3 Local Soccer Leaders Share Tips for Parents & Players
NCFC Youth's leaders (including two-time Olympic gold medalist Cindy Cone) provide essential advice for Triangle soccer parents and players alike for succeeding in today's youth sports world.
President of U.S. Soccer and two-time Olympic gold medalist Cindy Cone was a quiet yet competitive kid.
“I played a lot of different sports growing up as I just loved being active and competitive,” she recounts.
It is this true enjoyment that propelled her through her career and into her current position as the Durham & Chapel Hill Girls Classic Director at North Carolina FC Youth (NCFC Youth), a non-profit youth soccer organization serving the Triangle since 1974.
“Sports was where I felt like I could express myself and where I felt most at home,” Cone continues. “I am the person I am because of my experiences in sports. I learned so much about myself and about life by playing on teams.”
Youth sports can teach kids teamwork, sportsmanship, respect, accountability, coping with failure, and so much more. But Cone knows that sports can do even more when it is used as a purposeful platform to teach life skills. At NCFC Youth, she started and leads the Durham Girls Leadership Program, which has four core areas of focus: confidence, integrity, grit, and kindness.
Offering various programs such as Cone’s in addition to a variety of on-field programming, NCFC Youth lives out its mission to provide positive, high-quality soccer opportunities to nearly 13,500 youth players each year across all levels and abilities.
The Game is Changing (in a Good Way)
Ramon Gallardo Jr., coach and La Liga Del Sol Program Assistant Director at NCFC Youth, says he first fell in love with soccer at 5 years old.
“We had just moved to Raleigh from California,” he recalls. “My dad joined a Sunday league team that played at WRAL Soccer Park, and I would follow him to his games every weekend—no matter how early or late the games were.”
Gallardo says watching the passion during those games drew him to the sport: “They knew it was just Sunday league but that didn’t stop them from playing their hardest.”
Gallardo and his father started La Liga at NCFC Youth “because growing up in North Carolina and playing club soccer, we noticed the lack of Latinos playing club,” Gallardo says.
Historically, the Latino population is often underrepresented in youth club soccer across the country due to economic, cultural, transportation, communication, technological, or other barriers to access. NCFC Youth’s La Liga Del Sol was created to help alleviate barriers and make the sport more accessible to the Latino population.
The father-son Gallardo duo started La Liga Del Sol in 2017 with four teams. Now, in 2020, there are 30 teams, and that number is still growing.
La Liga provides a safe environment for youth players to participate, and the success of the program has ranged from keeping kids away from negative community influences to some players going on to be first-generation college attendees.
Inclusivity and diversity of all kinds is one change that soccer has seen since Gallardo and Cone played as children.
“Since I was playing as a kid,” Cone says, “soccer and sports, in general, have definitely increased in participation, especially among females, which is fantastic.”
NCFC Youth’s Director of Goalkeeping, Nathan Thackeray, has also witnessed “massive changes in the game over the past 15 years of living in the U.S., including more people playing and watching the sport, and a bigger emphasis on U.S. leagues such as the USL, NWSL, and MLS.”
Thackeray, a native of England, is one of many international coaches on staff at NCFC Youth.
The international influence and widespread growing love of the game have spurred a growth of the sport, particularly in our community. NCFC Youth is consciously expanding within the Triangle and Piedmont regions, reaching communities such Knightdale, Chatham County, and more.
“You just have to look at NCFC Youth and the number of kids that are involved with this great club at the grassroots level to the pros,” he says. “Thousands of kids within a relatively small city that have been captured by the sport… it really has cultivated the community.”
Though club programs and coaching support are important, so is support from parents.
5 Ways to Be a Supportive Soccer Parent
The truth is, much of your child’s athletic career and enjoyment—whether it ends at the recreation level or the professional level—is deeply entwined with the decisions their parents make in allowing them to pursue these passions and their support.
“Being a soccer parent is hard,” Thackeray admits.
“The commitment is 24/7/365,” Cone says.
“However,” Thackeray says, “the joy that can come from watching your son or daughter play this magnificent sport should make it all worthwhile. If your child is in love with soccer, there are many ways you can support at any level without over- or under-doing it.”
1. Be supportive throughout every phase of development.
Cone says recent years have shifted towards early specialization and early professionalization of youth sports. “There is too much concern about winning and losing at young ages and about which level team kids are placed with. Many kids are being led to think that they have to pick a sport at a very young age to ever be successful.”
However, she says, “Kids all develop at different rates and development is not linear—there will be peaks and valleys.”
Gallardo says, “Parents can help their kids reach their dreams by supporting their children and making sure that they are always in the best environment for developing. As players get better, so does the commitment, and parents have to be ready for that and try and support them the best they can.”
2. Keep it fun.
“I don’t feel like I ever ‘got serious’ about soccer,” Cone says. “I played because it was fun, and I just loved every aspect of it. Even as a national team player and professional player, I continued playing because it was fun.”
Supporting your player through every phase of their developments, Cone says, is simple: “Just be Mom and Dad. Buy in and be passionate about their growth, but don’t take over. Let it be their space, and let them lead their own future… It’s a great opportunity for them to build character.”
In other words, trust the process.
“Be a fan of the game to help grow the passion for the sport at home,” Cone suggests.
3. Create an encouraging and stress-free environment for development.
Enjoyment and development go hand-in-hand.
“Kids need unconditional love and support from their parents,” Cone says. “How parents talk to and treat their kids on the way to or after a game or practice means everything to them. Comments like, ‘I love watching you play!’ and ‘You look like you are having so much fun!’ can really help young players know that no matter how they play, that their parents are going to love them the same.”
Additionally, try to keep the soccer environment at home stress-free, she says, “They get enough of that at school or at training/games. It should be fun!”
This type of support helps the kids continue to see soccer as something fun that they love to do, which boosts motivation and, in time, their development.
On the other hand, “Parents who criticize their kids’ play,” Cone says, “while they think they are helping, [criticism] can often have a harmful effect on the level of enjoyment their kid has when playing the game.”
4. Give them opportunities to succeed.
One of the best things about NCFC Youth is that they offer soccer for players of every ability level—from recreational to professional to adaptive programs (like TOPSoccer, designed for athletes with special needs) and everything in between. These programs give every player the opportunity to succeed.
If your athlete is serious about soccer and hopes to play professionally, “NCFC Youth has a history of producing pros playing at all different levels of the game,” Thackeray says. “Our connection to the professional team has provided opportunities for multiple youth players to step into our pro environments at North Carolina FC and NC Courage.”
The club also has a rich history of placing youth soccer players in collegiate environments where they can continue their development as soccer players.
Whether your child aspires to play professionally or retire after recreation, NCFC Youth provides the right environment for every player to succeed and develop both on and off the field.
5. Use club resources.
Clubs like NCFC Youth have complimentary resources and support programs for players and parents. Financial aid, athletic training, nutrition, college seminars, fitness resources, soccer clinics, sport psychology, and mindfulness training are a few resources available to NCFC Youth families to help them support their player’s youth soccer journey.
What’s most important to NCFC Youth is ensuring that every youth who wants the opportunity to play has access to the game and the available resources. Cone says, “It seems like youth sports is getting more expensive, and we need to make sure that kids aren’t left out due to finances.”
NCFC Youth has an expansive financial aid program that distributes more than $350,000 annually to help alleviate the financial barrier that often exists in many sports and to provide every youth the opportunity to learn and grow through the game of soccer.
Words of Wisdom for Youth Players in North Carolina
The club has helped players rise from youth players to pros, but the organization’s leaders on the pitch have tips for youth players of any level to focus on this season.
“Enjoy the journey. If I could go back and change one thing in my career, this would be it. I was often so focused on my goals and what my next goal was that I didn’t take time to reflect on and enjoy the journey … Playing soccer should be fun, but through your journey, there will be highs and lows, and there are lessons to be learned from both.” – Cindy Cone, President of U.S. Soccer, two-time Olympic gold medalist, NC FC Director of Durham & Chapel Hill Girls Programs
“Completely give in to the sport and give it everything you’ve got. If you aren’t training with your team on a particular day, make sure you go outside and spend time with the ball.” – Ramon Gallardo Jr., La Liga Del Sol Program Assistant Director at NCFC Youth
“My advice to any youth soccer player would be to focus on their own journey, enjoy the process of learning and improving, use adversity as a growth opportunity, and make the competition you versus yourself. If you can be better than the player you were yesterday, then you’ve ultimately seen improvements in yourself today.” – Nathan Thackeray, Director of Goalkeeping at NCFC Youth and Goalkeeping Director for NC Courage