born in New Jersey. The other USA goal was scored by Eddie Johnson, an African-American born in Florida. Former Public High League star Vedad Ibisevic provided a St. Louis connection in that game. The second leading scorer on the Bosnia-Herzegovina national team, Ibisevic played at Roosevelt High School and Saint Louis University before playing professionally in Europe. Ibisevic scored for Bosnia in the first half to give his team a 2-0 lead, before he sat out the second half as the U.S. rallied.

    Chances are that many city middle-school students were aware of that game, and even those who were not will soon be given a chance to play a game that the world already knows and loves.

    “The St. Louis Public Schools making the game available to so many kids can create a tipping point of sorts for the game, both within the city and the greater St. Louis area,” Tom says. “To see that the game can be enjoyed at low expense with so many benefits for kids might open some eyes and serve to re-educate some who believe that kids have to win at early ages. Some may come to see how soccer can bring kids together and make a positive impact in how these children view the world. Greater tolerance for diversity can easily become a by-product.”