We caught up with Monica Lovett-Groat, the US Youth Soccer National Girls Competitive Coach of the Year, to discuss her soccer background and coaching strategies. Lovett-Groat, who coaches at Stafford Soccer (VA), draws on her experiences as a player while coaching and passes her love for soccer on to her young players. She talked about keeping the focus on having fun and some of the joys she gets from coaching youth soccer.
How and when did you get involved with coaching youth soccer?
I was back playing in college, and every time I came home for breaks or summer I would go and help at my old club — Dunedin Stirling in Dunedin, Fla. So that’s how I got my start.
Where did you play in college?
I actually played in four different colleges. I played at Northwestern State, St. Thomas, Lindenwood and then Bloomfield.
How did you end up playing at four different colleges?
Changes in coaching. I went Division I my freshman year, and I didn’t like the big school, so I ended up switching over to NAIA. In my case, that ended up being better soccer and smaller classrooms.
Since you started coaching, do you have a favorite moment that has stuck out to you?
That’s a tough question because there have been so many. I think my first one is when I took my very first club team by myself and the girls won the game. It was a team kind of thrown together of kids that no one wanted, and no one expected us to do anything. In the first game, those girls won. The look on their faces was amazing.
Is there anything unconventional or unique that you like to do as a coach?
I guess I’m kind of old school as I think about it. I go back to how I was coached. We do a lot of games. I try to get my little U-11s to lift the ball because they have a hard time getting the ball in the air. So we end with the crossbar game after every single practice. We actually started a new one that Chelsea did, where you have to play it in and run around. From the kids not able to lift the ball, we’ve now got kids kicking 30-yard goal kicks at U-11.
What is your coaching philosophy? What do you want your players to get out of the game?
I want them to love the game. First and foremost, it’s a game, so it has to be fun. If you don’t have kids loving the game at every age, they’re not going to be playing the game. I try to instill a love and honor for the game, so they know they’re privileged every time they walk on the field. I want them to just play as long as possible and hopefully continue on to college and get a good education.
You mentioned the crossbar challenge earlier, but do you have a favorite practice activity that you like to do to teach soccer techniques or skills?
Small-sided games. I would do those every practice. When the kids get there, we actually make it a game so kids get there on time and early — and want to be there. When they get there before warm-ups, they get to play. They usually play 3v1 or 4v2. I think small-sided games are so important to get those touches in a tight space. We do that before practice and then work it in during training sessions.
Sometimes results take away the focus from enjoying the game. How do keep soccer fun for kids?
Our biggest thing is to not focus on the wins and losses. I really think sometimes you win more from a loss than you do from a win. Especially at this age. In WAGS (Washington Area Girls Soccer), you don’t keep track of wins and losses at younger ages, which I think is great. My big thing is, I tell those girls, “Every time you step on the field, go in and give absolutely everything you have. When you do that, you’ll come out better, whether it’s a win or a loss.”
Do you have trouble conveying that mindset to parents? Do you find they focus on results more than effort?
I have a great group of parents right now. They are all on board. I’m very lucky. I know that sometimes that is not the case. I’ve been there. I have had parents where winning is everything. That hurts the kids. Really, the kids don’t care about wins and losses at most ages, especially the young ones. All they want to do is have fun. As long as they’re having funs with their friends, that’s what matters.
Do you have any coaching influences who you draw coaching methods from?
I’ve taken things from every coach that I’ve ever played with — there’s probably at least one thing I can say about each one. Growing up, my biggest influence was my first real club coach. His name is Don Tobin. He’s at Dunedin Stirling. He’s the guy who gave me my first club gig, so he kind of started this for me. He played professionally. When I was a kid, he would come out and just have so much fun and school us in scrimmages. I wanted to be him, both on the field and off the field. To this day, I still chat with him and try to get as much information as possible. He was a big, big influence on me.
What is the most rewarding part of coaching youth soccer?
How lucky can you be to wake up every day and coach the best game in the world? I retired from playing, and I still get to step on a pitch every day. It’s amazing. To show these kids how much I love the game, I can see it coming through on them. With my U-11 team, they watch the English Premier League. We go to D.C. United games. They’re into it, not just as players, but it’s part of their lifestyle. It’s teaching them lessons, if you work hard, that’s where you can go. Just seeing the light bulb turn on with the players — when they really understand something wither on or off the field — it really makes it worth it. You can have the most horrible day in the world, but when you show up to coach a bunch of crazy U-11s, you can’t help but smile. I do it for them, but in the long run, they’re really making me a better person.