Recreational Soccer — It’s Not The World Cup

What does it take to become a successful recreational soccer coach? Angelo Puma, longtime coach for the Great Kills Soccer Club, seems to have it figured out.

It isn’t about winning championships, although Puma has won a few of those in the 17 years he coached one of his five children’s Great Kills teams in the Staten Island Youth Soccer League.

It isn’t about loading your team with travel players. Puma gives the bulk of playing time to whomever makes the most practices. If his travel players are unable to make it to practice, they will play a half game — unless it’s one of those weeks he has just enough players.

So what is it then, that’s makes someone a successful rec coach?

“It’s about having the kids learn the sport,” Puma, 54, said recently. “It’s about the kids who are there because they want to play on a team. The key with coaching in a rec league is to make it as enjoyable as you can for your players, switch around the positions and let them touch the ball.”

If you’re a brand new recreational soccer coach in the early part of your SIYSL season, or even if you’ve coached a few years and are struggling to find your way, Puma’s advice is worth heeding.

Puma is a sports guy. He has played his whole life and still does. He started coaching youth sports before he had children, during his college days. And when he moved to Staten Island from Brooklyn, the first thing he did was sign up his oldest child to play rec soccer at Great Kills and also volunteer to help with whatever, thinking perhaps that might mean something like field maintenance.

“I figured signing up my child and volunteering would be a good way to get involved in my new community,” he said. “Sports are a great way to get to know people and to have my kids get to know other kids.”

But the club needed a coach and Puma stepped up. Seventeen years later, he’s still at it.

Initially, it wasn’t easy. “The first two years, I knew nothing,” he said. “I listened to a lot of the other coaches, went to their practices and watched them. I picked up some drills there, and some other drills online.”

By the third year, the team moved up in division and coaching became more complicated, as the fields were larger and the offside rule was used. Fortunately, he said, the SIYSL mandated coaches become licensed.

“Professionally licensed coaches on the college level taught the classes and I brought a lot of what I learned to practices,” he said.

On occasion, he also brought in some young trainers associated with the club to model the drills and techniques for his players. Since he never played the game, he said, “I wanted the kids to see the right way to do things.”

That expert training is important by that age, Puma has learned. “At the start, kids sign up because their parents want them to play,” he said. “But by third and fourth grade, they’re playing because they want to, and you want them to have a good experience.”

Puma has two rules on his team: First, everyone plays at least a half game; second, those who come to practice play more than those who don’t, no matter the player’s ability level.

And while the teaching part has not always come without work for Puma, being around the kids is easy — and often therapeutic.

“When you’re having a tough day at work, you get to spend time with the 9-10-year-old kids and talk to them and hear about their days,” he said. “You can’t help but forget about your own problems and smile.”

This might be Puma’s final year on the sidelines for Great Kills, as his youngest child will graduate from the league. But the lessons he’s learned would be helpful to others starting out as soccer coaches in the SIYSL.

“Be patient with your players,” he said. “Remember this is rec soccer — you’re not playing for the World Cup — and you have players of various skill levels. Help them learn the game, and if they like the sport and improve they’ll have a better experience.”

Joe LoVerde has coached youth sports on Staten Island for more than 40 years. He’s also a longtime newspaper editor and sportswriter.