The Apache Tribe, Whiteriver, Blue Wristbands and Little Miss Small Fry
by Anthony Latronica, Co-founder & Vice President of SoccerSpecific
For the past 17 years Anthony Latronica has worked with some of the finest young people both at the youth and collegiate levels. His diverse background includes 11 years coaching at Harvard University, Oregon State University, and the United States Air Force Academy. He was also a USSF National Staff Instructor from 2005-2011. In 2011, Anthony moved on from college coaching to become a Technical Advisor for U.S. Soccer and then the top assistant with the United States U-17 Men’s National Team and its residency program based out of Bradenton, Florida. For the past five years he has had the unprecedented pleasure of mentoring, coaching, developing, and producing the best young players in America and has competed against elite soccer countries from around the world. Having coached in 250 matches at the U-17 MNT level, Anthony wants to share the content he has accumulated as a player and coach. Anthony is currently enjoying working as an Assistant Coach with the U.S. Paralympic National Team to help them prepare for the World Championships this September in Argentina.
I just spent the last three days on the Apache Indian Reservation in Whiteriver, Arizona. I was offered the incredible opportunity to volunteer my time working the 2017 NativeVision Sports and Lifeskills Camp. I was willing and ready to coach any young soul that signed up for the sport of soccer.
Knowing nothing about this program run by the Johns Hopkins Center for American Indian Health, it took me about three seconds to say yes and I hopped on a flight to Phoenix. With a small carry on, (cleats included of course), I started on this unique journey with absolutely zero expectations, I didn’t even read the itinerary outlining the daily schedule that included a four-hour bus ride from the Phoenix airport, telling me what to pack, where to be etc. as we often provide to our own teams. Instead I focused on keeping things simple: get on that plane, keep an open mind, and be the absolute best version of myself. I wanted this experience to make me a better father, husband, and coach. So, I packed my small bag and headed south.
Coaches from all the sports trickled into Phoenix on Wednesday. I realized, after brief introductions from everyone, that there were incredibly dedicated organizers who have been doing this for 26 years and incredibly loyal coaches who have been doing this for years, some in their 17th plus year. Immediately, my curiosity drew me to learn what this NativeVision was all about.
Later that evening I was graciously briefed by the other soccer coaches of potentially what to expect over the next several days, and let me tell you this, it went a lot deeper than remembering to bring a hat, sunglasses to protect my eyes from the scorching sun, sunblock, and plenty of water. Throw the lesson plans out the window! The friendly reminders were more along the lines of: “We won’t really know how many kids signed up for soccer until we arrive to the field, so we need to be flexible……we won’t really know exactly what equipment we will have until we arrive at the field, so we need to be flexible…..we won’t really know how much field space we will have until we feel the dust under our feet, so we need to be flexible.”
“This is exactly why I have worked so hard as a coach the past 17 years, so at a moment like this I could calmly rise to the occasion and help my fellow colleagues pull this thing off!”
Isn’t this the perfect clichéd “what if” scenario that everyone talks about at coaching courses? We could end up with 50 kids or 150, but we landed right in the middle with about 100 kids. Six coaches strong, zero cones, zero bibs, in the middle of a shared baseball field with women’s lacrosse, I knew it was going to be a great couple of days!! I took a big deep breath and quietly said to myself, “This is exactly why I have worked so hard as a coach the past 17 years, so at a moment like this I could calmly rise to the occasion and help my fellow colleagues pull this thing off!”
Some people say getting on and off the reservation can be the two hardest things to do. Well I arrived on a bus full of people filled with passion, energy, excitement, and stories from the past. They kept saying “It will be rough the first couple of days but by the end of the camp the kids will be begging you to stay”.
Okay, here we go, kick-off time. Straight into opening ceremonies, we grabbed the kids with blue wristbands and off we went to the “soccer” field. Now what? Well, I had a couple of activities in mind — rondos, functional patterns to goal, set pieces — yeah right, more like knockout, gauntlet, octopus….you know the usual Youth National Team curriculum. Instead, as we rotated the groups around to each coach, I decided to get on one knee, look each kid in the eye, introduce myself, and learn everyone’s name. I was hoping that if I made that personal connection the first day and started to build an ounce of trust with each of them, then the next day I could teach them a thing or two about soccer. Doesn’t it always feel great when someone knows your name, and you can say, “Good morning Aqua Jacob, how are you? I am so glad you are here!” Even if you accidentally call Seth by the name of Zach, they will recognize your intentions. So with my SPF 50 on my face, we played the name game. A couple of fun warm up games and off to the next coach they went.
“Once again, the sport of soccer has taken me into this incredible place where I can meet and interact with people whom I could never have imagined.”
I knew I was in my element, coaching in its most raw form. I was immediately drawn to the spirits of these kids, Taiyasha, Manu, Justin, and Sergio to name a few. Once again, the sport of soccer has taken me into this incredible place where I can meet and interact with people whom I could never have imagined. As the afternoon session wound down, and after the staff vs. camper basketball game in the Activity Center, (staff pulled out a two point victory against an incredibly impressive group of players from the home team, Alchesay High school), I was officially initiated. I was no longer a rookie, and I eagerly awaited the challenges of Day Two.
0815 departure from the hotel, short bus ride to the reservation, a quick little walk to the field with a spring in my step, excited to set up activities for a 0900 start. Everything was going exactly to plan. As we arrived closer to the field, I think I said out loud “How the heck did those horses get in the baseball field?” As I was just finishing the end of my sentence, two of my amazing and experienced colleagues were already on a trot running into the field and amazingly guiding the horses back through the fenced dugout and out the gate. I was totally impressed! I have been in many strange coaching situations in my life, but I had never been in one that required such incredible “coaching” skills. I am not sure I covered that when teaching the USSF A, B, and C licenses. It quickly became clear where all the “brown” cones on the field came from. It’s amazing what you have to use when you don’t have the “ideal” equipment.
It’s not even 0900 and things are off to a great start. Let’s do this! So with a warrior-like mentality, it was time to get on the field, roll up my sleeves, and get my butt kicked by a bunch of kids! I was greeted with little hugs on the legs, a little head nod, a fist bump, and a quiet hello. Little Marley absolutely game faced, me but I told her I was going to get a smile out of her by the end of the camp.
“As a temporary male role model in their lives for the next couple of days, it was my goal to stay calm, and when someone acted poorly, I would simply ask them to “be kind to each other”. Easier said than done!”
Over the next three hours during the morning session, I witnessed a group of young souls who showed incredible toughness, adaptability, and a willingness to learn. Most of the kids have never played soccer before, and I was quickly reminded that children learn in different ways, at different speeds, and react to different styles of communication. As a temporary male role model in their lives for the next couple of days, it was my goal to stay calm, and when someone acted poorly, I would simply ask them to “be kind to each other”. Easier said than done! Showing patience and keeping your cool under pressure are two characteristics that every great coach strive to have. As I was teaching young Jessica how to juggle, I heard my colleague shout my name and point me in the direction of one kid on a full sprint leaving the facility with a handful of kids chasing after him. With a clear and precise command, I was quickly tasked with “taking care” of that situation. So off I went.
Negotiations went very well, and the result was my new little buddy and me taking a nice break from everyone else in the shade. In all the chaos of the moment, it was clear to me that this young boy was mostly worried about me being mad at him. The tears and worry on his face made it apparent to me that this wasn’t the first time he had been in this situation. So, I simply told him that I wasn’t mad at him, asked him to please be kind to people, and pleaded with him not to quit the camp. We were able to make our way back the field, a small victory for the morning, and shortly after that it was time for lunch. So we loaded the kids on the “Hulk” and off to lunch we went with our chauffeur behind the school bus wheel, Zach-Seth.
It was your typical lunch break out of the sun: milk, sandwich, carrots, grapes, cookies, and only one trip to the emergency room. From the second floor above that looked over the basketball court, once again I heard my name being shouted from one of my esteemed colleagues; however, this time it was coming from one of the basketball coaches. She politely requested that I keep the soccer kids on the second floor because they were wandering around aimlessly amongst the basketball camp and campers. At that moment, as half our staff was attending to a young boy’s boo-boo, I realized I needed to step up my game and help unite the group again. After 30 minutes, the kids became very restless, so as a unified group of coaches and campers with blue wristbands, back to the fields we went as a team.
The afternoon was filled with more activity on the field with a bit of soccer mixed in as well as different workshops for the campers to attend. As a sports and life skills camp, workshops offered were Getting Started with Goal Setting, Basic Budgeting, Entrepreneurship, It’s All in a Name, Arts & Crafts and Women Win Leadership. My role was to help coerce all our young kids to the arts and crafts workshop. It was soccer’s turn to be out of the sun. So with my SPF 50 face, we arrived to a packed classroom filled with ambitious campers from other sports busily making their dolls made out of cornhusks.
We quickly realized there was no room for us. With 50 young kids in tow, we had to think quickly on our feet and call an audible. If we didn’t, the kids would sense the weakness of our “daily schedule”. We were graciously given plenty of room in the cafeteria. We grabbed some supplies from the volunteers in the craft room, and off to the cafeteria we went. In a matter of seconds I went from being a coach to being a teacher of arts and crafts! My esteemed colleague took the lead, showed us what to do, and the next thing you saw were 50 little kids making little dolls out of corn husks. I found myself holding three little pieces of corn husks so a little girl could make a French braid for her doll. I helped build arms and legs out of rubber bands, drew faces with my Sharpie, and headbands for the male dolls.
“This was the turning point for me, this is when the true learning would start for me, this is when it first came clear to me what they were talking about on the bus. This isn’t about soccer, this isn’t about schedules, and this isn’t about having pretty grass fields and pretty equipment. This has everything to do with sharing one special moment with as many kids as you can in a short, three-day window with the hope of impacting their lives forever.”
As the workshops wound down and we made our way back to Camp Nou, it was very evident on the faces of our female coaches and campers what an emotional and positive impact the Women Win workshop had on them. They spent their walk back to the fields connecting and bonding as a group as I selfishly walked back thinking about how the “logistics” of the workshops were off, blah blah blah blah blah. This was the turning point for me, this is when the true learning would start for me, this is when it first came clear to me what they were talking about on the bus. This isn’t about soccer, this isn’t about schedules, and this isn’t about having pretty grass fields and pretty equipment. This has everything to do with sharing one special moment with as many kids as you can in a short, three-day window with the hope of impacting their lives forever. Soccer is merely the vehicle to establish a bit of trust, create that connection, and open that door of friendship and communication, wishing that young boy or girl will come knocking year after year.
So, as the afternoon turned into evening, another audible was called, but his time it was by the organizers of the camp. Due to a growing forest fire close by and a change of direction by the wind, we had to cancel the third day of the camp and move closing ceremonies to the end of day two. At 1700, the players of all sports scurried to meet at the center of the football field for the annual camp photo. Some were carrying the soccer balls they were given from camp, others carried their new lacrosse sticks. With smoke in the backdrop, we all smiled brightly, proud of the work we had done. There were a couple more things left on the docket: A community dinner and culture games inside the activity center.
As I watched the native dancing and listened to the native singing, I reflected back on what I just experienced the past couple of days. I was passionately reminded by a friend and fellow soccer coach to look beyond the logistics, look deeper than the surface, and focus on the importance of just being in the present. Some of these kids wait all year for this one event, traveling from other reservations far away to be a part of something much bigger than all of us. Those kids need us back year after year. They need this program to survive, and it is now my mission to do my part and give back to the most resilient group of kids I have ever met.
I have spent the past twenty five years traveling all over the United States and the World, from Bradenton to Bend, Laredo to El Paso, down to Mexico, Honduras, Costa Rica, Panama, Argentina, Chile, Over to England, Scotland, Northern Ireland, Spain, Germany, Slovenia, Sicily, Austria, Norway, France, Italy, Czech Republic, Croatia, Bosnia, Turkey, way over to Japan, and now I can add Whiteriver, Arizona to the list. As I wrap up this emotional adventure, I wonder if I should coach more often with less equipment, find the worst field possible and go train on it, share the outfield of a baseball field with another sports team, spend a full session at summer camp playing the name game, or simply show more patience and calmness to my own family and people I coach. Every time I needed a little pick me up, I always seemed to get this gentle little tug on my shirt from “Small Fry” asking if she could take the ball home. When she called me “chief”, I took it as one of the best compliments I could have ever imagined! As a father, husband, and coach, I will strive to have the fortitude, resilience, and adaptability that those kids showed me. Thank you Little Miss Small Fry. Oh, and in case you were wondering, not only did I get a smile out of Marley, she even talked to me.
Stride, Soar, Succeed!