goalWA.net is pleased to welcome a new columnist to our website: Ruth Nicholson. She is the founder of GO!, a go-to expert resource for youth sports governance and operations. In the coming weeks, Ruth will address soccer topics in the new series “Off the Pitch”. Meet her in the interview below!
According to Sam Snow, US Youth Soccer Director of Coaching, youth soccer organizations have spent a great deal of time and money over the past 40 years educating and creating professional development paths for coaches and referees. However, little support has been provided to the administrative side of the youth game. We are fortunate to have someone in Washington state who does just that. Ruth Nicholson, founder of GO!, has been working with soccer organizations in Washington and across the country for decades. Read on to learn about her diverse background and insights about the biggest challenges our youth soccer organizations face off the pitch.
How did you first become involved with soccer?
I grew up in West Texas at a time when girls were told that they could not play soccer. I was not able to start playing until junior high. By the time I was in high school, I was a player, referee, and referee assignor, in part due to Title IX. We formed a girls’ team at our high school my senior year, and due to a wacky set of circumstances, I ended up being the player/coach for the team.
How did you connect with soccer in Washington?
I came to the University of Washington to study forest science and put myself through school as a soccer referee, nanny, and church organist. While here, I found my passion in organizational development and earned a master’s in public administration. After moving to Washington, I continued to referee and play, primarily as a goalkeeper. My recreational playing career has spanned four decades.
In the mid-1980s, I was hired by Football Club Seattle, the Storm, to redesign its volunteer program. Volunteers were the primary source of staffing for game days at Memorial Stadium at the Seattle Center. The team played in the Western Soccer League, and the club only had five paid staff (including coaching). We ran all stadium operations, except the press box, with 88 volunteers. My program had a 98% return rate for volunteers returning to support the team from season to season.
It was a wonderful group of people with whom to work, including Dave Gillett who had played for the Seattle Sounders in the NASL, and young players just starting their careers, such as Brian Schmetzer and his brothers, Chris Henderson, Pete Fewing, Chance Fry, and John Hamel. A number of them now serve in leadership roles in local youth clubs and leagues. Since my days at FC Seattle, I have had the privilege to work with some of those former players at youth soccer clubs in the Seattle area, as well as enjoying being fellow soccer parents when our sons played youth soccer together. Soccer really is a small world.
What other work have you done in the soccer community?
I have been in Washington for over 35 years now. In addition to playing and refereeing, I have coached and managed teams for middle, elementary, and preschool-aged players. By the time my sons were in middle and high school, we were all playing on, managing, or coaching as many as seven teams simultaneously, in addition to refereeing. Over those years, I served on club boards of directors, worked as a strategic planning consultant, and mediated internal and external conflicts involving local clubs and soccer organizations. I have also redesigned and managed the staffing for an international tournament, as well as managing a local youth club’s administrative operations. Some of that work I did as a volunteer. Other jobs were a part of the youth sports services branch of my company, Nicholson Facilitation & Associates, LLC.
How have your soccer experiences impacted your current work in youth sports?
I would not be as effective in my work in youth soccer without that variety of experience. Although I no longer coach players on the field, I still attend coaching courses because they help me better understand what coaches do and what they need to be effective in working with players. In fact, I just returned from the National Youth Coaching Course (formerly National Youth License). The perspective I gain from those courses – and more importantly, from the coaches in those courses – is a key component that helps me design integrated organizational operations and high-quality programs that support coaches in their work. It is my way of supporting players. I love it when I can create or redesign something that is easy to implement and makes a positive difference for an organization so that it can focus more time and attention on its players.
What types of projects are you currently working on?
I really enjoy the variety in my work. My clients come from across the country. For example, I am currently redesigning a board of directors for a club on the East Coast, as well as mentoring and providing a sounding board for coaches, directors of coaching, and administrators in over a dozen states. My other projects include working with one of the youth group leaders at the NSCAA Advocacy Council, providing feedback to coaching education instructors on their facilitation skills, and presenting workshops at state coaching education events and national meetings, such as the US Youth Soccer Leadership Development Symposium. Over the past three years, I have designed 10 workshops for NSCAA and US Youth Soccer.
Currently, I am finishing up a book on successful youth sports organizations. It is about the balance and collaboration needed between coaching and player development, governance and leadership, and operations and administration. The book is the blueprint of an online resource program called GO! Governance and Operations that I am launching this spring.
What are some of the biggest challenges youth organizations face off the pitch?
Too often, we do not have clear roles and expectations set for what each of us is contributing to our organization and its programs. Further, we do not play to our strengths and knowledge. We need skilled coaches. We need board members and club owners who know how to manage the legal and financial aspects of an organization. We need administrators who know how to implement our programs cost-effectively and with minimal bureaucracy.
We also need to understand that these are very different skill sets that must work together as an off-field team to support our players and coaches. It is rare to find a coach who likes to play all three roles or an administrator or board member who can play all three roles. We would not field a team of 11 goalkeepers and expect to easily win a game, would we? Why would we think that only a coach or only an administrator knows it all or can do it all?
How can adults that manage and organize the youth game work better together to support our players and coaches?
I think there are three things we can do to make the youth game work better from an off-the-pitch perspective:
- Take the time to articulate clear roles for our coaches, organizational leaders (board members, club owners, directors of coaching, executive directors), administrators, volunteers, and parents.
- Respect what each of us brings to the game as coaches, leaders, and administrators so that we build trust between our roles and play our positions (not someone else’s)
- Remember the importance of the subject matter expertise in the game of our coaches who are most often the face and most visible people involved in working with our players and their families.
We are all soccer people. We need to play our different positions effectively, collaborate, and support each other as we manage our clubs, leagues, and associations for our players.