Airman Coach: Protect & Serve
YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan -- He shows up 30 minutes before the start of practice to setup equipment and prepare for his players arrival. A goal post, bench, a couple of cones, and six well-worn soccer balls populate the field. Practice is ready to begin.
He is Airman 1st Class Tomasz Barba, and he is a youth soccer coach at Yokota.
This is Barba's first season not only as the youth soccer team's coach, but this is also his first time as a coach ever.
He wasn't given a how-to book to coach youth soccer, no manual or detailed instructions either. The responsibility is left to Barba alone to develop a program that encourages development and improvement in his players. Fortunately, he relied on his own soccer experience to create the necessary game plan.
"I can't even recall when I first started playing soccer," Barba said as he reflected on his past. "Ever since I could remember, whether it was a family gathering or at school, I always had a soccer ball with me. I just loved it."
The Arizona native played on his school teams throughout middle and high school. During his time in college, Barba continued playing organized ball on Arizona State University's intramural club. Sure of his passion for soccer, he admitted that he was indecisive when it came to choosing a field to major in. In addition to trouble finding a major, Barba acknowledged that the rising cost of college made him question potential paths for the future. He eventually sought guidance from his best friend who had recently entered the Air Force.
"A friend of mine joined the Air Force and was loving it," Barba said. "He was learning a lot of cool and interesting things in his tech school and that definitely heightened my interest."
Barba, who had been interested in the military long before the conversation with his friend, found himself in a recruiting office soon after. He swore into Air Force October 2013.
Now, a first term Airman in the 374th Security Forces Squadron at Yokota, Barba joined the base's soccer team soon after arrival.
"Being out on the field and playing is serenity for me," Barba said. "I can't stay away from it for too long."
Although he was back on the field, Barba, for some reason, felt like he was missing out on something. Simply playing the game he loved wasn't enough anymore.
"I did a lot of assessments growing up and they all pointed me toward teaching or social work," he said. "I always had a respect for my coaches and what they did for me and I felt that coaching would allow me an opportunity to get a taste of being a teacher. It would also give me a chance to give back."
August 27 marked the beginning of Barba's transition from player to coach. He told his players that he'd never coached before and that this was his first team. He asked his players to help him out by providing any input they had regarding his style.
"I regret it now," Barba joked. "I learned that they're more than happy to tell me what I'm doing wrong and what I need to work on."
Barba admits that he borrows his favorite techniques from his past coaches and shares them with his players. He also spends his off days thinking about potential drills and exercises that will help his players develop.
Outside of developing soccer skills, Barba said that he also tries to instill the value of respect into his players.
"Kids have no filter," he said. "They might unknowingly say or do something that hurts another kid's feelings. I always let them know that what they did could be hurtful to someone...I don't do it if front of the entire team as they would just get embarrassed...but when I catch them by themselves. That way, they'll have a chance to reflect and think about the situation and learn from it."
Although Barba is competitive himself, as a coach, victory is the furthest thing from his mind. Winning is the normal marker of success for any team. However, even as his team remains undefeated this season with a record of 3-0-1, Barba insist that true victory is felt when his players learn and grow.
"I told them that this team and that this league that we're apart of isn't about winning, it's about developing and improving over time," Barba said. "I didn't get into coaching to win. I did it so that I could give what I took from the sport back to future players. When I see them do something that I taught them in practice and apply that in an actual game, that's the best feeling in the world," he added. "When we win, that's just positive reinforcement for their hard work."
The benefits of a good coach aren't only shared by the players. Barba admitted that he's benefited from coaching as it allowed him to revisit and reinforce his own fundamentals.
In addition, he revealed that the experience has given him some basic real-world skills that he plans to use in the future.
"My patience has improved tremendously," he chuckled. "The more I'm around my players the more I learn."
Practice normally concludes with a quick scrimmage. It gives the players an opportunity to utilize the skills they learned that particular day into an actual game. This day, the effects ball moving and communication drills have made a clear impact on each player. What is also noticeable is Barba's smile and encouraging cheer as he witnesses the effects of his work.
"Great job, great job," he said clapping his hands. "Another successful practice."