TOPSoccer Q&A: Ed DeMulder talks about being a TOPSoccer Coach
Ed DeMulder was named the 2015 US Youth Soccer TOPSoccer Coach of the Year. He started the Essex, Vt., TOPSoccer program nine years ago with a handful of volunteers, about 20 players and 30 buddies. He travels to local high schools to promote TOPSoccer, speaks to players and explains the commitment of the program — which has led to having students on waiting lists hoping to become a buddy. The program now features 50 players and 90 buddies, and DeMulder spends countless hours teaching special needs children how to play soccer and believe in themselves.
Q: How did you first get involved in soccer?
I started coaching youth soccer like many parents and coaches when my children grew up. I was a recreational coach for both my son and my daughter. I eventually became a travel soccer coach in New York for an Under-10 girls team. I then transferred with my company to Vermont and, once again looking for a team for my daughter, I walked into the local soccer club board of directors meeting and I walked out as a the head coach of an Under-12 girls team. I came home and told my wife, “Guess who the next coach is?” That was in 1993, so I have been coaching for about 30 years now between recreational and travel soccer.
Q: How did you get involved with TOPSoccer?
I was the Vice President of Recreation for Vermont Soccer Association. I had held multiple positions within my soccer club and I volunteered to join the state board in this position. I attended a US Youth Soccer Workshop 10 years ago in St. Louis and I attended a session called “TOPSoccer.” We didn’t have one in Vermont at that time so I didn’t know much about it. I was just astounded by the number of people in this session who were such advocates for these children. I had not seen that before. Peggy Neason, who was the Region I TOPSoccer chairperson at the time, was running the session. There were probably 50 people in the session and she had breakout groups and people were talking about all types of disabilities children had and how to counteract them at TOPSoccer sessions. I was just astounded. I walked out of the session, and I called my wife, who was a special educator in Vermont, this was about January or February 2006, and told my wife, “We’re going to start a TOPSoccer program this fall, I don’t know how are going to do it, but we’re going to do it as soon as I get back.” She said, “OK, sounds like a great idea.” She’s a special educator, so this was right in her wheelhouse. And we did. We pulled it off and started our program, and this will be our 10th year.
Q: How did you become a TOPSoccer Coach?
At my first organizational meeting we talked about where we could advertise for players, where we could get buddies, what’s the approach for this? I had a group of parents and one volunteer coach there with me, and my wife and one physician, who is a pediatrician on my committee. So who should we talk about for coaches? At the time, I was a high school coach, they all looked at me and were like, “You’re going to be the coach.”
“No. no. no. no. no. I can coach high school players, and I can coach kids, but I don’t think I can coach kids with disabilities like cerebral palsy, autism or Down’s syndrome. I don’t think I can do that.” And they all were like, “Yes you can. Yes you can.” So I said, “OK.”
And as a coach of any player knows, a good coach can find that area where the players’ comfort zone is and we try to stretch each player individually out of that comfort zone to make them better players. Let me tell you, when I stepped on the soccer field the very first time for TOPSoccer in the fall I was out of my comfort zone! Very, very quickly you realize what value as a coach and the program has for these players who never had the opportunity to play organized soccer before and very quickly it becomes one of the most rewarding experience a soccer coach can have. It’s just an amazing experience for these players.
Q: For these kids, what does it mean to them to be able to participate in a program like TOPSoccer?
I was running our program in Vermont for the State Association. We advertise through a large area. I have players that will travel from 40 miles north and south of Burlington to come on a Sunday afternoon to play soccer. Just that distance gives you an idea what commitment these families have to their children. Many of these players have never played organized soccer to this extent.
These kids watch their siblings play soccer and they don’t get to put on cleats and shin guards and go and play the game and this is their avenue to do that.
Q: What does this program mean to each family?
When we get these players their T-shirts. Our TOPSoccer buddies wear a blue T-shirt that has a big TOPSoccer logo with Vermont underneath, and our players where white ones with numbers on the back so they look just like a players’ jersey. I’ve heard this a hundred times, the kids get their shirt for the first time and they don’t want to take it off for a week or two weeks. The parents are hiding the shirts so they can put it in the wash since it’s dirty from the practice or has gotten sweaty. The kids are just so excited to be a part of the program.
These stories are heartwarming and kind of give a feel for what the program means to families. It’s very difficult for many of these families, and a lot of them are having bad days and don’t show up. We kind of take that for granted as administrators and coaches when a player is there. This program is really a huge event to some of these families and how it effects them. About eight years ago, I had a boy in my program named Josh, and at the end of this session I had two elderly people walking up to me and I look right away and go, “uh oh, two grandparents what did I do wrong?” And this gentleman comes up and introduces himself to me and is pumping my hand and is thanking me and thanking me. It winds up that they live in San Francisco and they tell me they’re the grandparents of Josh, and they have been coming to the East Coast once a year for vacation and they had usually come in spring to come see the older brother play soccer. They changed their plans and came in the fall because it was the first opportunity to see their other grandson play soccer.
And another great story happened this fall. I have another little boy that has been in the program for nine years and has multiple disabilities. Balance problems, mobility issues where he can’t move quickly and he doesn’t speak more than a word or two. I almost never hear him speak and he just mumbles every time I say hello to him at each session, but he has been there for many years. Because he has balance problems, we put two buddies with him and he basically just walks around for our hour-plus sessions. He listens to music and is kicking a ball and is walking with the soccer ball, but he doesn’t say anything and has never said more than three words. We end every TOPSoccer session each week with all the kids getting in a circle with me and the buddies are on the outside and they put their hands together and I have one of the players count 1-2-3. Then we all throw our hands up in the air and yell “I love soccer!” Not ‘‘I love ‘TOPSoccer,” but “I love soccer” because they’re just soccer players. We do that week after week. This little boy is in school and they’re doing all they can to get him to say more than a word or two. In the fall this year, with his administrator and helper in school, he says out of the clear blue, “I love soccer.” And this mother was sharing this with me on the last Sunday of the year, tears rolling down her face, “You have no idea what a breakthrough this is that he said another three word sentence. You have no idea what this program means to the TOPSoccer families.”
You experience stories like these and you start to realize there are probably other folks like this who get something out of the program well beyond what we’re doing with soccer from just a fun standpoint.
I was a high school soccer coach for 16 years and every year you’re with these players six days a week and you know you had some effect on them, or you’re pretty confident you had some effect on them, but it doesn’t touch with what happens with some of these TOPSoccer families. For many of these kids, TOPSoccer is the most physical activity they get in an entire week. They may have Phys. Ed, but these parents tell us they work harder with us on Sunday than they do at school. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but if you just take that at face value from what some of the parents say, they’re getting physically challenged with the soccer program as well.
Q: How important are the TOPSoccer buddies to the program?
The buddies are really important to the program. US Youth soccer had the foresight to offer a program like this and structure it, and in my case, have high school athletes who give up their time on a Sunday afternoon for community service credit. Many of them don’t even look for credit, they just want to be involved with the program because they’ve heard about it or they’ve been in the program and have loved it. The return rate for our players is almost 100 percent year to year until they graduate from high school. They’re the ones who make the program so enriching for the players. We, as coaches, set the boundaries and game plan for each week with what we’re going to cover. Then the buddies are the ones that really help the players and advocate for them in the game itself. They modify the game just a little bit, so there is a high success rate for these TOPSoccer athletes. They’re really important and we make our buddies feel important with preparation beforehand, and a very quick 2-minute debrief right after each session with myself and the rest of the coaching staff.
Q: How does working with these TOPSoccer kids has affected your life and has it affected your coaching philosophy outside of TOPSoccer?
I can tell you that I wear a different hat on Sundays to TOPSoccer than when I’m coaching a high school or middle school youth team. With those teams you can walk into a practice and you know you have six activities you want to do and there’s a high probability that’s what’s going to happen in practice. That’s not the case with TOPSoccer. I walk into a TOPSoccer session, I review what I want to do with my coaches, and depending on how each program or activity is going, you can throw that out the window. You may only get through half the things you want to do in a TOPSoccer session depending on the success rate and how the kids are doing. If it’s really warm, these players don’t have the stamina other youth players have and they need to take breaks. The physical requirements of a few minutes of running drains some of these children, so you don’t get through as many things as you want. You have to be more flexible and I learned this very quickly in running the program as a coach. I bet you most TOPSoccer coaches would confirm that you have to have a lot of flexibility in what you try to undertake and what you accomplish in a week. On the other hand, the players don’t know the difference, and don’t care, as long as you are doing some activities and finish with some kind of scrimmage or game they’re happy. The kids don’t care, they really don’t.
Q: Is there an activity the kids like more than another?
No matter what the age is, the kids want to scrimmage. Unless there is a 4- or 5-year-old just running around, everything is a scrimmage to them. Once they get to 8, 9 and 10 years old, they all want to scrimmage. Doesn’t matter if it’s 3v3, 4v4, or kids with high ability playing 8v8 — they all want to do that.
Another game that the kids love, no matter the age the kids love it. It’s one that every rec coach and every youth coach has used in America — Sharks and Minnows. The kids love it! Guess who they want to be the sharks? The coaches. They just laugh and giggle and they would do that more than anything else, outside of the fact we’re making them run really hard. We’re working on control dribbling and speed dribbling as part of sharks and minnows. I usually have that every week or every other week as part of the program. It doesn’t matter the age, the kids that are 17-18 and can dribble the ball quickly and we’ll go at them and challenge them harder more than we do the 5-and-6-year-olds that hare having trouble kicking the ball ahead of them. They’re all laughing and it’s always a great time for them to get past the coach. It makes their day. It’s always fun to beat the coach!
Q: Do you have any influences that have helped you develop yourself as a TOPSoccer coach
I guess the first influence I have to mention is Peggy Neason, who was just inducted into the US Youth Soccer Hall of Fame. When I went to a US Youth Soccer Region I TOPSoccer symposium, I saw the passion she had for the sport herself and the desire to make sure — we as coaches who ran TOPSoccer programs or were TOPSoccer reps at the state level, which I was for Vermont Soccer Association — we had additional knowledge of the potential abilities our players had. That brought the non-soccer side of TOPSoccer into the forefront for me, so that was a big influence.
From the coaching standpoint itself, I didn’t have a role model for TOPSoccer but I give a lot of credit to our State Director of Coaching, Dave Saward. He is the men’s coach at Middlebury College, and he has had a tremendous influence on many coaches from Vermont. I have had the pleasure of taking many coaching courses with him and working and running courses with him. Every time I’m with him, I learn more about how to coach the game of soccer and how to coach athletes effectively. I just helped him with an USSF ‘E’ License this spring. I have been coaching for 30 years and I walked out of there with more knowledge than when I walked in. From a coaching standpoint, Dave had a tremendous influence on how I train players and approach the game itself.
Q: What are some words of advice you have for those that are looking to start a program?
There are a lot of resources available for those looking to start a program. It can be intimidating because it isn’t as obvious where you should get your pool of players. The first resource for these individuals should be to contact their US Youth Soccer State Association TOPSoccer rep.
They’ll direct the individuals toward a coaching course or come to talk to them. I am hoping to start a third program in Vermont and I’ll just be sitting down and talking to the interested individuals about TOPSoccer, and if there’s enough interest I’ll go through the coaching course with them. If you don’t know who your rep is, just call your State Association office.
As for those who want to be coaches, I would say that anybody who has a passion for wanting to make sure all kids have the opportunity to play soccer should do it. If you have a passion for it, and you want to champion a program, that’s what you need. You have to be able to be a risk taker to a certain extent. You need someone who will say we’re going to get this done. Either a club person or an individual saying, we need something like TOPSoccer for these kids that are sitting on the sidelines. US Youth Soccer has a vehicle to get in touch and to start a program. The way I started my program was no different than anyone else who wants to start one. You just need that one person to raise their hand and say, “We’re going to make this happen.”
Learn more about how you can participate with US Youth Soccer's TOPSoccer program.