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By Tamara Keith, Public Affairs
posted September 30, 1998

I grew up in a small town where youth soccer often seemed to be the most important thing in the world. Most children from semi-affluent neighborhoods were team members by the time they turned five. On Saturdays (game day) the junior high parking lot filled with minivans and the school's four soccer fields were overrun with highly competitive kids in bright uniforms.

Somehow I avoided participating in the soccer craze until my freshman year of high school when my parents decided that joining an athletic team would keep me out of trouble. I wasn't good enough for the school team so they signed me up to play with a group of uncoordinated 14-year-old girls in the city's youth soccer league (we never won a game).

I ended up being a pretty decent player by the end of the season but any skills I acquired came from forced repetition rather than passionate practice. For me soccer was always an option. If I wanted to play, I could, and because of that I took for granted how lucky I was to have a soccer league in my area, to be able to pay the steep league fees, and to have parents who could buy me all the needed athletic gear.

In my first year here at Berkeley I was approached by a campus staffer (whom I had worked with for several months) to coach soccer for a program new to the East Bay called Soccer in the Streets. The program creates free soccer leagues in disadvantaged neighborhoods, providing participants with coaching, balls, uniforms and other supplies. I agreed to help coach, on the condition that I could work with very young kids who knew even less about the sport than I did. We set up shop in Oakland's San Antonio Park and 40 kids ages four to 14 showed up, eager to play.

These kids were amazing. Despite no experience and in one case no shoes, they never seemed to get discouraged. They ran hard, they played hard and they listened to my instructions and advice attentively (as if I knew what I was talking about). When one of them acquired a new skill or figured out a difficult technique, his or her face glowed with enthusiasm.

When graduation rolled around all of the children had a pretty good understanding of soccer basics, including dribbling, passing, shooting, heading the ball and playing goalie. They also knew what it was like to be a member of a team where improving together was more important than being the best player, or even winning the game.

Coaching for Soccer in the Streets turned out to be a rewarding experience for me (and I think the kids got something out of it too). I told all my friends at Cal about the program and several of them thought it might be fun to coach. This season I'll be bringing a carload of coaches to San Antonio Park and I'm sure there will be plenty of kids ready to learn.


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