A Very American Coup By Michael – Louis Ingram, Editor-in-Chief...
An Interview with Dr. John Thomas
FLORIDA—Since January of 2005 Dr. John Thomas has been the Assistant Director of Coaching Education with the United States Youth Soccer Association. He took time out of his very busy schedule to speak about his interest in youth soccer, Blacks in MLS coaching positions and front offices and ways to further expose soccer to the Black community ___________________________________________________________________________ Tell us how you first became drawn to the Beautiful Game and a brief synopsis of your playing career.
I came to learn about soccer growing up in New Jersey in a small town called Jamesburg. I can remember the first day the bug hit me. I was watching a couple of kids from Central America play. I was in the fifth grade myself and they told me to come on and play. They were actually kicking the ball and controlling it as opposed to just kicking it like we normally do. I said, “Hey! This is OK.” and from that point I just started playing the game.
The unusual thing was, our town was so small that all we had for athletics in our school system were soccer, basketball and baseball. We had lots of African-Americans playing soccer which was very strange when I think back.
I played some high school ball, and came out as a High School an all-American. I went to college at a small school within the University of Maryland system called Frostburg State where I was the captain. After graduation, I joined the US Army and served for ten years in the medical field. After years in the Army I was commissioned a Naval Officer and served thirteen years. While stationed in Hawaii where I started coaching the All Navy, Marine, and the Armed Forces team. From there I went to California where I really started my competitive coaching and later became the Regional Coordinator for the California Youth Soccer Association.
Were your initial forays into coaching met with any skepticism in light of the lack of Black coaches to be found in the game?
I think about the first time I began to coach. I remember when I was the Head Coach for the United States Army team in Augusta, GA. We were holding a training camp at one of the local colleges (I won’t name the college, but we were in the South). The teams were on the field and the coach for the other team came over and walked right by me and asked, “Where’s the Head Coach?” (Laughs) My assistant coach, said, “There he is.”
So I’ve had a couple of incidents but I’ve played them off. You pick your battles. There have been several opportunities where I’ve needed to speak up for the right thing. I’ve run into different situations, but I think for the most part once the players, and coaches had the opportunity to be around me train and coach, they didn’t have any issue.
Before your current position you previously served as the Head Coach at San Diego Mesa College and held a host of youth coaching soccer positions in California. What led to your specific interest in coaching on youth level?
Well you know what? I’ve been very fortunate that soccer paved the way for me to attend college. I think our young African-American youth need to know that it’s another avenue to get there in terms of the financial support.
After I graduated from college, I entered the military. I discovered opportunities to continue to be involved with soccer. Soccer was an outlet for me and I enjoyed it. Soccer has allowed me to travel the world, see and experience many things, meet numerous people from various backgrounds, and grow as a person.
I have had the opportunity to coach on the premier, Olympic development, and the professional levels. So I asked myself, “Where can I have the largest impact?” The largest impact is definitely on the youth level.
Also, I like to think of myself as someone that people can look up to and say, “That’s a role model.”
As I said the opening you are the Assistant Director of Coaching Education with the USYSA. What do those duties entail?
On paper, I’m responsible for the implementation of coaching education programs and to raise the overall standard of play within the US. My focus is on the recreational player, the competitive player & the club players. I spend a lot of time conducting US Youth Soccer Coach Licensing. The Director, Sam Snow, and I teach the National Youth License Course, we will teach or support anywhere from 10-15 six day long courses throughout the year. So we spend a lot of time on the road.
I also assist the State Directors of Coaching in our organization of about 3.2 million members by providing training programs, helping to improve existing programs or even creating new programs. Our endeavor is to provide continuity of programs within each state so that everyone trains the same way.
Within US Youth Soccer there is also the Olympic Development Program, which has the largest competitive tournaments.
We have a very busy schedule. We answer all phone calls. We have a program called the Coaches Connection, a network for all of coaches that need some assistance. Coaches can call or email or see information we have online for purchase coaching DVDs and other materials.
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How important was it to you that the USYSA brought you into their organization in such an important position and not marginalize you into some sort of a “minority outreach” position?
As far as I know, race has nothing to do with my position. It has to do with my background, my credentials and my experience, which put me in the final top three candidates. I truly believe that my personal interview sold me.
I have my unique strengths and talents as well as the Director, Sam Snow. I think part of his choice had to do with just that. You can always find someone else with more credentials or more experience, but you have to have the right combination to be successful as a team. I think the Director and I work very well together. In an organization you want people that are going to complement each other, be able to be professional and enjoy your work as you get the job done.
There has never been any discussion of marginalization. I did inquire how could we reach out to more African-Americans and successfully market our programs because there are lots of communities who don’t even know US Youth Soccer program exists.
Well that was my next question is that one of the criticisms that many have about youth soccer in the United States is that there isn’t enough to being done to expose more Black kids to the game and bring them into some of these youth soccer programs. Do you agree with that and if so or even if not what steps are being taken to expose the game to the Black American youth communities? Well let me say this.
First, to answer the question do I believe enough is being done? No. I think we need to get together as an organization to help market the game. We do need to do a better job at that.
One of the organizations that’s trying to do that is the Black Coaches Committee which is part of the National Soccer Coaches Association of America. They’re trying to get together as a large group to help market the game and ask, “How can we get into those communities and help folks understand the game?”
US Youth Soccer has an outstanding program called Soccer Starts, which is designed to introduce the sport of soccer to youngsters living in communities not yet served by existing clubs and leagues. Focused on making soccer available to lower-income children in under served communities. Call us and we will help you organize a soccer program from the ground up.
You hold an (A) Coaching License if I’m not mistaken, can you explain what that means and how one goes about getting various coaching licenses?
The highest level you can have is an “A” license. Then it goes from B through E and then into the youth modules, Youth-1, Youth-2 etc., which are for recreational coaches and teaching the coaches to teach the kids to have fun.
Back to the licensing, the “E” is the entry-level license in most states. The “D”license would be the first time most coaches could get training and testing for a National license. The “C”, the “B” and “A”, are nine days. It really heightens your level of understanding of the tactical and technical aspects of the game.
MLS is in its 10th season and we have yet to see a Black coach even considered for a head coaching job, let alone be hired for one. In fact, I don’t recall too many Black assistant coaches in MLS. What Black players or coaches that aren’t necessarily in the public eye, do you think will one day become sucessful coaches on the MLS level, besides yourself, of course?
You know there are some Black coaches that don’t want those types of jobs. Some coaches enjoy coaching on the youth level. They get tremendous enjoyment out of just that. Let’s not forget our collegiate level, semi pro, ODP, state and Regional teams coaches and they don’t necessarily want to go to the next level. Some times the next level means moving.
But about the other part of your question regarding assistants and head coaches, there are two that I know of. Dennis Hamlett with the Chicago Fire who’s been there for a couple of years and right here in my town, Brian Haynes with FC Dallas. Those guys have been around for a couple of years. If anyone has a shot I would think it would one of those coaches.
I think now, as it relates to Black players, we’re just coming on to the scene in terms of stars of the game, just look at the any of our National Teams. I think in time, we’ll have some Black coaches but hey, look at the numbers, there’s only 10 or 12 teams! We have some assistants so we’re knocking on the door.
Chicago Fire Assistant Dennis Hamlett (mlsnet) In your opinion, what needs to be done to help soccer make inroads into the Black American community? I’ve often told people from other countries that basketball and to a lesser extent American football, are ingrained in the Black American culture the way soccer is in other countries. My question for you is, and you’ve briefly touched on it, how can we help the sport make those inroads, not just on the youth level but the in barber shops or on BET? How can we better expose the game?
Chicago Fire Assistant Dennis Hamlett (mlsnet)
In your opinion, what needs to be done to help soccer make inroads into the Black American community? I’ve often told people from other countries that basketball and to a lesser extent American football, are ingrained in the Black American culture the way soccer is in other countries. My question for you is, and you’ve briefly touched on it, how can we help the sport make those inroads, not just on the youth level but the in barber shops or on BET? How can we better expose the game?If you look at tennis we have our superstars. We’re starting to have our superstars (in soccer). They’re the ones that have to help push the program. That’s one of the things that need to happen. The other thing is training and education needs to be accessible. Are coaches willing to go anywhere to get training? US Youth Soccer offers a great course, the National Youth Licenses. We try to let everyone know it’s available. We also support our state programs. The national and your state office coaching departments are there to assist you. I believe one of the best ways to market soccer to African American is to travel to them and put on two and one-hour clinics and show coaches how they can benefit from training.
I sit here in my office and look at the Adidas apparel books. I see a lot of African-Americans. It’s just amazing and a great thing to see. I look at the marketing of soccer in print and commercials on television and see African-Americans. There should be more African Americans playing the beautiful game.
So I guess we need to figure out how to get those materials in the hands of African-Americans (laughs). How do we get the word out?