sarah pickens.jpgSoccer has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. From playing on recreational youth teams, to college, and now to my job today, soccer has been there.

While learning the fundamentals of the game was the objective, I also learned there was much more to soccer than the physical skill set. Soccer taught me sportsmanship and how to work on a team. It taught me how to handle unexpected challenges and use critical thinking to evaluate the situation. It even taught me to reach for water when I might have grabbed a soda.

While some skills did not come as quickly as others, I could a

lways lean on the mentorship and guidance of my coaches and teammates for support. It was in these moments that I realized the skills I learned through the game would translate to my life after the final whistle.

Knowing the impact soccer can have is why we at the U.S. Soccer Foundation work to make soccer accessible to all children across the country. Our program, Soccer for Success, is an evidence-based group mentoring program designed to combat childhood obesity and foster character development among children from underserved communities.

Soccer for Success provides kids with not only a coach but a mentor. Coach-mentors teach kids the fundamentals of soccer, but also strive to help children build confidence and recognize the value of hard work, teamwork, and persistence in achieving personal goals. By learning what it takes to play a team sport, kids are also being prepared to be productive citizens.

We would like to share some of the practices that we find to be the most effective and important in creating a positive relationship between our coach-mentors and mentees that help cultivate these critical life skills.

Establish the Foundation

At the basis of every relationship is a foundation. For coaches, mentors, and youth, a strong foundation is imperative. And while the foundation must be present at the beginning, it is equally important that it be maintained and strengthened to last.

At its essence, the foundation is team culture. When a positive team culture exists, it creates a safe environment that allows for learning and fun to flourish. Meaningful connections and the building of good character cannot develop without the support of a positive team culture. To create a strong team culture, we recommend four actions: set your coach-mentor motto, understand the youth you serve, establish team values, and establish a team code.

Create your Coach-Mentor Motto

A coach-mentor motto is made up of positive characteristics that coach-mentors are committed to embodying throughout the season. It reminds coach-mentors who they want to be for their players, and why they coach. While every coach-mentor motto can be unique, we use one that emphasizes three qualities central to developing successful coach-to-player connections using the S.E.E. acronym: Support, Empower, Empathize. We ask our coach-mentors to S.E.E. their players all season long.

Understand the Youth You Serve

Be intentional! Gathering information about your players and your community is essential to creating a positive team culture. Why is understanding your players and their community important to facilitating good character through sports? By understanding the strengths and challenges of your players and communities, a coach will be better equipped to serve them as a coach-mentor.

Establish Team Values

Your team values are the character traits each player will strive to embody as a member of the team. These traits derive from your team and therefore should represent what the team believes. To capture a team’s desired values, think of the following questions: what character traits do your players want to embody? How will your team do things? Agree on 2-3 character traits that both the coach and players are passionate about.

Once established, the coach should define each value with their players so that everyone understands what it means to embody each character trait. Coaches can reinforce these values by celebrating players when they embody the values throughout the season.

Establish a Team Code

While having strong team values will help prevent behavioral problems by providing players with the positive characteristics they should embody as a member of the team, there will be times when players stray from the team values, and, therefore, it is important to have a team code. Team codes are made up of the 3 rules/boundaries that are important to the team. Like the team values, it is important that players are included in the process of creating the code. By having the players create the team code, it ensures buy-in from all players.

An effective team code must be accompanied by fair and reasonable consequences. These consequences should be restorative and encourage participants to be accountable for their actions and find ways to make things right. These can include: apologies, service to the team, and other agreed-upon ways to make amends and move forward.

Whether you are a Soccer for Success coach-mentor or the head coach of the U.S. National Team, any coach can make an impact in their players’ lives. Remember to celebrate successes and reflect on challenges that players overcome. Everyone has the power to help youth grow and reach their full potential! I urge you to S.E.E. your players all season long on and off the field.

Sarah Pickens is the Director of Programs at the U.S. Soccer Foundation. Prior to joining the Foundation, Sarah worked in the field of teacher education, at both the American Association for Colleges of Teacher Education (AACTE) and the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE). She started all four years for the women’s varsity soccer team while attending Duke University, receiving All-America, All-South, All-ACC, and ACC Honor Roll accolades.

Want to hear more great tips from the U.S. Soccer Foundation? Sarah will be presenting at the 2017 National Forum on Character Education in Washington, DC! There’s still time to register and join us.