It was the final game of the Urbana Park District basketball season, and Jordan Morris’ motley crew of third- and fourth-grade boys (at right) was winning. He watched them dribble, pass and deploy the pump fake and the jab step – moves he and his friends had taught them at practice – to almost double their opponent’s score.
Celebrating with his team after the final buzzer, Morris pulled his hoody over his face to hide his emotions.
“I actually teared up! One of the kids was trying to talk to me, and I didn’t want him to see me cry,” Morris said. “It was so cool to see all the hours we had spent with them come together. It was magnificent. It was art. It was a masterpiece.”
Morris is one of the many UI students who volunteer to coach recreational sports leagues in the Champaign-Urbana area. Youth sports directors at the two park districts don’t keep an official count of student coaches, but Hsiung Marler, youth sports coordinator for the Champaign Park District, estimates that about 20 to 30 percent of his volunteer coaches are enrolled at the UI, and Kyle Mills, athletics supervisor with the Urbana Park District, said that up to 60 percent of his coaches are students.
There’s no course at the university that requires students to spend their Saturday mornings wrangling rowdy 8-year-olds around a basketball court or herding pre-adolescents across a soccer field; the students sign up to coach for their own personal reasons.
John Rynecki, a junior from Germany majoring in recreation, sports and tourism, started coaching soccer for the Champaign Park District shortly after the 2010 World Cup re-ignited his passion for the sport. He hopes to someday manage a professional team in Europe.
“It’s something I really want to do, and there’s nothing else I’d rather do,” he said. He’s now in his second season as a Champaign Park District soccer coach, and is also on the coaching staff of the Illinois Futbol Club (formerly known as the Little Illini Soccer Club) travel team.
Amy Spinabella, a senior in business finance from Mundelein, Ill., is in her third season as a Champaign soccer coach. She coaches with another UI student – a friend who was a teammate at Lake Zurich (Illinois) High School. They initially started coaching simply as a way to stay involved with a sport they both love.
“It was a way to get back into it, and we thought it would be fun to do – and it is,” Spinabella said.
David Alter, a senior from Downers Grove, Ill., majoring in molecular and cellular biology – and earning minors in business and chemistry – needs to list some volunteer work on his application to medical school, but wanted more than just a paper-clerk position. “I don’t like the whole idea of volunteering at hospitals where your interaction with people might not be happening. A lot of volunteers just file papers,” he said. “I want to volunteer in something that will make a difference in someone’s life, that will help them grow up and learn different things and think of things in different ways. And what better way to do that than coaching?”
Another pair of molecular and cellular biology majors, Mohammed Siddiqui and Laura Osoba, teamed with UI nursing student Lauren Cruise to coach youth soccer in Champaign last spring. Like Alter, they will list coaching as a volunteer activity on their graduate school applications, but that’s not their prime motivation, they said.
“Medical schools do look favorably upon people who do volunteer work, and nearly everyone does it, but I didn’t start coaching just to put it down as another part of my application,” Siddiqui said. “I already have plenty of volunteer work, most of it in the medical field, and the same applies for Laura and Lauren.”
Instead, coaching serves as something of a step-down drug for these three students, weaning themselves off of a life of full-time soccer. Osoba and Cruise grew up playing soccer together in Orland Park, Ill., from the age of 4 through club teams and high school varsity. Siddiqui, from Skokie, Ill., played in high school, too. Between two- and three-hour practices six days a week, plus games, they were saturated with soccer. “Soccer has been a major part of our lives,” Siddiqui said.
Teams that aren’t coached by college students are typically coached by the parents of one or more players. Marler said student coaches have a set of skills that full-fledged grownups simply can’t match.
“Students tend to have a deeper knowledge in sports than the average parent, they tend to have more recent experience, and they have a lot more energy, generally,” he said. “And to kids, anybody over a certain age is a completely different species. A college student is someone they see as a version of themselves a little bit down the road. That resonates with them, so they relate much better.”
Stephanie Corum, a mom who has coached her kids’ Champaign soccer teams, agrees with Marler. “College kids bring a certain level of enthusiasm that parents don’t always bring,” she said. “And the kids love, love, love the college kids.”
In the spring 2011 season, Corum co-coached with Rynecki, and noticed that he had a certain influence over their squad of 8-year-olds. “I think the girls kind of thought John was a little dreamy, and the boys were like, ‘I wanna be like John because he’s so cool!’ ” Corum said. “But I realized that we served different roles. Anytime the kids got hurt on the field, they said, ‘I want Coach Stephanie!’ But if they scored a goal, they really wanted to high-five John.”
Rynecki had to adjust his expectations from Germany – where soccer is so popular that children learn the game from an early age. “I had this mentality that they would know what they’re doing, they want to play soccer. So at first, I was doubting my ability to coach,” he said. “Then I realized oh, this is what they do at this age: They want to have fun. That’s normal.”
Their team lost every game except one, Corum said – the one she had to miss, which Rynecki coached solo. “There was just something magical about his being there by himself,” she said. “He did it!”
In park district sports, however, winning ranks lower on the priority scale than skill development, sportsmanship and fun. Most of the student coaches interviewed couldn’t recall their teams’ exact win-loss records, and that fact makes Marler proud.
“That’s the best thing you could’ve told me to brighten my day,” he said. “A lot of victories happen off the scoreboard. The player who is timid and shy and makes their first goal in soccer – that child is changed for the rest of her life.”
In many cases, it’s not just the child who is changed. Students who volunteer to coach sometimes discover that the experience is more rewarding than they expected.
Morris, who coached basketball with UI students Mike Walsh (who has since graduated) and Jake Cocagne, of Champaign, Ill., said coaching gave him a chance to “become a kid again” and to recognize parts of his own personality in different players on his team – the kid he thought of as the “class clown,” another one he thought of as “the outsider,” and one who exhibited symptoms of Attention Deficit Disorder, just like Morris himself.
“I loved all of them. I miss seeing those kids,” Morris said. “I can’t wait to coach again.”
Spinabella, the business major now into her third season of coaching soccer, had her perspective on possible motherhood shifted by coaching. “I think because I’m a woman in business, I’m so job-oriented, I kind of see kids as a hassle, like a career-ruiner, because they are, in a way,” she said. “But coaching actually made me like kids more. They looked up to us, they were really excited to see us, and they were just really cute. We always felt good about ourselves after practice.”
Colin Cuzman, a senior from Downers Grove, Ill., majoring in chemical engineering, has been coaching younger boys since his junior year of high school, when a broken collarbone cut short his basketball season.
When he arrived at the UI and joined Sigma Phi Epsilon, he found that another group of SigEps had been coaching seventh- and eighth-grade boys basketball for the Champaign Park District for four years. Cuzman formed another coaching staff from among his housemates, and continued what has become a seven-year tradition of one Champaign team being coached by young men who show up for Saturday morning games decked out in slacks, button-down shirts and ties.
“It’s just a little thing we’ve always done,” Cuzman said. “We take it seriously so the kids take it seriously as well.”
In the fall 2010 season, Cuzman’s team included a boy who had never played basketball or any other team sport, and whose mother informed the coaches that her son was autistic. Although she told them she would understand if they didn’t put him in the gameday lineup, Cuzman assured the mother that her son would play at least a half a game each game, just like all the other members of the team.
“The kid was not very good to start the season. He was by far our most improved player,” Cuzman said. “There was a game where he made his first basket, and if you’d been there, you would’ve thought he had won the championship. It was one of those moments – you can’t really describe it – that made everything worth it.”