Youth club director Liz Lima on empowering girls, crucial coaching traits, and club vs. high school

One of the nation’s most promising young players hails from a club that hasn’t fielded teams in the ECNL nor the U.S. Soccer Development Academy. Allyson Sentnor, the 15-year-old who stars on the U-18 U.S. women’s national team, joined South Shore Select at age 6. Sentnor and South Shore Select's Lilly Reale were the only New England players on the U.S. U-15 team that won last year’s CFA International Tournament in China. The Massachusetts girls club has for the last decade been owned and run by Liz Lima, a former Harvard player whose father, Laurindo, founded South Shore Select in 1995. The club is joining the DA for the 2019-20 season.

Lima has also served as a U.S. Soccer Training Center staff coach and an ODP coach. We spoke to her about being one of the few women youth club directors in the USA, joining the DA and the high school vs. club issue, and her coaching philosophy.

Liz Lima and her older sister Cecilia were raised in Massachusetts by parents who had emigrated from Portugal in their late teens.

LIZ LIMA: Soccer was in our blood. Family would come over and watch soccer with my dad. My dad played and coached semipro soccer and brought me to every field imaginable. He never said I had to play. It was all very natural and organic. Soccer was a way of life. ... My father started South Shore Select as a way to give back to the community and to provide an environment for his daughters, and other young females, to play the game he loves.

On the Portuguese influence ...

LIMA: Our very close family friend is Pauleta, Portugal’s leading scorer for a long time, one of the best players of all-time. He is a family friend and is a big part of the island community in Portugal where my parents are from, the Azores. I grew up with the Portuguese style of play. Growing up, my dad instilled that in me and that’s a big piece of the culture.

You want the ball. It wasn't so structured. I remember going to Portugal as a teenager, getting a ball and going down to the beach to play pickup soccer. It was so much fun to try and roast someone, to go by someone.

And as much as we offer so much soccer to our kids [at South Shore Select], we try to keep it really unstructured at times. I've stopped kids at a practice session and said: “Be bold! Be brave! Take chances! Take risks! You're 8 years old!” I want to see double Maradonas.

If these kids do not become technically proficient, then nothing else matters. You can be the smartest player in the world, but if you can't execute technically and you don't have that ability to manipulate the ball, you can’t do what you want.

On players’ decision-making …

LIMA: Making sure older girls make smart decisions on the ball, not turning the ball over -- obviously there's a time and a place for that. But the only way to make smart decisions on the ball when they're older is to give kids the freedom to make wrong decisions on the ball when they're younger. I think genius comes from giving people the opportunity to mess up, to take risks. Creative genius emerges from not being afraid to make mistakes.

On soccer as an art …

LIMA: Soccer is not a coach-centered sport. It is not. Football is. Other sports in American culture are. Not soccer. I say to my girls all the time: you are an artist, this isn't a science. This is an art. You've got this blank canvas and every time you show up and lace your boots you can draw your masterpiece, which may look completely different than the person's next to you. But a masterpiece is a masterpiece.

I have so much appreciation for trying to make things a certain way in the United States, but sometimes I wonder if we're trying too hard to make everyone teach the same way. To have every kid play the same way.

Allyson Sentnor, the U-15 U.S. national team’s youngest player, was MVP of the 2018 CFA International Tournament in China, and her South Shore Select teammate Lilly Reale scored in the 3-0 final win over the Czech Republic. Sentnor was the only New England product on the U.S. U-18s’ England trip last month and scored twice against the host.

LIMA: Lilly, who started with us when she was 3, and Ally, who came at age 6, grew up together in the next town over. We’re a homegrown club. We don’t recruit players. All of our kids usually come from a 5- to 10- mile radius. At 6, 7, 8, Ally and Lilly was just surrounded by other like-minded kids, extremely competitive, extremely intense. We have challenges at our organization. We would do things that other parents or other people would think was impossible.

Such as ...

LIMA: A kid on our top team has to juggle 500 times at the age of 9. It's also an exercise in perseverance, not giving up, and every time the ball drops, pick up it again. They'd have to get it on camera.

I'd give them a month to get to 50 and they'd do it in a week. The next task is 100, and after they hit 500, they’d ask, all right coach, what's next? Then we'd switch to a tennis ball and you have to get to a 100 with a tennis ball.

Lilly and Ally's group kind of set the bar for what the legacy of our club has been. They were a great group. A perfect storm of kids and parents and families who understood our mission, and what we were trying to. Ally and Lilly and their teammates had that drive from a young age and created an awesome culture of excellence and passion and competitiveness.

Sentnor, who has played on U.S. U-15, U-16, U-17 and U-18 national teams, last fall played freshman high school soccer at the Thayer Academy. But in 2019-20, South Shore will field teams in the DA, which bans high school play.

LIMA: Our club just got into the Development Academy. I'm a little bit torn about it. I was a high school coach for 10 years. Community is a big piece of who we are and what we do, and that will not change with the Development Academy.

But I think there's a place for everyone. I think it's a very personal decision. I think it varies kid to kid. There are kids who go off to high school and have great coaches, and have great experiences. And there are kids who say, you know what, I enjoy the social aspect of being a high school athlete, however it’s hard for me to step away from this kind of club environment for two to three months. …

With us going to Development Academy, what Ally is going to do next year regarding high school soccer, that's a question for her. I'm not going to speak for her or her family.

On the pros and cons of high school ball ...

LIMA: We've seen kids come back from the high school season and they've gotten better in different areas of their game. We play a very possession-style game. We're very technical. And our select players tend not to do very well in the air. They tend to not be able to clear a ball out of the box because they're taught from a very young age: don't panic. You've got your center back dribbling in the 6-yard box.

At least in this area, high school soccer is very direct, very physical. So, they come back winning balls in the air. Our players tend not to be as physical, so they come back more aggressive. But they also sometimes come back with habits we have to undo.

If anyone has an academic experience that will be impacted by not playing high school, we would certainly consider waivering that kid. But there are some kids going to prep schools who have already told us they're not interested in a waiver because they don’t want to leave the club environment.

I understand where U.S. Soccer is coming from on a 10-month season. I know some people feel very strongly one way or the other, but sometimes people don't look at the whole picture.

What Liz Lima looks for in coaches

LIMA: The ability to instill joy and passion. When I interview people, and they say they have this license and that license, that helps. It shows they’re committed. But what really matters to me is their energy level. How invested they are in the kids. If you love the kids you're coaching, you can get a lot out of them. Kids match our energy level. They care as much as we care. To me that's more important than knowing any kind of X and O. ... I may be the hardest coach a kid is ever going to have, but I make a concerted effort to make sure these kids know I care about you as a human.

The USA’s top girls clubs tend to field teams in the ECNL, the DA, or both. South Shore Select has sent players to the national team program and about 40 girls to U.S. Soccer National Training Centers without playing in either.

LIMA: We only joined the NPL two years ago. We're focused on our kids, being the best at training and creating a culture where kids love coming. We started to develop good relationships with other clubs in the area and said let's bridge this gap and create a culture where we're all doing this for the right reasons.

U.S. Soccer asked us to apply to the Development Academy and for us it’s been a three-year decision-making process.

We were able to have competitive games because we didn’t go birth-year, which meant more than 50% of our players were playing up. But eventually we had too many games that were lop-sided, and we determined the time is right to join the DA.

After playing at Harvard, Lima played pro futsal and ran a soccer travel agency in Italy, where she met Driton Mustafoski, also a futsal player. They married in 2010 and now have a 3-year-old daughter. He also coaches at South Shore Select.

'My life mission is to help to empower females on and off the field'

LIMA: I'm proud of the fact that our leadership team consists of very strong females. Maren Rojas is our club technical director. She previously ran U.S. Soccer Training Centers in the Northeast and frequently helps out assisting the U-16 and U-18 youth nationals team. We brought her on last year. Alison Foley is our Senior Director of Coaching and helps lead the charge throughout the college process for our athletes. She spent 21 years as head coach of Boston College and she is a great role model. Her commitment to the sport has helped pave the way for other female coaches in the game.

We are also fortunate to have some of the most talented and caring male coaches in the industry as a part of our team. The men in our company have the utmost respect for the female leaders in our organization and that is important for our young girls to see.

Some of Liz Lima's favorite books

Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg
InsideOut Coaching by Joe Ehrmann
The Culture Code by Daniel Coyle
What Drives Winning by Brett Ledbetter
The Vision of a Champion by Anson Dorrance
How to Win Friends and Influence People by Stephen Covey

On whether she sees a trend of more women getting leadership roles in soccer ...

LIMA: I haven't. But I'm hopeful with the MeToo movement and a lot of conversations that are happening. I'm hopeful that we will start to see some change with regards to this.  In the club soccer world, I would still like to see more progress on this front and would like to work to find a way to keep talented female coaches in the game.

I've been fortunate enough to get to know a lot of directors in our area, and a question I am often asked is how to get more women coaches to stay in the game.

How does that happen? 

LIMA: It’s important to create a culture and environment where women feel comfortable. And when there are no women in a program, it’s a Catch-22. You can't make it completely comfortable until there are more women. If you get women in leadership positions, I think more female coaches will stay in the game.

Our staff is to close to 50-50 and women who come into our environment are more likely to stay simply because other women have the same struggles. I do believe we also create a super positive culture that women feel comfortable in, at least I hope so.

I think people want it to get better but I don't see a trend in the direction yet. But that's the first step -- people recognizing they want it to get better.

On balancing motherhood and a career ...

LIMA: I went to Harvard and a lot of classmates and colleagues have very demanding jobs, and it’s always a struggle being a mother and being away. One thing someone told me was, make sure your daughter knows why you're leaving her. “Hey, mom’s leaving again. I'm doing this because I'm trying to make the world a better place for girls like you.” And it helps.

On the U.S. youth national team program ...

LIMA: I do have admiration for the coaches and the staff and what they're doing. My kids thoroughly enjoy their youth national team experiences and always come back better and knowing more about the game.

On the women's national team's style of play ...

LIMA: For me, the most important thing is picking a style of play and really focusing on that. I feel we've been successful as an organization, because we've said, this is how we play. We play a very possession style game and are very focused on individual technique and creating super technical, creative players who hopefully have an "innate" understanding of how the game is played.

This is a part of our culture and we live and breathe it. We're starting to see other countries catching up, where they have this commitment to play this one certain way. I think the U.S. has so much talent and it would be fun to see us be the ones with the ball, be the ones doing creative things, and encouraging these talented individuals to not play this super-structured style but let them be more free, which I think would be exciting to watch.

I look forward to seeing the U.S. continue to do great things on the international stage and will be rooting for them every step of the way.

Michelle Akers and Allyson Sentnor

Her role models growing up.

LIMA: My favorite player was Michelle Akers. To me, the most important quality in an athlete, in any field, to be successful, is grit. And I mean, Michelle Akers was the definition of grit. I obviously loved Mia Hamm, loved Kristine Lilley, loved Brandi Chastain -- but the player I admired the most was Michelle Akers, because of her grit. She never complained. She never let setbacks get in her way. And that was extremely powerful.

Off the field.

LIMA: Most of our kids start at 6 and stay with us all the way through. Why? I asked a parent that. On the field, obviously, was important, but they really appreciated all the off-the-field stuff. "You really care about my kids and my family." We do a Halloween event every year that's free for the whole community. We get about a 1,000 kids. From the time they're little till they're older, that's something they never forget. We have an annual Christmas party. All of our enrichment programs are free to all our kids, including free yoga, free taekwondo, ACL injury prevention sessions. We bring in guest speakers most weeks in the winter to talk to our kids. Our kids will train for an hour and half and afterward for a half hour in the classroom we have a non-soccer curriculum. And we talk to the kids about self-esteem, peer pressure, social media.

Coaching girls vs. boys.

LIMA: Girls always want to know why. Boys, it's like -- whatever. I gotta put the ball in the back of the net. I want to win. Girls want to know why. We spend a lot of time, explaining, this is why. Why you give 110 percent when no one’s watching.

Sometimes when I'm coaching, a girl will say, She's being bossy. And I'll say, That's not a bad thing. That's a word I get called a lot. I'm proud of that. I have opinions, but I always respect other people's opinions.

9 comments about "Youth club director Liz Lima on empowering girls, crucial coaching traits, and club vs. high school".
  1. John Soares, March 8, 2019 at 4:39 a.m.

    Great article, should be mandatory reading.

  2. stewart hayes replied, March 8, 2019 at 10:53 a.m.

    Could not agree more, 500 juggles by age 9; girls want to know why - boys don't care; grit; half hour classroom discussions after training to talk about life lessions.  And she is aware that players learn certain things in other environments that they don't learn at South Shore Select even if they sometimes return with some bad habits as well.  Enlightening reading.    

  3. Bob Ashpole, March 8, 2019 at 7:06 a.m.

    Another great interview, Mike. What impresses me most about Sentor is that she is quietly "doing" in a country full of talkers.

    There is no secret formula to coaching or playing. Notice in the whole article she didn't talk about match results except to indicate that too much winning is bad for development. No bragging about championships, just bragging about the kids.   

  4. Bob Ashpole replied, March 8, 2019 at 7:10 a.m.

    Sorry I should have said Lima, not Sentor.

  5. Mike Lynch, March 8, 2019 at 7:13 a.m.

    Another great article Mike and another voice for focusing on technique and freedom, technique and freedom, technique and freedom, especially in the youngers. I loved her quote, "If these kids do not become technically proficient, then nothing else matters. You can be the smartest player in the world, but if you can't execute technically and you don't have that ability to manipulate the ball, you can’t do what you want." 

    Her club is clearly a talent hotbed, the product not of lucky genes, but likely rather the product of the club's philosophy - technique, play with freedom, stay local, play lots ... all ingredients that creates a group of soccer junkies who can play!

  6. Ron Frechette, March 8, 2019 at 8:11 a.m.

    I loved her taking the time to ask a parent why they had stayed for thier entire youth playing time (good self analysis) and it was about the club cluture caring about each player as a person.

    Also she talked about the technical abilities - thus challenging the players to get better each day and allowing them to fail to succeed.

  7. frank schoon, March 8, 2019 at 10:01 a.m.

    Very informative interview. I didn't realize halfway through the article that it was only for girls. Lima has the right attitude on how to approach learning soccer to developing players. But notice the connection to the underlying foundation which is "pickup soccer" . It is not "Structure, Club ball, DA or program or licensed coaches that makes youth develop as better players. As a matter fact I consider the aforementioned the bane of existence to the development of the kids. Personally, I consider STRUCTURE and LICENSED COACHES the worst for actually they are the same thing ,in a sense, for both have a great inclination of diminishing player INDIVIDUALITY.  Both aspects deal with Organization and Control,something kids during their stage of development DON'T need. 
    Read about Alvarez's experience in how he developed....look at the similarity of influences Lima and Alverez both had in development  that made them the players they became. It's NOT club ball or structure ,although both can be of influence much, much later when the youth finally have developed to the point where the diamond needs to be polished and get rid of the rough edges.
    Look at the Brazilian Sissy, or Michelle Akers, both learned playing pickup ball with the guys, which gave them the great soccer ability which no DA program, licensed coaches, or organizational structure could teach.
    Also note they were surrounded by positive soccer influences, their fathers who loved the game, friends who were good soccer players, like Pauletta the great goal scorer and Alvarez's older brothers. They were in imbued with a soccer culture as well. That, all combined, is a force for perfection and wanting to become a better player as long the kids are surrounded by who themselves  want to become better and not forced to become better. It has to become from the heart.    NEXT POST.

  8. frank schoon, March 8, 2019 at 10:37 a.m.

    My days of street soccer in Holland was without coaching, as matter of fact, it wasn't until 1964 that in all of Holland there was a total of 3 licensed coaches, Rinus Michells, Wiel Coerver, and Cor van der Hart who later coached the Fort Luaderdale Strikers of the NASL. Just think of all the talent, Cruyff, Keizer, Rensenbrink, Rep, van Hanegem, tons and tons more of that generation that was all born in 40's that made up the great Ajax and the Dutch team of '74, who all learned to play in the streets, PICKUP ball with no coaching or structure. Some of the greatest minds Cruyff ,van Hanegem of  soccer had really no coaching but learned by playing in a MIXED setting of ages where players learned to express themselves freely, and learned the tactics ,the savviness by against older players. They learned on their own, make mistakes and learned from it. 
    I would suggest that soccer association should restructure their program by taking all the elements of "pickup' soccer which means MIXED AGE soccer, instill perfection and a drive to become better and love and appreciation for the game. When you hear about kids getting burnout than I would suggest for the soccer association to take a close look at the coaches and what is wrong with their program. I played 20 to 30 hours of street soccer a week as a kid. I never heard of "soccer burnout' until I got to this country.
    Like Lima stated ,licensing coaches is really is really not necessary ,there are other aspects that are more important. I have a dear friend ,well known in Greece as a great player, we later played together, he had great skills. He wanted to train and coach the US youth, and therefore went for his USSF  A-license.  Bob Gansler, flunked him on the Anatomy part of the exam, he couldn't name certain muscles...... And we can't figure out why we haven't progressed technically in the past 50 years. It has all become about control ,structure, hierarchy, organization...and the real element of soccer, the real meat, the skills, the love for the game is sort of taking a backseat...

  9. beautiful game, March 8, 2019 at 12:12 p.m.

    Terrific interview. Lima's perceprceptions on soccer needs to be implemented by the USSF and a must re-examination for all current coaches.

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