The Direct Path
Team Soccer Direct
Thousand Oaks, Calif.
Cost: Varies between $90 and $395 for specialty skills sessions and residential camp options
As brothers Dan and George Kuntz surveyed the kids kicking the black-and-white checked ball around, occasionally barking words of encouragement and offering advice, they recognized that this first three-hour soccer clinic was a good call.
It was going great, especially for a first-time shot. The kids were enthusiastic and already picking up some of the finer points of the game.
That first day as Touring Mesa Soccer Clinics in Mesa, Ariz., some 23 years ago spawned what is now one of the healthier soccer camps in the country. But the Kuntz brothers had no designs to create the eight-week program drawing more than 1,500 kids each summer that it would become.
"George took out a small loan of about $500 -- which wasn't easy to get that at the time -- and we got a very humble sponsorship from Rosarita Beans that allowed us to do our t-shirts, put their name on it and the name of our clinics," says Dan Kuntz. "We had 90 kids come to our first camp. There wasn't a lot of soccer at the time, especially in the Mesa/Tempe area, and we just wanted to get kids involved and jazzed up about the sport."
The clinics typically lasted five days and ran from about 8-11 a.m., taking advantage of the relatively cooler Arizona mornings. The Kuntz brothers experimented early on, giving away videos of camp weeks and pictures for the kids, and through this clinic gained valuable trial-and-error experience that would later pay dividends.
George became the coach at California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks, Calif., and soon moved on to coach the first Division I women's program at Pepperdine University. He was ultimately hired as the head men's coach at UC Irvine, his current position.
Dan moved into the head coaching vacancy left by his brother at California Lutheran. With the brothers back in the same vicinity and a precedent set at California Lutheran the camp soon burgeoned into an eight-week program hosting both day-campers and residents. The clinic/camp had shifted to Southern California, and the next phase began.
Creating a Camp
Team Soccer Direct now includes an entry-level day camp that runs from 9-12, another day camp that runs from 9-3 for children who've either been to the camp several times or are a little older (9-13 years old), and residence camps.
Kuntz has recently instituted a menu of options on their website (www.teamsoccerdirect.com) for teams and families interested in camp that he calls "create-a-camp". Essentially, it's born of an increasing necessity to fit camp into overburdened schedules and budgets.
"It's become a situation, especially for the higher-level player, where they're involved in tournaments and various activities. Today's campers aren't always able to be at camp for five days," says Kuntz. "We've created a dynamic environment where there will be a team or a group within a team that has a budget of say $120 for the week. They'll say, `We can't stay for the full week, what can you do for us?'"
A negotiation process of sorts takes place where schedules and budgets are mixed and matched to find just the right fit for the individual or the team that wants to attend camp together.
"We'll design the camp to the needs of those teams, coaches and players. We also do it on an individual basis, but it becomes a group as we create the schedules in the off-season," says Kuntz.
This menu-style of scheduling debuted last summer. Three teams took advantage of it and Kuntz reports that all three are returning.
"More and more pressure is being put on children for summer school and year-round school. That's why we came up with create-a-camp, because those things are impacting the marketplace," says Kuntz. "We block the time so that we have the facility, so there's a time frame in which people can sign up for camp. They have to pay a deposit, because we have to book the rooms, just like a hotel."
Team Soccer Direct also operates for one week around Christmas and in the spring, which also offers more options for kids who can't make it or whose schedules limit them in the summertime.
Training to Teach
Over the years George and Dan Kuntz have learned a lot about dealing with and working with kids of various ages. They have become astute observers and practitioners of child psychology, particularly as it relates to teaching soccer.
For example, Kuntz says it's important to have as many coaches as possible work with the youngest kids (five to six years); he likes to have two to three coaches work with 10 kids.
"We make sure they get lots of contact with their ball. The games they play are more on a social level, so that they're socializing with other kids while learning soccer. Those social skills will allow them to interact better, later, both in the sport and other things they do," says Kuntz. "When they get to be 10-12, they'll share, and then you start to talk about those cooperative exercise that combine things like passing."
Kuntz and the coaches at Team Soccer Direct usually begin with a game to get the attention of the children; as he says, "If we begin talking about techniques to receive and pass a ball, at the youngest levels, forget it, we're done. Instead, we do something where we're coaching within a fun game emphasizing a particular skill, and once we get their attention, we send them off for a break and put them in the small groups or work with them individually."
Then, if the coaches feel they've "lost" the campers again, they get them back into a game, and repeat this skills/game mix until the end of the day where skills learned are reinforced in an intersquad game.
"Soccer players that are 13-15 years of age need to work within exercises that develop specific muscular parts of the body. The speed of the game demands they are in peak condition for health and safety reasons. You have to be more direct in what you expect out of them, particularly if there are skills and tactical things they need to know. If they don't get it then, they'll never get it," says Kuntz.
With 15-18 year olds the skills training gets more intense. After all, they're still in the game and there's a majority who are looking at moving to the next level, whether that's their varsity squad or a college team.
"Once they get to that point you really have to have functional training, and that means bringing together the physical, tactical, mental and technical parts of the game," says Kuntz. "Those four things -- the four pillars, as we call them -- really have to be brought together. The expectations are that there are not a lot of mistakes; that's what they need, and that's what they want. That's also what their high school and college coaches are going to need and want from them."
At this point the players are often put in "small game" environments that emphasize a particular tactical aspect of soccer.
"If the technique breaks down, you have to be willing to step back to the basics and then bring them back to the competitive environment," says Kuntz. "You work to get as close to the game as you can. With soccer in particular, there are no time-outs, so you have to empower the athletes to think, problem-solve and perform at a high level with the inside strength to do that."
Making Camp Work
Coaching skills are obviously only part of the picture, and Kuntz emphasizes the importance of paying attention to the fundamentals of running a camp.
Of utmost importance is staffing. Everything else -- programming and risk management, among other aspects -- follows. This wasn't such an issue when the two brothers were the primary coaches, but it soon became a necessity as the camp grew.
"You need good training for the people coming in. Make sure you know their background, and understand what kind of personality you want around your business, kids, families and market. If you forget that you've forgotten the whole meaning of why you're there," says Kuntz.
Kuntz has a distinct advantage as his program brings in soccer coaches from universities around the country. Despite picking up some of the best in their field, Kuntz remains a stickler for who coaches at his camp; you have to know a lot more than soccer to be considered.
"The first thing we do is require from the prospective coach a resume and references if we don't know them, then we check them and their license status," says Kuntz. "A lot of times we'll know the people from circles we're in, so we don't have a whole lot of in-depth interviewing. But when we do we'll ask them they're coaching philosophy, why they want to do camp and what makes them tick as a coach beyond a paycheck. In our business the standards are very high, and we don't want someone there who isn't open to learn; we all have to learn."
In California, anyone who coaches has to be licensed, and Kuntz keeps the door open for high-school kids and college players to help out at camp as long as they're licensed.
"We've found that teachers who have played soccer are brilliant, and do some unbelievable, neat things with kids. They're creative and come up with ideas to get their attention, relating it to some of the things they do in the classroom," says Kuntz. "We'll pair them up with a volunteer high-school coach or someone who's been to our camp for five years or so. They find topics that relate to the child, like creating a game around a movie, cartoon or toy."
Kuntz likes to have coaches from different areas of the country from different backgrounds since they all bring a unique perspective to the camp.
With liability such a factor in recent years, Kuntz has five directors, three or four associate directors and a trainer each summer. This ensures that someone responsible is available at all times.
"We have a training session every summer prior to the meetings where we give the coaches a training booklet that has all the things to look out for to decrease our risks," says Kuntz. "For example, we need to be looking around the field; are there people around the field that shouldn't be there? We make sure kids stay on the field until their parents show up, keeping them away from parking lots and moving vehicles. It's those little things that make the difference between being successful or losing everything you've worked for because of an accident."
Though Team Soccer Direct brings in a national audience, most still come from Southern California. Kuntz says they get the word out in the local newspaper, area soccer magazines and flyers and "all-sports" brochures that circulate through the school system. Kuntz also attends soccer tournaments and gives talks to families and clubs.
As for the future, Kuntz says, "We're not looking to become a national entity; we just want to continue to foster interest in the game. We want to refine the create-a-camp concept and we would also like to see the creation of some kind of competitive environment where what the kids have learned they can go and do and compete with other kids in other regions as part of our camp package. We want to be able to provide more services to benefit children in the game of soccer."