Camp director and coach Dominic Proffit stood off to the side Monday morning on the old Shoe Factory Fields on West Street in Tunkhannock, watching a group of “Tiny Tikes” slay a dragon before returning to their castle.
The dragon, also known as Coach Joe Rowley, was slayed by the players swords- being hit by a controlled soccer ball- to collect a treasure (a pinney).
When all the treasures were captured from the prancing dragon- Coach Joe really got into character- the budding soccer stars all grouped up within the cones for more directions.
The eager group of three, four, and five year olds were having a blast on the first day of the week-long British Challenger camp sponsored by Tunkhannock Youth Soccer Association.
TYSA has provided this camp to the community before, and is encouraged by the almost double registrations for this week. Registration for fivers in the TYSA are still available until August 15, TYSA’s Jeanette Pocoro said.
According to their website, Challenger’s British Soccer Summer Camp is the most popular camp in the USA and Canada. With an innovative curriculum that develops skills, speed and confidence in players of all ages and abilities, British Soccer Camps provide boys and girls with the rare opportunity to receive high-level soccer coaching from a team of international experts right in the heart of their own community.
In addition to teaching new skills and improving game performance, each British Soccer Camp provides lessons in character development and cultural education.
Proffit is a native of London, while Coach Rowley hails from Sheffield, England and Coach Tim O’Driscoll rounds out the trio leading the camp in Tunkhannock from Cork in Ireland.
In general, most of the over one thousand coaches in the 13 American regions working for the company hail from Britain and Brazil, but there are also representatives from Uruguay, Ireland, America, and occasionally even French, Dutch and Belgium coaches.
“I became involved with the Challenger camps after graduating from Solent University in Southampton. The company did a presentation at a camp I was at in 2009,” said Proffit.
He continued, “Throughout the UK and most of Europe, high school soccer isn’t really a big thing, most players play on development teams that are the equivalent of travel or club teams in America.”
In fact, there are multiple levels, with promotions available, and also the possibility of being scouted at a young age.
Proffit explained, “Most of the time, with the younger kids, they are placed into the academy by the time they are six to nine years old. Even at that young age, a scout can see the key development points of the player. The foot skills and technique can all be learned, but is the player coachable? Is the player willing to learn? Things like that together with athleticism really stand out.”
That is one of the reasons that the Challenger program starts with the Tiny Tikes program.
“The grass roots part of the camp is one of my favorites,” said the director. “Especially in smaller communities like this one. The kids all know each other, and come with their friends. It is a good, fun experience that teaches them the game, and even introduces them to new people as well.”
The coaches are based out of the regional office in Baltimore and each coach can spend between eight and 10 weeks in America. As a director, Proffit is in the USA from April through November.
For each camp, the coaches look to stay with host families, though Proffit admits Rowley and O’Driscoll are staying at Shadowbrook Inn this week.
“If any families are looking to become host families,” he said during camp introductions on Monday, “we would be glad to talk to them.”
Part of the international experience of the camp is offering new perspectives of other cultures and the coaches look to embody that by immersing themselves into an American household each camp.
During the course of the camp, the older kids will work within five stations.
Each is named for a particular country and tries to focus on that team’s skill.
The first station is UK and hones in on SAQ. SAQ stands for ‘speed, agility, and quickness.’ Some of the drills in this station are with a ball, but some are without.
The second station is Brazil, where players focus on the ABCs, or the basics, of footwork. On Monday, the players played a game of knockout within a small area designed to force ball control.
Third, the players head to Spain for passing and moving drills. In Spain, the athletes work without defenders, focusing on moving the ball.
The fourth and fifth stations are named for the men’s and women’s World Cup Champions, France and America, respectively.
In France, the players are learning about possessions, and the movement drills are similar to Spain’s, but the players now face a defender.
Finally, in the USA, the youngsters are put into game related scenarios.
Here, they combine all the skills they learned from the previous stations and put them into action. A player might have to complete a series of tasks as well. For instance, they might have to dribble to a designated end zone before passing or score in a certain marked goal.
Each day culminates with a World Cup scrimmage.
The coaches try to focus each day on the five pillars of Challenger soccer: respect, responsibility, integrity, leadership and sportsmanship. If the athletes can demonstrate these standards, they can earn extra points for their World Cup scrimmage team.
Also, there are opportunities- such as team colors/jersey day, and smoothie day where players can bring a healthy fruit as a snack- to earn more points. Finally on Friday, the campers get together and make a flag for their World Cup country.
“Usually we try to play three scrimmages a day,” said Proffit. “At the end of the week, we will total the points and have a champion, they get bragging rights.”
The bragging rights are usually enough of a reward, as soccer has grown leaps and bounds in recent years on American playgrounds and fields.
Proffit said, “I started in 2009 and the growth has been incredible. I feel it has to do more exposure to soccer on television; the kids have more opportunities to see the game being played. Back then, there was an occasional game on ESPN. Now, on any given Saturday, there are games at 7:30, 10, noon, and on all day. The networks-Fox Soccer, NESN, NBC- are all covering the sport. The commercial base has helped with the athletic development.”
“The kids are also more invested in the professional soccer league here in the States. Big names, like Wayne Rooney who is currently on the DC United team, raise the profile of the sport and get the kids out on the field,” he added.
Proffit related also that the USA Women’s National Team winning the World Cup has helped the relevance of the sport to all American players, and not just the girls.
“We had a boy come to a camp last week with (Megan) Rapinoe’s pinkish-purple hair color,” he remembered with a smile.
But the best part of the day, according to Proffit is seeing the kids put the skills into action.
“Seeing them put into practice what they have learned makes it all worth it. On Friday, when we see how much each player has grown- and the smiles on their faces while doing it- is why we are here,” he said.
Rowley echoed that, saying, “I started in Rhode Island in 2016 and am grateful to have had the chance to come back, I have always wanted to do this. Seeing the kids improve is the best part. To have a successful team, like the USA Women, it all starts here. We help create a love for the sport, and it is all worth it when the kids love playing and just love being out on the field.”
O’Driscoll, who just finished his secondary schooling, is in his first year with the program. He is looking forward to teaching the players new skills.
Jimmy Buchman sat on the sidelines as his daughters Aria, 5, and Adalind, 3, scurried around the field after Coach Joe’s dragon routine.
Buchman commented, “They were excited to come this morning. They are so young, and don’t really have soccer skills yet, but if they listen and follow directions, and come off the field smiling, that is all I need to see.”