Interview by Mike Woitalla
Note: This article first appeared in Soccer America’s Youth Soccer Insider. Mike Woitalla is the Executive Editor of Soccer America, and is a member of Sideline Sports Doc.
American sports icon Mia Hamm debuted for the U.S. national team at age 15 in 1987. She helped the USA to two World Cup and two Olympic titles. The 158 national team goals she scored before retiring in 2004 remain a world record. We asked Hamm to reflect on her early years and offer advice for coaches, parents and young players.
SOCCER AMERICA: How involved are you still in soccer?
MIA HAMM: It’s a huge part of my life. I’m still involved with U.S. Soccer on a couple of committees to help continue the growth of the game and make sure we’re going in the right direction, in general, as a Federation.
Kristine Lilly, Tisha Venturini-Hoch and myself started a soccer academy called Team First to basically help share with young girls our experiences and what we felt helped make us successful.
I still watch tons of soccer. Both the men’s and women’s national teams, MLS, EPL …
SA: What part of the coaching you got as a youngster helped you succeed?
MIA HAMM: Everyone talks about it being fun. And it definitely was. That needs to be the focus. Development over winning was something I felt was there. I think as kids, and especially the players who go on to play at the highest level, they’re naturally competitive. That’s going to be a part of what they do.
At a certain age, that reinforcement is important, but at a young age it’s about development and making sure that the kids really enjoy the environment they’re in so they want to come back and continue to learn and listen.
SA: How different do you think youth soccer is now compared to your early days?
MIA HAMM: The first coaches I had were just dads. And [laughs] probably wearing too small team uniform shirts and a really bad hat or visor on the sideline. And occasionally saying things they got from their days of playing football and trying to apply it to soccer, like “get to the end zone.”
It’s changed a lot. Some good, some bad. Coaching and the players are so much better at a younger age.
I didn’t specialize until I made the national team. I still played basketball and a bunch of different sports, really kind of followed what my friends were playing in the season that was being organized.
I think that helped me not burn out so early and helped my overall athleticism.
SA: In your book “Go For the Goal” you addressed the problem of youth coaches sacrificing “learning skills for winning games.” Youth soccer has continued to get more expensive and paid coaches are the norm, so it would seem that pressure on winning has increased …
MIA HAMM: You’re right, with more money and coaches being paid they feel a lot more pressure to win and parents want a greater return on their investment, whether that’s a college scholarship or an opportunity to play on the youth national team or professionally.
SA: You’ve talked about pickup games – such as soccer at recess in grade school and playing with your brother – being a key to your development …
MIA HAMM: That helped a lot. Playing against boys, against older kids who were more talented than I was — and bigger, stronger, faster. But in the end what was so great was I put myself in those situations, and it was an environment to be able to hang out with my brother.
You don’t hear of as many kids playing pickup soccer as they used to because they’re training five days a week and play 12,000 games on the weekend.
SA: What advice do you have for parents of aspiring players?
MIA HAMM: My parents really allowed soccer — and whatever I chose — to be my passion and not theirs.
I heard one of my coaches say the best advice he can give to the parents is just be their parent.
As a parent myself, I can pay other people to do their job in terms of coaching my kids. I don’t want anyone but me and my husband to be their parents.
I look at that as the important role I can play in their lives. It doesn’t mean I won’t share my knowledge of soccer with them or occasionally go out and coach their teams, but I want to make sure they know I’m their parent first and they can come to me, and I hope they come to me for anything.
SA: What should parents be aware of when girls enter their adolescent years? For sure that’s a time of many changes that can affect the way they approach activities like soccer.
MIA HAMM: I’ve tried to block out that period of my life [laughs]. …
I think, yeah, there’s so much going on and most of it you don’t really understand or you can’t really comprehend.
What I would tell parents is just understand that things can change at a drop of a hat – emotionally, physically, psychologically – for your kids, and to just be there [for them]. And be flexible. And be open, and be that sounding board for them.
They could have a favorite dress and the next day say they hate it and it’s the ugliest dress they’ve ever seen. Or they could say Susi’s my best friend and now they’re not talking to one another.
Expect the unexpected and just make sure you’re there.
SA: How do you think girls benefit by playing sports during those years?
MIA HAMM: With girls going through puberty, I think it gives us a great outlet both socially and physically. Kind of get out some frustration, run it out. Have a group of friends with a common interest whom you can kind of lean on … talk about your parents and how they’re not listening to you [laughs].
I think it’s extremely important.
SA: What advice do you have for young soccer players?
MIA HAMM: Have fun and everyday you step out there let’s see how much better I can get. And doing it together is even better.
(Mia Hamm played for the USA from 1987 to 2004, scoring 158 goals in 275 games. She played at four World Cups and four Olympics, and won two titles at each competition. She also won four NCAA titles with North Carolina and the 2003 WUSA crown with the Washington Freedom. She was inducted into the National Hall of Fame in 2007, three years after her retirement.)