The GOALS Council is a national strategic advisory council working together to better the game of soccer for the next generation. It’s members encompass leaders in their respective youth soccer communities, with countless years of experience. The mission was crafted amongst the group and is “to expand participation in soccer by connecting and inspiring current and future athletes, unlocking potential by seeking diversity in our sport, and partnering in our communities to foster a lifelong love of the game.”
The Stack Sports team recently sat down with Laura Halfpenny, Executive Director of Georgia Soccer and founding member of The GOALS Council, to discuss the state of youth soccer in Georgia and beyond.
Can you tell us a little bit about your background?
LH: Prior to serving as the Executive Director of Georgia Soccer, I served as the Executive Director of Orlando City Youth Soccer where I addressed the issues that affected the organization. As the Executive Director, I oversaw operations and administration, finance and budgeting, sponsorships and fundraising, community events, and marketing.
Before my role with Orlando City Youth Soccer, I was the General Manager and director of the Girls Junior Academy Program. I have also worked with the ODP program of Region 1, as well as the Florida Youth Soccer Association. In addition to my administrative responsibilities, I also coached for the Gloucestershire Center of Excellence in Cheltenham, England, as well as various positions in New Jersey and Vermont.
Do you have a favorite experience as a coach? How did those moments prepare you for your current position?
LH: With 20 years of coaching experience, it’s hard to pick out just one moment. It’s usually about people more than anything. People resonate with me more than anything else, it’s not about winning the game or a plastic trophy, but about the experience more than anything.
This past season, I worked as an assistant coach for Paideia High School here in Georgia. I didn’t realize how good of an experience it was until we had our banquet, when the three captains got up to speak and said “This is the first time we’ve been coached by females, and were able to be involved in an all female environment. We had a safe space and had such a positive experience.” That season was everything that you would want it to be, it was positive, they had a great time, they asked questions and they were learning. It didn’t resonate at first that these players had such a positive experience because of the culture that we established, but it was truly rewarding to be a part of their journey.
In my prior job as the Executive Director of Orlando City Youth Soccer, it was a really hard experience, but it was a really good experience to build a soccer club. With the help of a team of people, we started a soccer club from scratch, and now I get to see the soccer club today and see what it has become. I get to watch players playing on the Orlando City professional teams who started in our academy as little kids, and witness them reach their full potential in the game. I’ve also seen those players go on to become doctors, or scientists, or lawyers. They’ve all done great things after being involved with the academy.
My last job was challenging because I had to influence and inspire people to believe in a vision that they couldn’t see yet. That’s what I learned in part of my last eight years working with Orlando City. Everybody is passionate about this game but can you translate that and have people follow you and follow that vision that you’ve set out? That’s powerful and it’s hard work but beyond inspiring.
What I also learned and what’s probably been the most important lesson as my soccer career continues to evolve is that I’ve collected a lot of different skills. In today’s world of soccer you can be anything. You can be an accountant or work in marketing, but you can be anything. If you’re open to that, and I’ve always been open to that, then you will learn along the way and gather a lot of different skills that will help you along the way.
Is there anything that excites you most about your work with Georgia Soccer or do you have a sense of what the future state holds?
LH: I like a challenge. Within Georgia Soccer, COVID brought on a lot of challenges. We have seven different areas here: administration, youth, adults, tournaments, referee education, coach education, and our ODP program. I always look at those seven areas to outline the initiatives that we would like to get started on for the upcoming year. All seven of these areas have major opportunities for growth that can be achieved.
One of the major initiatives of 2022 that we looked to tackle fell within coaching education. We needed to increase our coaching education capabilities. We had five individuals go through the necessary training to be able to conduct coaching education at the grassroots level. Three of them are women, and one of them represents a minority community, and that was deliberate.
We wanted to be as diverse as we could be within our coaching educators so that we could be inclusive of all the communities that we serve. Every area has goals or initiatives that we’re rolling out or have worked on before but they help to provide focus to our organization.
What do you see to be the best way to create more diversity in the sport? How can we have more girls playing, or people from different socioeconomic backgrounds?
LH: I don’t think one size fits all within different communities because we’re talking about different cultures. My experience as a kid who grew up in England is going to be very different than someone who grew up in Mexico, or Canada, or the U.S. But it’s very important to have this idea of culture in mind when we do go forward with our initiatives. There are some initiatives directly from U.S. Soccer that are focused on improving the diversity of youth soccer players throughout the country.
We know that we have a problem with numbers being stagnant and we know we’ve got a problem with players dropping out at the age of 14 so we really have to focus on the experience these players are having. Who goes in there and gives that experience to those communities? There is something to be said for a group of women sitting in a room, being led by a female coach educator. I am a firm believer that you can’t be what you don’t see, and I think there’s something to be said about that relation we have between coaches and the experience they provide their players.
what do you consider to be the biggest challenges that youth soccer is facing today?
LH: I think that we are in a phase where the industry is becoming more professionalized. A large part of this is reflected in the coaching education side of things. Especially for those who work full-time in the industry, there are certifications and licenses to help make coaching education more and more formal.
That is going to take time, and what I see now is a blend of coaches who have not yet received proper training or education, and the other side of coaches who are more engaging and collaborative with their players. We as coaches need to keep the game of soccer a positive and fun learning environment so that kids will want to continue playing for extended periods of time.
What is it about the GOALS Council that resonated with you and what made you interested in becoming a part of it? What do you hope is the outcome of the GOALS council or your subcommittee?
LH: I think the words inspire and impact have always been something that drew me into The GOALS Council, and behind those words are action. How do we inspire, but what kind of action can we come up with? The idea of what we could do in a year, that could change the life of a child, or the experience that they have with a soccer ball was so exciting to me.
That was what was inspiring to me. There were no obstacles, and we were all thinking of what ways we could impact the group. Initially, why I was attracted to it, was that there was something different than just some other committee. With the people involved, we all just wanted to get together and make an impact to see what could happen.
Within my subcommittee, my hope is to take proof of concept and execute at some level. For year one, if we can get 10 soccer balls in the hands of 10 children who have never touched a soccer ball before, then that’s great. And then, within year two, if the next group who takes on the challenge can expand and get 100 or 200 soccer balls in the hands of children, then we’ll know that the concept works. Year one is all about setting up a track to create a snowball effect and see where it goes.
What is your favorite professional soccer team?
LH: My favorite team right now is the Barcelona women’s soccer team. If you have 92,000 people watching a women’s football match, then oh my gosh we are on a great path. They are my favorite team to follow right now. My favorite men’s team when I was growing up was the Tottenham Hotspurs.
2022 is an exciting year for soccer. Which country do you think will win the 2022 World Cup?
LH: We have two exciting tournaments for our National Teams. The Women hosted Euro 2022 and I was in England to watch the games. Without a doubt I think the European nations that have invested in their domestic leagues and national teams opened eyes around the world. My bracket had Spain vs England in the final with England winning. But beating Germany at Wembley in front of 87,000 people singing Football’s Coming Home was special.
Then the Men’s National Team go to Qatar for the World Cup. There are two sides of it, both my head and my heart. My head tells me “I think England can win this”, and I have said that for the past 3o years. But I actually think we’re going to win it. We have momentum. The last Euro’s we got to the finals, and lost. In the 2018 World Cup, we got to the semi-finals, but still didn’t lift the trophy. We’ve got the squad and we’ve got some key world class players so I actually think England are going to win the 2022 Euro’s and World Cup. Football is already home – wouldn’t it be something if the Men’s National Team could follow up with a World Cup win.
Do you have hobbies that keep you busy outside of soccer?
LH: Soccer is really woven through my life as part of my job, so it is nice to take a break every once in a while. I do two things that make me smile. One is, I get out in nature and go on hikes through the mountains or trails in Georgia. The second thing I do may shock you but I love personal finance and I spend my time learning about money management and investing. If you can understand it then you can prepare for your future, and it is something that I am really interested in and passionate about.