Jamie Varvaro has two sets of children. One set is his own. The other is his soccer team. Varvaro’s youngest child, 12-year-old Elayne, is on his team. So are 17 other girls.
“You really get to bond with these young ladies,” he says. “Pretty soon you look at them as all your daughters.”
They giggle and whine and fight like you’d expect from a family. Varvaro teases them, gently throwing a soccer ball at one when she gets distracted. Yet even when the team is rowdy, Varvaro’s wide grin rarely fades.
This is Varvaro’s third year coaching a team with the Carrera Soccer Club, an all-girls soccer organization.
It’s not a path Varvaro expected. His first experiences with soccer came in a physical-education class, where he grew up in Napa Valley, Calif.
“It was this hard brown soccer ball that you really just tried to run away from,” he says, wincing slightly at the memory.
He opted instead for basketball and baseball. When he had children, however, his path quickly changed.
“When you have four kids, and three of them are girls, and they all want to play sports …” He trails off, shaking his head and smiling.
“I became a student of soccer when the kids showed an interest.”
After 14 years of coaching — three with Carrera and 11 with the city’s Parks and Recreation Department — he feels confident.
“I feel once I’ve made it into double figures as far as coaching goes, I can say I’m somewhat of an expert,” he says.
Varvaro acknowledges his strengths are in the mental aspects of coaching. He constantly watches the players as they run drills up and down the practice field at Columbia Catholic School.
He’s looking for weak spots he can work on later. When one of his players struggles, he goes through a visualization process with them.
“Envision your toughest move or the thing that you’re struggling with the most out on the soccer field,” he tells them. “I want you to see yourself making it happen.”
Not all the girls buy into it immediately.
“They think it’s kind of silly,” Varvaro says. “Then, as they continue to practice and they continue to see themselves improve, finally it clicks.”
He continues to stare over the field at his players, squinting against the glare of the sun. When one of the girls completes a difficult drill, his easy smile appears again with pride.
“There is nothing that can compare to seeing them react — ‘Oh my gosh. I did it.’”
He’s rewarded by watching the girls grow up. Most of the team members have been playing together for years. Many of them started out on leagues through the Parks and Recreation Department but tried out for Carrera because of the added challenge.
With his assistant coach, Kevin Pace, Varvaro makes sure his players get as many challenges as possible.
“Not only are we on the same book, on the same page and the same paragraph,” Pace says, “most of time, we’re on the same sentence.”
They take the team to tournaments around the Midwest and have a variety of techniques in place to push the players. The first year, the girls competed against teams with players a year older than them. Last year, Varvaro’s team played against boys.
“Part of our philosophy was to just have our girls play at a level where it’s faster, more aggressive,” he says. “When the boys come out and play other boys teams, it’s competitive. But I guarantee you, they’re going to be at the top of their game because they don’t want to lose to a girls team.”
The team went 2-8-0, but Varvaro says he doesn’t regret it.
“We’re reaping the benefits of that. We’ve had a very successful fall.”
Varvaro isn’t as concerned with the girls’ record as with their development.
“One of my passions is working on the mental game, as far as having the girls mentally prepared, having them focused,” he says.
He makes sure each girl gets attention. Even though his daughter plays on his team, he tries not to treat her differently.
Still, Elayne says she sees a slight distinction.
“It’s good sometimes,” she says. “Other times, he can pick on you, and he can work you really hard.”
Varvaro tends to laugh when the girls complain. He knows it’s worth it.
His eyes return to the field. The girls dribble down the field as Pace encourages them.
Sighs of “I can’t do this” are overpowered by shouts of “Good job!” and “That was it!”
Varvaro looks, for a moment, no different than any other father watching his child play, except he has 18 of them to be proud of.
“There’s no comparison to see them when the light goes on,” he says. “You really encourage them to do it, and they do it, and it’s unbelievable.”
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