JoBen Barkey runs around frantically on soccer fields across Miami-Dade County, kicking soccer balls and doing drills. Hes not an old pro trying to relive his glory days, instead hes teaching toddlers about sharing, passing and scoring.
Barkey is the executive director of Soccer Shots, which he began in Miami to teach young children not only how to play, but how to work together and develop social skills from the game.
Barkey, 35, a former player at Trinity Western University in Canada, said the unique demographics of Miami encouraged him to start the program in South Florida in 2005. He grew up in Peru and lived in California before moving to Miami.
One hundred percent of the people here love soccer and you cant say that for anywhere else in the United States, so its a no-brainer, said Barkey, who previously ran a sports program at an orphanage in Nepal and worked as a youth staff member with Royal Caribbean Cruises.
Today, Soccer Shots operates in more than 30 states. Locally, it runs as both an after-school and in-school program at more than 50 schools and parks in Miami-Dade County. Classes begin for players as young as 2 (the mini class), go up to 3- to 5-year-olds (classic class) and top out at 5- to 8-year-olds (the premier class). A seasons worth of classes range from about $120 to $180, depending on the venue, location and the childs age.
Soccer-minded parents have helped shape the program. Initially, the program focused on instructive drills, sharing and character-building exercises and occasionally featured coaches dressed as Cookie Monster from Sesame Street. Barkey said things changed when a father approached him and said he took his son to a soccer game and his kid didnt believe it was real soccer.
We never used to do scrimmages because we are a non-competitive kids soccer program, Barkey said. We didnt want to pit the kids against each other.
In a soccer-savvy city like Miami, they know the sport, Barkey said. If they come out and see an imitation soccer program thats talking about character building nobody really cares about the message were trying to give they want the soccer.
Seth McKennon, director of Soccer Shots Miami, said that in California, the focus was more on just having something for children to do when parents signed up. In South Florida, the sport comes first.
In Miami, the dads are mainly signing up the kids. In California, moms are signing up the kids, McKennon said. In California its all about health, if theyre doing something active it could be whatever. Here? Its soccer.
As soccer star David Beckham continues exploring plans to bring a Major League Soccer team to Miami, Barkey and his partners see the teams potential arrival as a chance to show children a professional playing opportunity that isnt in another country.
Having a professional league is inspiring to young people, said Greg Griffith, director of development for U.S. soccer. They say, Hey, I can actually play this sport for a living.
A lot of these kids, getting exposed to something like that, thatd be amazing, Barkey said. What we envision going forward are finding opportunities to partner not just to see national teams play but also seeing local colleges play.
Beyond improving childrens soccer skills, the program wants to encourage students to continue in soccer to secure potential scholarship and develop leadership qualities.
I think what weve recognized in doing this is its a bit of a gateway sport, said Justin Bredeman, vice president of recruitment for Soccer Shots. Kids dont have to be a certain height, they dont have to be able to wield a racket or swing a club. You can play soccer once you start walking.
At a recent session at the Killian Palms Sports Complex, kids mostly ran around with Barkey and two assistant coaches, working on skills like trapping the ball, passing and setting up for shots in a small goal.
Barkey and the coaches set up each student, told them to execute a pass, trap the ball when they got it back and then shoot and score. No matter how long it took for the child to get the ball in the goal, students clapped, cheered and danced to celebrate.
The kids that will never be the next [Lionel] Messi, they still get a chance to score, said McKennon.
When the children were split into teams for the scrimmagebetween the Yellow Bananas and Red Appleschaos ensued as children ran in all directions, often falling over each other, until one team scored. Grandparents and parents, like Marcos Molina, cheered enthusiastically. Molina, of South Miami, said despite the frantic competition, his daughter Gabriela, 4, has shown improvement.
Here they teach them fundamentals that otherwise they probably wouldnt learn, because the objective is just to score goals a lot of times when youre playing competitively, said Molina.
Christina Lopez initially signed up her son, Rafael, 3, to get him on a team sport. Now shes seen some of the other non-athletic benefits Barkey espouses.
Before he couldnt be around large groups of people, he wasnt comfortable with it, now hes all over the place, Lopez said.
Over the past two years, the program has spread internationally, working with the non-profit Beyond Boundaries Academy and U.S. Soccer Foundation to establish soccer academies in Peru and Rwanda. The Academy has the support of former U.S. national team players like John OBrien and Eric Wynalda and is funded through donations. The program plans to travel to Ethiopia or Nigeria next spring.
As Beyond Boundaries continues to develop, Barkey said the major challenge for Soccer Shots locally is finding qualified coaches to assist him and McKennon. The Miami program has about 10 coaches and hopes to double that in the coming year.
Were not concerned about whether or not this person is going to be able to teach a high-academic level class because we provide all the tools for them to do that, Barkey said. What we cant teach someone is how to love children and be patient with children.
Soccer Shots partnered with 10 local schools in the past few months and hopes to eventually grow to 200. The program has also recently expanded into football not fútbolwith a program called Touchdown Kids that has sites in Florida and Texas.
I tell people that now we do fútbol the round ball and football the pointy ball, said Barkey.