On a blustery January day in Tidelands Park, 10 kids and 30 balls scuttled from one soccer goal to another. In the midst of them, the coach and her assistant called out,
“Little kicks! Little kicks! Great job, guys!”
Since Little Rascalz Soccer School began in April 2005, the program has made a name for itself as a non-competitive, play-based introduction to soccer. There are no weekend games, no team-on-team competitions, and no hard and fast rules, other than for kids to have fun and get their feet on the ball.
Beth Hooshidar (‘Coach Bethy’) started the program with her husband after she spent years working as a preschool teacher and nanny in her native England. “One day,” she says, “I took the kids that I cared for to soccer classes, and I watched them, and I thought, ‘That’s not the way to teach preschoolers! They are a different breed!’ You can’t take what you do for all the children and dumb it down. They have a different attention span, everything about them is unique, it’s a unique age.
“So I went home,” she continued, “and spoke with my husband. I thought, ‘Why don’t we do this? We have the perfect combination with my knowledge of preschool and my husband’s soccer knowledge.'”
The couple moved to San Diego, where their goal was to run classes year-round in the affable climate. “We had a couple of classes in our first session,” Coach Bethy said, “and now we have 5,000 kids every year! I’m the real American dream!”
Currently Little Rascalz offers soccer classes every day of the week except Sunday, and in seven locations throughout San Diego. Parents can sign up their kids for morning or afternoon sessions, and the age groups include toddlers (Mommy & Me), “three-ish to five-ish,” and a “veteran” class for four- to six-year-olds.
“What helps us the most is that we have no modesty about our program. It really is superb,” explains Beth. “We wanted to make it parent-friendly, not just child-friendly.” For this reason, Little Rascalz offers make-up classes with no expiration date and will refund you the class fee if your child doesn’t like the class.
“Also,” says Beth, “we are non-competitive. Children learn through play, they learn their life-lessons through playing. Fun and games! If you say, ‘Today we are going to dribble a ball,’ they will wander off. But if you say, ‘You’re going to take your dinosaur eggs back to your nest,’ or ‘Take your jewels back to your castle,’ they will play because to them it is a dinosaur egg!”
What about when children move from Little Rascalz to actual competitive soccer teams, like Nado Soccer? Does Little Rascalz prepare them well?
Caitlin Wright, whose two children participated in Little Rascalz for two years, spoke of their transition to new and competitive soccer on the East Coast. Her children — now four and six — participated in competitive soccer for the first time this fall with one practice a week and games on weekends. “The Little Rascalz approach helped create a positive impression in our kids’ minds regarding soccer,” she said. “When they had the option to play on a more formal team, they were very excited to do so because they expected to have fun.”
Laura Horton, a Coronado local, echoed Caitlin. “Little Rascalz has been awesome for both my kids for different reasons. My oldest son is a very strong-willed, authoritative kid, and it was great having a low-key environment where he was able to play soccer-based games with a common goal without the “game” scenario. For my daughter, who was more shy, she was able to really use Little Rascalz as an activity to branch out socially in a safe and fun environment.
“Also,” Laura continued, “when we then entered into the Nado Soccer world, my son was completely prepared in regards to both basic entry level skill, expectations, and ability to learn and adapt to a team sport environment.”
Beth agrees. “When they do move on to more competitive sports, you have given them confidence. They already know, ‘Even if everyone is better than me, it’s ok, because I’m going out there and having fun, and it’s a team sport.'”
Coach Bethy also believes their coaching approach is key to their success. “When we started, we knew we wanted quality. All San Diego soccer programs have a ratio of 10 or 11 kids to one coach, and we have a ratio of five to one. We feel that preschoolers need that, and we won’t waver on that. We are incredibly fussy about the people that we hire. We are very stringent in our training, it just takes a certain type of person who can do this. When we find them, it’s magical.”
Karen Bland (‘Coach Karen’) has been teaching the Coronado classes for a few years, and she unabashedly loves her job. “Having three sons of my own has enabled me to easily form relationships with the children I coach as well as their parents. I genuinely love our interactions, sweet and silly alike. I also enjoy watching them ‘accidentally’ improving in their soccer skills!”
On that recent January day, Coach Karen followed her kids across the field one last time, encouraging again just “little kicks, little kicks, no big kicks!” That phrase in Little Rascalz’ soccer classes, explained Beth, encourages kids to get both feet on the ball right away and to use both feet equally. Little kicks encourage patience, perseverance, and confidence, which Little Rascalz is all about.
As Coach Karen wrapped up her class that day, she was laughing and calling out the final cheer as loudly as her little students were. Just like Little Rascalz’ founders, she hoped that this simple, 40-minute outdoor play each week instilled in those kids (and their parents) a healthy attitude toward sports and games that lasts them their whole lives. It all starts with little kicks.
For more information or to observe a class, click here.