When we think of mentors, we typically picture someone who is older and wiser. Now instead, picture a young boy scoring a goal, patting his teammates on the back, and cheering them on as they whoosh past him on the soccer field.
Seven-year-old Elias is in second grade, full of smiles, and says his inspiration is his favorite soccer player of all time: Cristiano Ronaldo.
“He’s kind of good,” Elias exclaims. “I think he’s better than Lionel Messi.”
But when it comes to playing on the field, he credits his favorite coach-mentor, Marcos, for helping him succeed and become a student that other players can look up to.
"[Marcos] is my favorite coach because he trains me to get better and better at soccer," says Elias.
This is Elias' second year in Soccer for Success at the Boys and Girls Clubs of Wake County in North Carolina. Marcos met Elias through his older brother who had joined the program, and although Elias started to play soccer at his elementary school, he begged his mother to bring him to Soccer for Success. He hasn't looked back.
Since Elias first joined the program, Marcos has noticed a change in his demeanor. At first, Elias would grow upset with other players if their skill level didn’t match his, but now he responds in a more positive manner.
“He’s patient with his teammates,” Marcos says. “He breathes in and out and tries to get his teammates involved instead of putting them down.”
Marcos has also noticed how Elias steps up and takes the lead in teaching just like Soccer for Success coach-mentors.
“We try to teach by example, and he picks it up and tries to lead,” Marcos reflects.
Being a coach-mentor entails much more than teaching kids the techniques of the beautiful game; it means making one-on-one connections and being a champion for young players.
“[It’s] the personal level,” says Ashley, Club Director of the Boys and Girls Clubs of Wake County. “Of course, you need to be a great coach and know the game of soccer and everything, but I think you have to go outside your own box and really connect with the kids. Really digging deep into the mentor side of it is what makes you a great coach-mentor.”
Ashley has been at the organization for over 10 years now and has known Marcos for three of them. In between managing site visits, overseeing the implementation of Soccer for Success, and coaching kids herself, she’s noticed that Marcos has gone above and beyond in being a mentor to his players.
“He is very in tune to soccer. It’s one of his passions,” she says, also noting that, “He does a great job of engaging kids and caters to every skill level.”
Ashley insists that it’s these coach-mentors—the ones who really focus on mentorship, make the impact palpable in these kids’ lives, and foster growth—that truly make the program what it is.
"All of my staff have adapted 'the way,'" she adds. "The way to coach, the way to serve, the check-ins, like I see my staff checking in with kids on normal days. This is almost like a basis of how to be successful."
Ashley has seen how participants in the program have come full circle and how the kids who have aged out of Soccer for Success come back to help the younger participants. In addition, she’s noticed it in the character development of kids like Elias.
Recently, Elias and his teammates competed in a tournament and ultimately won the championship. And as proud as he was to triumph, he recognized that soccer isn’t just about winning or learning fancy footwork, but it’s about learning how to be a team player on and off the field.
Marcos has observed Elias applying this concept to his own experiences on and off the field.
"He carries himself around like a soccer player," Marcos affirms. "He is very committed to coming to Soccer for Success on a daily basis."
Elias is excited to continue sharing his passion for soccer and the skills he's gained through the program with his friends and classmates.
"I'd invite them," he says of students at his school not involved with Soccer for Success.
With the encouragement of his coach-mentors and family, who regularly attend practices and games, Elias set his soccer goals high and is ready to reach for the stars.
Soccer for Success teaches kids to not only embrace a healthy lifestyle but how to build confidence and recognize the value of teamwork and achieving personal goals. Learn more about the program here.