Thursday, June 28, 2012

End of an Era

I have been fortunate, as a coach, to have probably more than my fair share of mentors in the profession, going all the way back to Steve Chronister, my basketball coach for five years in elementary and middle school.  They include coaches that I have played for, managed under, studied under, been an assistant for, and worked with in the same athletic department.  Virtually all of them have had illustrious careers at a higher level than whenever I played for/worked for/worked with them.  Like I said, I have been pretty lucky in that regard.  I bring this up because one of these people, Richie Burke, who coaches a sport that I have never really played in an organized form, has gotten a chance to return to the professional coaching ranks after well over a decade of running the incredibly well-oiled machine that is the National Cathedral School soccer program.  And although I don't know that Richie ever intended to serve as a guide, he has had a pretty profound impact on my career for someone who coaches a sport that I have no practical experience in.

While I have never played organized soccer, I have been a fan at least since the 1994 World Cup, which of course was held here in the United States.  Since my grandparents had lived in Sao Paulo for a few years during the '70s, I was somewhat predisposed to like Brazil.  But at that point I didn't understand anything about the sport and how it was played; I just enjoyed watching it.  I don't think I really knew much at all until college, when I spent many of my fall afternoons watching Pepperdine's terrific women's team (and our men's club team).  Still, I did not start to really try and analyze soccer until I was coaching at National Cathedral.

Soccer is really the preeminent sport at NCS, and Richie's teams were not only good but entertaining as well.  Several of the most gifted athletes I have worked with or seen were Cathedral soccer players, and at their best, watching them play was like watching a female, high school version of the Spanish national team or Barcelona, only if they scored more often.  In the fall of 2010, for example, they averaged four goals a match, outscoring their opponents 64-12 without getting shut out once.  The ball control was phenomenal, so much so that the goalie never saw the ball more than a handful of times in any given match.  And the team was good at every facet of the game.  They could press, attack, counter-attack, place long through balls right on the money, break opponents down with their dribbling, score on set name it, they could do it.

As much as I may have learned about soccer from watching Richie's teams or hearing his ever-constant advice/admonishment/haranguing from the sideline, I think his example was particularly helpful to me in terms of style and relationships.  Girls may be different to work with than boys (and I would know, with six years' experience coaching each), but they still want most of the same things from their coaches: they want to be treated fairly, they want you to demonstrate that you care about them and the team, and they don't want to be BS'ed by a coach.  And Richie always provided that.  Sure, he might tell a player that she made a terrible pass loudly enough for someone to hear two blocks away, but he has always been honest and up-front with his players about his expectations for them, and provided them with all the tools necessary to improve on the pitch.  Several parents of middle school soccer players have expressed to me their surprise at how much or how loudly he will yell at his players during a match (not that I am a mute sideline observer from the bench myself).  But because the girls know that he cares and know that he's telling them the truth, he is near-universally beloved by his middle and high school players, not to mention the entire lower school.  His program is never lacking for available talent, and girls want to come play for him, which of course creates a fierce competition for roster spots.  It is worth noting that during that same 2010 season, six of his nine seniors were happy enough to come off the bench for a team that was starting four sophomores and two freshmen, with four more underclassmen chomping at the bit for serious playing time.  They knew before the season started that they might be in limited roles, because Richie had told them as much, and they stayed anyway.  Six of them! How often would that happen in any sport at the high school level?*

*It is also worth noting that only one of those six backups was, at that point, seriously pursuing a collegiate soccer career.  They were happy to be on the team and put in all the work even if they were only playing 10-12 minutes per game.

I have tried, with varying degrees of success, to emulate that sort of approach, both with my high school and club teams.  I think I've at least been moderately successful in that the number of girls playing my primary sport (volleyball) has risen at every stop where I've been a head coach.  But it was extremely helpful to have such a successful coach and program as a model.  And so now Richie is reviving his professional coaching career (on hiatus since he stopped working with DC United a few years ago) by taking an assistant coaching position with FC Livinston in the Scottish First Division.  I know that there are a lot of sad players, parents, and colleagues at NCS as a result, but it's an exciting opportunity, and I am sure that he will be very successful in Scotland.  Thank you, Richie, for all of your help, and may you continue your excellent work across the pond.