By: Jessica Nash

A mentor can be one of the most rewarding professional relationships you form in your career, but initially finding a mentor can seem difficult and a little awkward. I’ve listed a few examples of both formal and informal mentorships programs and structures that I’ve come across along with some of my lessons learned that can hopefully help you in your search for a mentor.

Formal Mentor Programs

Mentor Program for Young Coaches
Many organizations recognize that it’s hard to break into professional networks, and United Soccer Coaches tries to remedy this by providing their mentor program to young professionals. Not only do the next generation of coaches have a lot to learn from established members of the coaching community- they also often lend a fresh and energetic perspective in a field where it’s all too easy to settle into established practices and procedures. Many mentors report getting just as much from their mentees out of the relationship as they feel like they gave. Younger coaches especially should not hesitate to engage with older, more experienced peers.

The United Soccer Coaches 30 Under 30 Program is open annually to 30 United Soccer Coaches members, currently or under the age of 30. This program runs over the course of a year, pairs applicants with an experienced coach mentor, sponsors the applicant to attend the United Soccer Coaches Convention, and also sponsors the applicant to complete a United Soccer Coaches Advanced Diploma course.

In researching for this blog post, I reached out to Lora Gralheer, a 30 Under 30 participant from the 2018-2019 class. Lora had this to say:

“Being a part of the United Soccer Coaches 30 Under 30 program has allowed me to connect with a fantastic group of peer coaches as well as more experienced coaches that I never would have had the chance to meet otherwise. It helped me create a support system of coaches outside of my bubble to support me, challenge me, and help me grow on my coaching journey. It has undoubtedly opened new doors in my coaching career and I’m extremely grateful to have been a part of this fantastic program!”

Applications for this program run in the late summer and early fall and I encourage all younger coaches to consider this option.

Mentor Program for Youth Club Coaches
Many youth clubs and organizations also provide some sort of a mentor program. This provides an opportunity for mentees to experience a wide variety of coaching styles across the club’s network. It also provides networking opportunities for coaches who are looking to expand their reach into other divisions, regions or states, depending on the organization. An example of a national mentor program for youth coaches that I’ve participated in is a 10-month program which pairs mentees with an experienced soccer coach or staff member, and requires mentees to complete coaching assignments, attend webinars, and participate in club-wide national events.

As a mentee in the 2017-18 class, I was paired with the national club’s President and CEO. I found it extremely valuable to be able to bounce everything from soccer tactical ideas to program development plans with him. The webinars were quality with guests like Lesle Gallimore and Mark Wilson, and I found that the assignments helped prepare me for my US Soccer ‘B’ license by having me record and reflect on sessions. With paid attendance to club-wide events at the national level, it provided opportunities to coach at a higher level and network with soccer professionals across the globe. I felt like this mentor program was a catalyst to many other opportunities for me, and the time spent was invaluable. If you’re considering creating a mentorship program for your club, I would recommend this model and structure and am available to discuss it more with you and your club’s leadership.

Informal Mentors

Take advantage of college camps
College summer camps offer a unique environment in that you often work long days with the same people for an extended period of time. Many camps recruit coaches from around the region and country, and it’s a great opportunity to see coaching approaches from other organizations in your area, scout youth talent, share anecdotes and to openly pick the brains of other professionals in your field. Whether your local campus is a community college, technical school, or large state school, many have a serious need for coaching help at least some of the year. You may not make as much during these sessions, but they are an excellent opportunity to network and learn.

Maximize coaching education courses
Most coaching education courses have you partnered with an instructor, which can serve as a formal mentor for the duration of the course, and if you’re lucky — long after. But don’t forget about those colleagues going through the course with you. There’s something deeply humbling about the fear of failing a course, and this atmosphere is really conducive for the formation of lasting professional relationships rooted in that shared learning. Your objective should be to make it a point to connect and stay connected with some of your fellow course candidates. You’re all there because you want to improve yourselves and grow in the sport, and that desire for personal growth is fertile soil for meaningful learning with a peer group who shares your values.

Learn from those in your home environment
Many overlook colleagues as a professional resource. Whether you are coaching college, high school, club, or recreation, there are always lessons to learn from those around you, even if some of the examples provide styles or messages to avoid. Attend someone else’s practice, ask about their off-the-field leadership development, watch how they foster athletic growth and build rapport with players. Take notes and follow up with questions. This will help develop relationships and build ideas for your own team and program.

Mentors don’t have to be in your same sport
A colleague of mine once told me at a networking event that she has gained just as much valuable information from those outside of her sport as she did from those within it. Be open to seek knowledge and guidance from those around you. Even if the x’s and o’s aren’t the same — we are all in the people business, and we have more commonalities than you’d think.

Mentors don’t have to be in a sport at all
One of the best mentors I’ve ever had didn’t coach at all. She saw my weaknesses and challenged me to become better: she was always there to hear out ideas, and give support while still holding me accountable. Challenge + Support = Growth, no matter who is administering it.

Oftentimes mentors are people that we never explicitly asked to teach us but we often look back and consider them a vital part of our growth process in retrospect. Whether or not you’re in the process of finding a mentor, I hope this helps spark ideas in how to maximize opportunities around you to better yourself, and better the game.