COVID-19 has upended sports at all levels, ranging from youth to college to the pros. Georgetown University men’s head coach Brian Wiese has felt that acutely. Rather than embarking on a Fall 2020 campaign to defend the Hoyas’ 2019 NCAA title, he has had to navigate an uncertain terrain, working to keep his team and players together while awaiting the spring, when they’re scheduled to return to the pitch following a year-long hiatus.
Over the holidays, a home-bound Coach Wiese sat down with WSA President and Georgetown soccer alum Jason Partenza to discuss the youth soccer landscape, navigating the pandemic, building a program to sustain success, being a soccer dad, and more.
This exclusive WSA conversation, co-sponsored by the Wilton Youth Council, has been transcribed and condensed below for space and clarity by WSA’s own, EJ Crawford. You may also enjoy the full 60 minute conversation in its full video form via the embedded WSA YouTube link below.
Watch the full chat here
Jason Partenza: Let’s start by talking about your journey to Georgetown and how has that formed you as a coach.
Brian Wiese: I graduated from Dartmouth in 1995, playing there from 1991 to 1994, and my experience as a player was very formational to me as a coach. My freshman year I didn’t play a minute; I was the backup goalkeeper. My sophomore year I played; I was lucky enough to get the starting nod, but I was very inexperienced and conceded lots of goals on a very good team that went to the Elite 8 [of the NCAA Tournament]. But I kind of found my feet and my confidence during my junior year and senior year; I was a more established player then and was a captain as a senior. With that, I ran through a lot of ebbs and flows of a career, with different weights of expectation. So, I have a lot of empathy for all the players on our team because I’ve sat in their seat at one time or another, and I think that helps me.
JP: How do you approach recruiting? How do you decide the right kind of student-athlete to play at Georgetown?
BW: Recruiting is a very fluid thing. We really want kids who really want to come to Georgetown. We might fall in love with a player, and maybe that works and maybe it doesn’t. But if it doesn’t work, I don’t lose sleep over someone that we really, really wanted because it opens the door for someone else. And it’s a self-selecting thing. If you’re OK with the fact that there’s a reason why that one player didn’t end up at Georgetown, that there’s a reason why we didn’t get that kid, then there’s also then a reason that created an opportunity for another kid, there’s a reason why that kid did come. You need to be open to the fact that there’s a limitless number of people out there. There’s no soulmates between player and program. As long as we find the right kind of kid, who’s got the right moral compass and character and has an intrinsic motivation, who loves the sport and wants to get better – as long as they have those pieces, they’re going to end up being really satisfying to work with and they’re going to come through really well for you.
JP: You have three kids, all of whom play or have played soccer. Talk a little bit about the difference between being a coach and a parent and about coaching other people’s kids and watching your own kids play.
BW: Every one of us takes a crazy pill when our kid gets involved in something. Suddenly, the referees become horrible villains and the opponents can become problems and your kid has to be starting and she’s the best player on the team and the coach is an idiot. You lose your marbles. And as soon as you start talking about another kid, you go back to becoming a regular person again.
One of the hardest things as parents is managing expectations and managing our own expectations with what’s going on with our kids. I saw that with my kids. The pressure that one of these kids felt was significant, and it was completely manufactured. It’s really hard to separate and have that perspective, but you need to, because our kids feel that. You listen to parents going bananas, and it’s super competitive, and maybe that’s not for your kid. My daughter, she was wired for that; she wanted to play with the best team she could find. My son just wanted to play with his buddies. And it took me little time to take a step back and figure out that I didn’t need to push him harder, to take him in the backyard and run drills with him. He’ll either have that or he won’t. He wanted to play with his buddies, and that was perfect for him.
JP: How do you make sense of the youth soccer landscape these days?
BW: The landscape is so convoluted right now, because of COVID and because of the academy teams and all the different rules and processes. The best clubs out there, the clubs that do it right, have a strong organization, and they have good coaches, and the parents trust that. So that way, the kids own the process. They know whether they played well that day, rather than their parents telling them whether they played well or not that day.
JP: When you arrived at Georgetown, what goals did you set for the program? And what foundational pillars did you set to reach those goals?
BW: I don’t think I came into the job with a list of getting this right and that right; I just knew how I wanted all the pieces to work and I just started getting at that. Early on, I made a decision that I wanted to put a structure in place. And it didn’t totally fit the players we had. Looking back, I should have been much more pliable with that, but I also know how I wanted to play and so I took the long lens. The players we had [at the time] weren’t all perfect fits for what we wanted to do, but as seniors, those players were really good at teaching the freshmen the system, and there is a lot of value in that. And what we’ve become since is – our teams feel similar, but we’ve become much more malleable in fitting in the student-athletes we recruit while keeping the tenets of what we want to do: a pressing team, a team that values the ball. There’s very much a Georgetown style to it.
JP: From a university and administrative level, talk a little about alignment and culture and the team around you buying into what you’re doing.
BW: I’m very lucky. We have a president who understands the value of athletics and we have an AD who is the best AD I’ve ever worked with, who fits all these pieces together and supports us like crazy. And we have a group of coaches who all look out for each other, and I think we all recognize that we need to work together to make it work. It’s a really good group.
JP: You’ve obviously had a lot of great teams. What makes a really great team? You have great players on every team, but how do you get a group to jell together?
BW: It’s very cliché, but it’s when guys don’t care who’s scoring a goal, who don’t care who’s starting or who’s coming off the bench. They enjoy being around each other. The best teams are the ones who when you see them around campus, they’re all together at the dining hall, they’re all hanging out. That stuff really manifests. If we got something right in 2019, it’s that we recognized we had a group that was really close, that was really talented, and we started trusting everyone to do their jobs and they all followed through on that. If you have a group that really likes each other, that genuinely cares for each other, that chemistry piece always supersedes the talent. Always.
JP: How hard is that to create that sense of camaraderie at the youth level, where kids often play for so many different teams and where it seems like the world too often separates the experience into playing to have fun with friends or playing to compete at a high level, instead of doing both together?
BW: There’s something about a group of players that have been together since U8 and are now U18 that’s a lost experience now. It feels more mercenary. I don’t know what the solution to that is, but for those who stay together from youth to club to high school, those are strong bonds. I always have a lot of appreciation for the club coach who is willing to add every kid – those are the fun teams to play on.
JP: How have you managed through the pandemic, and what have you leaned on to get you through?
BW: Like everyone, it’s been really hard and mentally very taxing because it’s so new and so uncertain. My brain likes to relax on routine and there is nothing routine about this situation. My biggest priority is how do we keep our players in a good mental place. We do Zooms to get everyone together, but not too much since they do Zoom all day for class, and we also rely on them to handle each other. They’re good about staying connected themselves.
I keep going back to when I was in high school and I had these knee injuries that kept me out of action a lot. It made me so grateful for the time when I was able to play again. I’m surmising, because we’re still in the middle of all this, but I think we’ll have a lot of that. I think we’ll have these moments of saying, “This is something I won’t take for granted for a while. We’re going to really appreciate this time together.” Because it was taken away from them for the better part of a year.
JP: What it was like to win a national title last year? And do you think about it as the culmination of doing a lot of things right for a long time or as a one-time, lightning-in-a-bottle-type thing?
BW: It’s a little bit of both. Even when you think back to my first teams, 2006, 2007, teams that were 6-11, there were elements of us learning and building that translated to the 2010 team that had the first Big East championship run, which got the guys used to winning. But from 2012 to 2019, barring maybe one year in that eight-year window, we had teams that could have maybe won a [national] title. They all sort of build on each other. Every team has its ripple effect on the teams moving forward.
JP: If you had to give one piece of advice to three different constituents – someone trying to run a program and do it really well, at any level; a parent who wants to support their kid in soccer or any other sport; and a player who wants to do really well at soccer or another sport – what would it be?
BW: If you’re trying to build an organization or run a club, by far the most important thing to do is to get the right support people around you, people who understand your vision and that you want to spend time with. Get fun people and people you resonate with and who will have your back when times get hard.
If you’re a parent, drive your kid, drop them off, and do something else. Then pick them up and ask if they had fun. And just read your kid. Don’t project your own neuroses onto what’s going on. And if the kid is having a great time, keep taking them. If they’re not enjoying it, take them somewhere else. But let your kid tell you that. The more you can allow your son or daughter to breathe in that space, without the parental pressure, the better it’s going to be for them in the long run. And if they develop an intrinsic motivation, it’s probably not going to be because you provided it. Something else is going to spark that.
And for the young player, if you can find a friend or peer who loves the sport as much as you, who will head off with you on a Saturday to go out and play, that’s the single best thing you can do. My older brother was why I played soccer. He was four years older than me. We grew up in New Mexico, and there weren’t a lot of teams or top-level coaches out there. But he found a friend who loved soccer, so what did they do? They would go off and juggle and pass and play, because they liked each other and they liked soccer. And they wanted to shoot, so they pulled me into goal. One ended up being a captain at UCLA and the other a captain at Dartmouth, and of course they were – they played too much soccer over the course of their lives not to be awfully good at it.
WSA is currently enrolling for its Winter soccer program set to begin in early February and spring 2021 season which begins in April. All players are welcome. Visit www.wiltonsoccer.com for more information and to register!