We caught up with Xavier Rico, the US Youth Soccer National Boys Competitive Coach of the Year, to discuss his soccer background and coaching strategies. Rico, who coaches at Strike FC (WI), uses his experiences of growing up playing the game to help instill a love of soccer in the players that he coaches. The 36-year-old talked about his coaching methods and philosophy, while also stressing the importance of keeping soccer a simple game.
How and when did you get involved in coaching youth soccer?
I came to the United States in 2004 to play soccer. A teammate of mine was coaching at the time. After practice, he would spend time helping little kids play soccer. He invited me after practice one day to come along and help him out. We worked with 3- and 4-year-olds. I just had a blast. It was a fun time. That really got me going, and I asked my friend, “Hey, can I can come any time I can.” He said I was welcome to, and after three or four months I asked about getting my own group. He gave me this class starting with the 3- and 4-year-olds, so that’s how I got started.
Where did you grow up before coming to the United States in 2004?
I was born and raised in Mexico.
And you came here to play?
Yes. I came to play indoor soccer professionally with the Milwaukee Wave — the indoor professional team. In our spare time, instead of playing video games, we went out and did some coaching and spent some time with kids.
Do you have a favorite coaching moment in the last 10 years since you started?
The main one for me was winning the first state title for the club back in that time. We started with a group of girls who were 9 and 10 years old. In Wisconsin, we don’t play State Cup until 13. We spent a couple years working hard, and I would tell them, “We’ve got to get ready for that State Cup.” That was the motivation for two years. They didn’t know what I was talking about until we got there. In our first appearance, we won it, and that was the first title for the club.
Also, this past year, winning three state titles with SC Waukesha in the same year was a special moment for me. It was all different ages and girls and boys, so that was a unique experience for me.
Now, the most recent one is winning the US Youth Soccer national coaching award. That’s a big highlight right now of my coaching career.
Is there anything unconventional or unique that you like to do as a coach?
I’m not sure if it’s unique to me, but it’s something people don’t think about. In the part of the country I’m coaching, we spend six or seven months indoors with the snow and everything. Every training session we do indoors, I play music. That’s coming from my background growing up — someone always played music. So, I always play music. Hispanic music or Latin music — anything that has rhythm. I feel like it helped me when I was a kid to not be stressed about the game or just for the rhythm. I feel like dancing is so close to what we do with the ball on the field, so I play music.
When it gets nice outside, I’ll take the kids to Lake Michigan and we’ll play beach soccer. We just go there and play. I send an email saying whoever wants to show up can come and play. We play for a few hours and just have fun.
Do you have a favorite practice activity?
Pick-up games are my favorite activity. The kids are out there and free to play and be creative. It’s their time. I was so competitive, so I try to get that out of my kids. Whether it’s a competitive game or a pick-up game, you should try to win and try your best. If I’m doing a clinic or a soccer camp, I’ll try to do some fun games. I always try to get something out of that little exercise for the kids.
Sometimes, as a coach, you feel everything has to be so structured. If you don’t have two goals or this and that... I’ll find some grass, and we’ll just find two backpacks or two water bottles to use for goals and we’ll start a game. That goes back to where I grew up. We didn’t have nice goals all the time. We just found what we could to use for goals.
Do you have any coaching influences? People you try to emulate?
All of my coaches were so important to me growing up. I can highlight three coaches.
Growing up, I remember a guy named Chula Bernal. He was just so passionate about the game and passed that to his players. Then there was Enrique Robbins. He was a sergeant, pretty much, on the field, so that’s where my discipline came from. And then, coach Tano Sanchez. He was all heart out there. He never got paid and never charged anything. He just did it for the love of the game. We would fundraise with him in a taco truck — selling tacos and tamales — to get funds for traveling or uniforms.
What is your coaching philosophy? What do you want your kids to get out of playing the game?
It’s more than just formations or tactics. For me, it’s a campaign to prove that technique and footwork will win out against physicality and strength. I believe that fundamentals, creating a good foundation as a soccer play as a kid, helps them long-term. I spend a lot of time trying to improve my players’ ability. When they’re little, I like them spending as much time with the ball. My goal is to help each of my players become the best they can and try to reach their maximum potential as a player. I want them to become a good human being. That’s one thing I take from soccer now that I’m not playing. The game helped me become disciplined and a hard worker.
How do you keep soccer fun? How do you get kids to ignore wins and losses and just enjoy the game?
I am super passionate about the game, and I make sure I transmit that to my kids. I’m soccer. That’s all I do, 24/7. Sometimes, as a coach, we try to do it so structured — using 25 cones for one little activity, so the players are all confused. For me, I just go out there and make sure we push them in whatever we’re doing. Keep it simple. I see people carrying 45 cones, flags and all this stuff. No. Soccer is just played with one ball. That’s all you need.
It’s also the way you talk to them. I’m pretty inspirational coach. I try to pick up an inspirational story or game online and let them know to watch it. Keep them understanding that there are other people who wish they were in their shoes. They have everything to be successful. It’s just a mindset.