Friday, January 3, 2014
TOCA FC models a refreshing approach to youth sports
I will share a few unsolicited thoughts prompted by the soccer club my sons play for.
Sports have always been a big part of my life. I played lots of soccer and hockey from a young age. Soccer was the sport I was most devoted to in to my teen years, on in to college, and these many years later. I badly injured my knee a little over three years ago (dislocated/tore 3 of the 4 ligaments) and probably should have quit playing, but after a year of reconstruction and rehab, I'm still playing regularly at age 42. Along with hunting, coaching and playing soccer are my favorite stress relievers.
It wasn't until the end of my high school soccer career that a godly leader challenged me about my motives and reasons for playing. I was a pretty physical player and didn't always play clean. Honestly, I just wanted to win. I was extremely one dimensional and short-sighted about sports and competition, it boiled down to winning. This godly man told me that God wanted more for me than winning a game. I couldn't really grasp what he meant. I regularly heard that playing a sport should be for fun. Well, in my mind, winning was fun.
As I transitioned to college soccer, I was completely transformed in my thinking by my coach, Joe Harding. Coach Harding is one of the most competitive individuals I have ever met. He taught me about working harder than I could ever imagine possible, not with the goal of winning, but for the purpose of bringing glory to God by doing something as well as it could possibly be done. Added to this was his emphasis on team unity and sacrifice for one another. The whole experience wasn't just about me, but it was about the mission of a whole team to do their very best for God's glory. Almost suddenly for me, I went from training and playing to win, to training and playing for God's praise. Please understand- you play a game to win the game- but how you train and actually play the game brings a quality to the whole experience that transcends the winning part. That is a hard concept to grasp if a "W" is all you care about. But after a certain amount of "W's", it's pretty empty if that's the true end goal. I was part of the Moody program that Joe Harding founded and has since won 5 national titles in the NCCAA. If you train and play with the highest of ideals in mind- to glorify the Creator- you'll probably win more games than you lose, but really, that's not the point. What does it look like to glorify the Creator with/in soccer? I think it has to do with perfecting the individual and team skills to play the game in the most beautiful way you can. 100% all the time. Playing with all your heart. Really, team sports are a microcosm of life. Even the adult team I play on now consists of guys who want to play the game right, win or lose, because it's fun that way.
I have three boys who are all very competitive. Before you blame me for this, I married a woman who was also a competitive college athlete who, to this day, would think nothing of giving me an elbow to the thorax in a one on one basketball duel. It's her fault too! All three boys are involved with youth sports, mainly soccer and basketball. Soccer, as you might guess, is starting to emerge as their main sport. From a young age I have tried to place them in situations with coaches who understand the philosophy I described above. God has blessed us with such coaches. I am amazed with how mature my sons are about their outlook on sports and competition, compared to me at their age for sure. Still, like all of us on life's journey, they need constant prodding and coaching to keep the right things in mind and they are working to perfect their craft.
Last year my two oldest boys played for a large club in Kansas City. The coach is a friend of mine, but he was planning on a change of coaching venues, so we needed to find another club. I heard about Alec Lemmon and TOCA FC from several friends. I called Coach Lemmon last Spring and was immediately impressed by the mature philosophy of this 25-year old man. He not only understood and embraced the basic philosophy I described above, he challenged me to think even more holistically about the whole youth soccer scene and the potential good that could come from approaching sports differently. He was an accomplished player himself, who went through a philosophical transformation similar to mine, only with far more diverse playing and coaching experience to shape his thinking. Long story short, my two oldest sons joined TOCA FC teams after summer tryouts and it has been an overwhelming joy to watch this club operate and my sons grow under the leadership of their coaches.
Before you get the impression that TOCA is some kind of pansy "we don't care about winning" organization, be sure such is far from true. They are only in their 4th year of existence and are producing some of the best young teams in the region. Alec Lemmon coaches several TOCA teams and is also the club's Technical Director. He has trained his young teams to play a level of possession soccer I didn't think was possible. The quality of game played by his under 13 team is just crazy. I watched my son's team play a game, against another Division 1 opponent, where TOCA possessed the ball a full 8 minutes before the other team even touched the ball. I have seen that kind of thing happen several times this past season. TOCA is working at perfecting the "beautiful game". My youngest son, Jordan, will join a TOCA team this Spring.
I know TOCA will teach my boys about soccer and competition the right way and with the utmost intensity, intentionality, and view to the future. I wish there were more clubs like this. Youth sports needs an overhaul. TOCA is a model in progress. They really want competitive, elite, youth soccer, to be an agent of personal development in the lives of each player, so they become remarkable leaders. Part of the TOCA experience is to make a special team effort to serve others. This past Fall, Coach Lemmon took the boys on a service/mission trip to a needy area in St. Louis. They used soccer as the relational touch point for serving and encouraging others.
Learn more about TOCA FC here.
Here's video recap of a summer mission/service trip Coach Alec led my son's U13 team on this past fall: