Stepping up to the sideline

As high school students are sucked into inevitable conversations about future careers, those who are passionate about sports often lose themselves in the logistics of college scouting, parental expectations and the pressure to perform, forgetting that there are alternative routes into the world of sports.

Paly campus supervisor and girls varsity soccer coach Ernesto Cruz shared the story of how he first discovered his interest in coaching soccer.

“When I was a teenager, I played on a super competitive club soccer team in El Salvador,” Cruz said. “That’s all we have there, one sport: soccer.”

Cruz said that though he was able to land a spot on the roster, the competition was tough and his teammates were much more skilled than he was.

“I spent most of my time just sitting on the sidelines, next to the coach on the bench,” Cruz said.

Most athletes would look back on this experience negatively, not wanting to dwell on time spent in the shadow of their teammates. However, Cruz said though his teenage self was completely oblivious to it, his career in coaching took off because of his rather warm seat on the bench.

“Being right there, sitting next to my coach while the game was going on and my teammates were on the field — that’s what allowed me to learn a lot from the coach as a mentor, and prepared me for what I do today,” Cruz said. “He was always talking to me because I was there, and I was studying the game instead of playing it.”

It took Cruz several years and the advice of a close friend to steer him away from playing soccer and toward a coaching career path. Today, however, he considers coaching one of the most gratifying parts of his life.

[divider]One Student’s Story[/divider]

According to Cruz, the adolescent years are a crucial time to explore one’s interests, and athletes and sports fanatics alike should consider their options in sports-related careers that take place outside of the physical boundaries of the playing area. Cañada College sophomore Zoe Bell, for instance, stumbled upon her career path unknowingly when she was still in high school.

“I had never, ever, ever considered coaching,” Bell said. “I had always known that I wanted to be some sort of teacher, perhaps in special education, and I expressed this interest to my club soccer coach, Kyle.”

Looking back, she said her coach saw an opportunity for her and strategically gave her a chance to test the waters of coaching.

“He asked me, ‘Why don’t you come help me with the 03s — a team of players born in the year of 2003 — once a week?’” Bell said. “He clearly did not need the extra help. He was just giving me an opportunity to see if coaching sparked my interest.”

Bell said she was open to the idea, but she could not have predicted how much she would enjoy coaching and how fitting it was to her persona.

“I had always been captain of my team, and I think I had always seen the game from [a viewpoint] that was in between the players and the coaches. I loved talking, communicating and expressing my ideas, and as a coach, I got to do that and more.”

Zoe Bell

According to Bell, her coach would send her exercises that she would have to prep for the teams on her own. She would then coach them on the day of the session without his guidance. In this way, he eased her into the instruction process and helped her gain familiarity with drills and the work behind the scenes.

“Two months in, Kyle told me I’d have to get a coaching license if I wanted to continue coaching,” Bell said. “I did a four hour online class that granted me my first license. It wasn’t difficult. It was mostly information I had absorbed from being a player, going to referee classes and just general soccer knowledge.”

In the United States Soccer Federation, the top coaching license is at the professional level, and is followed by licenses ranging from an A license, the highest, to an F license. Bell said she quickly realized she was ready to bridge up from an F license to an E license, but the next step of the process could not be completed from behind a computer screen.

“I then drove down to Ventura and completed the course for an E license,” Bell said. “It was an important moment; everything was coming together, and I realized how much independence I had as a coach and what I had achieved by obtaining the license myself.”

Today, Bell has earned the position of head coach of the Palo Alto Soccer Club (PASC) 2010 White team, and during the spring season, she will most likely take on the PASC 2010 Blue team, one level higher, as well. She said her coaching path has been a constant uphill climb, and she is certain that coaching will be an important part of her future, as it fits seamlessly into the vision she has for her career.

“I’m still focusing on becoming a special education teacher, but all of the prep I’m doing can help me as a coach as well,” Bell said. “I’m taking [classes in] psychology, social psychology, teaching in a diverse society and health safety and nutrition. It’s all intertwined.”

Many of the coaches she works with at PASC are also classroom teachers, and Bell said she has noticed that the hours in their days line up perfectly.

The players can only attend their practices after their school day is over, which is, logically, when a teacher’s work day comes to an end as well. This enables teachers to transition smoothly into the coaching day.

“It definitely took me a while to figure it all out,” Bell said. “But now that I have, I am so excited about all of it. I’m not after the money; I want to be passionate about what I do for the rest of my life.”

[divider]Behind the Scenes[/divider]

Senior Gerzain Gutierrez has shaped an idea for his future, which drew inspiration from a mentor who is involved in the business side of sports — someone who works for both the Green Bay Packers and the San Antonio Spurs and teaches sports management at Stanford University.

“He is still involved in the sports, but he isn’t center stage; he’s making things happen, but he’s not in the spotlight,” Gutierrez said.

Following and participating in sports are important pieces of Gutierrez’s life, but he is aware professional sports teams are selective and only a miniscule number of athletes make it to the top.

“I love sports so much, but I’m probably not good enough to play professionally. There are other paths in, and the business side of sports is there for everybody.”

Senior Gerzain Gutierrez

[divider]Closing Thoughts[/divider]

Cruz transported himself back in time to 19 years ago, when he was offered his first coaching position in the most unexpected manner. At the time, he hadn’t been involved in coaching at all, and had stepped back from the world of soccer.

“I was working in pest control to make a living, and I got an assignment with a company in Portola Valley,” Cruz said. “I remember talking to a lady — she was my  very first client — and then I noticed a soccer field in the background.”

Cruz said he told the woman that he thought it looked like a really nice playing field, and the question that followed took him entirely by surprise.

“‘Would you like to coach a team? We have a group of girls that want to play, but we don’t have a coach,’ she asked me,” Cruz said. “She told me I looked like I would be a soccer coach.”

Cruz smiled, closed his eyes, and said, “Life,” marveling at the way that an entrance to his coaching career had been handed to him, and how this moment had shaped the rest of his coaching career.

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