With a purple knit hat covering her long brown hair and dressed in sweats, the keeper defending one of the goals during a Rock Bridge girls’ varsity soccer practice doesn’t look much different than the other athletes running around the field struggling to keep warm in the abnormally cool April weather.
But as the scrimmage ends and the athletes come together to find out what they’re doing next, the goalie turns out to be not a high school student, but 26-year-old first-year head coach Kelly Gates.
Gates differs in many ways from her predecessor Marc VanDover who had coached the team since 2002.
“I think we’re a lot more comfortable around her because she’s closer to our ages,” sophomore Rachel Rutter said. “She’s a girl, and I would describe it as more of a friend or big sister relationships with her. We kind of see her as a big sister figure or like a good friend figure.”
Junior Beth Staelens agreed.
“It’s definitely almost like a friend relationship,” she said. “I mean she’s a lot more our age so we can relate to her a little bit better.”
Gates said she likes knowing the players look at her as a friend, but she tries to remain an authority figure as well.
“You’re not here to be the girls’ friend,” ,” Gates said. “But at the same time, you want them to respect you and like you, but at the same time, look up to you, so you can’t have them hating you. So I guess having a good balance between that.”
That delicate balance can prove to be a challenge at times. At the beginning of the season Gates said she was harder on them than they were used to in the past.
“We’ve had a couple talks about attitude,” she said. “But we have good captains, and I have class reps from each class, and we have meetings so people can bring concerns, so it keeps me up on anything that might be going wrong.”
Gates instituted the class representatives program this year as a way to improve communication between the athletes and her. If a player has a problem and doesn’t feel comfortable talking directly to either Gates or one of the captains, she can contact her class rep who will take the problem to Gates.
But the class reps haven’t been utilized much because of the close relationship the girls say they have with each other, a bond that Gates helps with.
“I think that at the beginning of the year, she wasn’t thinking that our team was going to be as close as it is, so I don’t think we really use the class reps,” senior Erin Bucko said. “During the season we kind of all have a sister bond, and we can talk to each other even if we’re mad at each other, we can tell them and we’ll all get over it eventually. And she helps us out with that a lot too.”
That’s if they can hear her.
“She’s so soft-spoken,” Bucko said. “Sometimes we can barely hear her talking in practice. I think that sometimes she’s still just getting nervous because she’s a first-time coach, and so I think maybe that’s why she’s so soft-spoken.”
Gates teaches physical education at Douglass High School part time while she finishes up her master’s degree in exercise physiology at MU.
Gates has played and coached at almost every level in soccer, from youth and the Olympic Development Program to two years as an assistant at Westminster College.
Her experience with a variety of age groups has led her to the conclusion that coaching high school girls is the place she wants to be.
Gates spent two years as the Rock Bridge assistant before taking over this year. She says the new role came with some unexpected changes.
“Everything’s on me now, all the decisions, everything,” Gates said. “There’s a lot more responsibility, a lot of paperwork and things to deal with that I didn’t know about or expect.”
Despite the extra paperwork, Gates still manages to stay in touch with the athletes.
“She can tell when we’re not having a good day or if we’re upset, so she’ll ask us,” Bucko said. “I think a lot of girls talk to her about problems. And we’re all pretty open with her about that.”
The openness appears to come from common bonds.
“I’m younger and I’m a female and I have playing experience in the past,” Gates said. “I guess that makes a difference because I’ve actually done the things that they’re doing.”
The athletes agree that one of her biggest assets as a coach is her experience playing in similar situations.
“When she tells us to do stuff, we listen because we know that she’s been there, and she knows what she’s talking about,” Rutter said.