Youth soccer coach brings military experience to his team

Sunday, July 19, 2009 | 5:18 p.m. CDT; updated 10:54 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 20, 2009

An earlier version of this story misspelled the names of soccer coach Les Shaeffer and his wife, Amy Shaeffer.

COLUMBIA – Before the silver medal game of the under-6 soccer competition Sunday at the Show-Me State Games, Les Shaeffer stands at midfield with his arms folded, scanning the field behind black sunglasses. Once the ref signals for the opening kick, Shaeffer begins marching up and down the sidelines like a drill sergeant.

“Attack the ball, don’t wait for it!” Shaeffer pleads from the sidelines.

He moves up and down the sidelines like a gymnast on a balance beam, no step wasted, each with precision and purpose. He shouts instructions to his players in a stern but controlled tone like a cop directing traffic. He conveys discipline, and his team illustrates that in their ability to spread the field and use spacing to their advantage. Early in the first quarter, one of Shaeffer’s fullbacks settles the ball and boots it up the sideline to a forward, moving the ball in a steady, attacking manner.

This tactic contrasts with the more common kick and run strategies used by many of the other teams in the age group. Instead of congested bunches, Shaeffer’s Neosho United squad moves fluidly on the pitch. Shaeffer lives in Neosho, which is just south of Joplin.

However, late in the first quarter, a failed clearing attempt trickles dangerously into the middle of the Neosho box. An Ashland Eagles player swoops in, picks up the helpless prey and slips the ball past the goalkeeper just inside the right post.

Shaeffer responds like a lawyer in a courtroom. He calmly removes his hat and glasses and places them on the bench. His pace quickens, but he still exudes confidence and control, like a boxer after knocking down his opponent. After eight years in the United States Marine Corps, Shaeffer is used to responding to adversity.

“Being a grunt makes me push harder than before, to not quit,” Shaeffer said. “I try to pass that onto the kids.”

Shaeffer spent four years as an infantryman and four training new Marines. He served all over the globe, in Hawaii and Hong Kong, throughout the Middle East and Eastern Africa. In addition to his military background, Shaeffer was an avid athlete, playing nearly every sport while running and boxing competitively. Shaeffer brings the discipline he learned in the military to the soccer field.

“He works the kids hard and it pays off,” said Benjamin Thomason, whose son plays for Shaeffer. “He knows when to stop and back off too.”

Shaeffer said two Marines influenced him greatly. His senior drill instructor during boot camp in San Diego instilled the initial drive to never give up, and a staff sergeant  at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina demonstrated how to put that drive into action.

While Shaeffer admits his Marine background makes him a harder coach, he doesn’t doubt his techniques. Parents might complain, but it’s all part of growing up according to Shaeffer.

“My kids are prepared mentally and physically," he said. "It doesn’t burn them out. Parents get upset sometimes, but they have to know their kids won’t get anywhere getting babied.”

In the military, nothing is free. Everything must be earned. Shaeffer brings this mindset to his practices through his running drills. At the end of each practice, the Neosho United run close to one mile in laps and sprints, according to Les Shaeffer’s wife, Amy Shaeffer.

“With the Marines, you don’t get respect, you have to earn it,” Amy Shaeffer said. “That’s the mentality he’s brought to the kids. There’s always room to grow and Les pushes them to do that. Although we sometimes forget they’re six years old and not at the maturity level we think they are. But they don’t quit, that’s for sure.”

Les Shaeffer’s dedication to fitness rubs off on his team. Despite increasing the pressure on its opponent throughout the game, Les Shaeffer’s squad can’t put one in the net and they fall to the Ashland Eagles 1-0. Waiting for their bronze medals, many Neosho United team members beg to take a lap around the field. When Les Shaeffer proposes postgame sprints to his team, they respond with enthusiasm.

Although Les Shaeffer will return to Neosho after his first Show-Me Games experience with a bronze medal, he said the hunger for perfection learned in the military will bring him back to Columbia for many years to come with hopes of gold.

“I hate losing and I hate second place," he said. "In combat, there is no second place.”

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