Here’s Looking At You, Kid

So I asked the Academy Head Coach Steve Watson for ‘a few words’ regarding the Spartans Academy and how it’s all going, in order to piece together a little post about how brilliant our young men are, as well as our older men.

What he sent me wasn’t a few words; it was not much short of a love letter from a doting dad to his many, many children. For that reason, I  couldn’t chop it up.

So, instead, I thought you might like to read the words of the man who is so proud he can’t just say a few words.

Read ’em and weep. Literally.

“Back at the tail end of 2014, when I was delighted to accept the role of Head Coach of the re-named Essex Spartans Academy, there was a lot of work to do. Our U17 team had finished their inaugural season mid-table, whilst our U19 team had withdrawn after only two games. I also only had one coach – me.

However, as the saying goes, “If you build it, they will come” – within a month we’d managed to secure the services of three coaches, and a successful open evening for the players to meet with these coaches and myself showed me just how dedicated and committed our returning players were.

Three successful rookie sessions, one held in monsoon-like conditions, meant we entered our 2015 pre-season preparations with a huge sense of optimism, mixed with reality. Having 50 players turn up for a taster session in October, usually means you’ll retain about 25% of them. Or so we thought.

Each week, the numbers attending training were always around the 40 to 50 mark. Their enthusiasm, their determination, their desire, was inspiring and motivating. These kids wanted to play football – and we, as their coaches, wanted to coach them. Each week they’d come, each week they’d listen to the coaches, and each week they’d get better. In the Spartan Prayer, the line reads “Day by day, we get better and better” – and these young men truly demonstrated that ethos.

Their enthusiasm rubbed off on the coaching staff – we held weekly meetings, planned our sessions to the last detail, and couldn’t wait for the next Sunday to roll round. There was a sense of real excitement and happiness throughout the Academy, and it was a wonderful atmosphere to be around. So much so, in fact, that my own wife decided to volunteer and take over the role of club welfare officer and later Academy secretary.

By the time the League registration system opened, we had over 20 U17 players, and over 30 U19 players – and were still receiving requests from potential players asking if they could attend a training session and sign up. At the beginning of the year, the coaching staff had held a meeting to discuss if we honestly thought we’d have enough players to compete at both levels – by the time the season started, we realised we actually didn’t have enough jerseys to equip the players we had!

To see someone turn up for their first session, bright eyed, enthusiastic, but with no clue what they were doing or where they were supposed to be, slowly evolve into a football player who understands what they are supposed to do and why they are doing it, is something that brings so much joy, it’s difficult to put it into words. To have the opportunity to see these young men develop and participate in a sport that I’ve adored since I was 13, is simply priceless.

The Academy players are ballers – they work hard, they listen to their coaches, and they want to win. But they also have pride in themselves, dignity, and humility – personal aspects that can’t be coached, they are part of what makes the very core of their being. As proud as I am of their improvements on the field in the sport of American football – it’s also very humbling to spend time with these young men, to talk to them about their lives, their likes, their dislikes, and realise just what great men they are. We at the Academy are proud of them, and I am confident their parents are too.

We opened our 2015 season with an U17 tournament at the London Warriors. At the same tournament last year, a team of fresh-faced and nervous rookies escaped with one victory and two heavy defeats. This year, the seasoned veterans mixed with their determined and focused rookie team-mates to come away undefeated, and playing some dominating football. I’d say they had exceeded my expectations and that I was surprised – but that would be doing them a great injustice; I knew these players had it in them to be great, and they proved it.

Our U19 team are growing each session, and to be able to send out 32 players in our first game shows the magnitude of the improvement this year. The scoreline was not kind to us, but each and every player gave everything they had, right to the final whistle, and should be incredibly proud of their achievements. After our first game last year we were genuinely concerned we’d not be able to play another game – this year, we’re starting to look for our first win, and that is a reflection on the work these players have put in.

I remember driving home after interviewing for the role of Academy Head Coach hoping for success, but with an air of caution, or not knowing what to expect. Now, as our seasons are well underway, I can put my hand on my heart and say that the Academy players, my fellow coaches, and the hard-working backroom staff have ensured that no matter what the results are on the field, this year has been an incredible success – and I thank each and every one of them for allowing me the opportunity to coach them and be a part of it.”