When you think about what it might be like to be a youth sports coach, you most likely imagine the job revolving around teaching children how to become competent athletes and encouraging them to do their best. While the constant pursuit of success is important, local Gainesville coach Juned Refai believes there are equally important lessons about teamwork, sportsmanship and recovering from failure that can be taught.
Refai coaches his son’s mixed youth soccer team, where he not only teaches the kids how to play well by letting them practice on the field, but also how to be successful and confident off the field.
Refai, a first-generation Indian, works for the Department of Defense in the Office of Naval Operations, a role he aspired to because of his admiration for Muhammad Ali. During the Gulf War, Ali acted as a negotiator and helped secure the release of 15 American hostages. Since that moment he has played a big role in Refai’s life.
Part of Refai’s interest in football coaching stems from his desire to have played football in his youth.
“In the ’90s, soccer wasn’t as famous as American football,” Refai said. “But now it has taken a very positive turn, following in the footsteps of Europe, Africa and other parts of the world. It is a sport that can facilitate cultural exchange and bring people together.”
The other reason he wanted to be a football coach was to have a positive presence in his son’s life.
Realizing he was destined to be the head coach and not the assistant he was signed on to be, Refai embraced the role with the mentality that life is about taking risks and trying new things. It has helped him approach some of the challenges of coaching with optimism and purpose.
“Coaching a bunch of five-year-olds and making them listen takes understanding,” Refa said.
Having to repeat yourself and deal with the occasional behavioral issue can be difficult, but Refai accepts the challenge because he believes today’s coaching should help players grow as people off the field, while coaching in focused exclusively on improving athletic ability in the 1990s.
He hopes his coaching style will help his players perform and behave well at school, treat others with respect and have confidence in themselves.
An important aspect of soccer training is teaching young players how to pass the ball to each other. This may seem obvious, but Refai believes it can really cement the ideas of teamwork, respect, and problem-solving at an early age.
“Teaching young players to pass the ball when other players are open correlates with getting older and having work and school projects,” Refai said. “It teaches them not to keep the project to themselves and try to take all the credit. It is very important to make them understand the value of teamwork.”
Refai not only goes into teaching young players teamwork, but works with them to learn how to take constructive criticism.
For example, if a player needed to improve their defensive skills, Refai would take them aside for private chat and encouragement.
“It helps young players to take constructive criticism and suggestions as they get older,” Refai said. “It helps them prepare for when they get a bad grade, fail a test or have a bad day at work. It is important to instill the ability to bounce back from failure at a young age and football is an excellent vehicle for doing that.”
Refai has a few core values that he wants to instill in his players.
“Don’t be afraid to face your fears, that’s number one. Second, if you really want to be an asset to the team, you’re not just making yourself better, you’re making everyone around you better.”
These values are clearly consistent with the parents of his players.
“Coach Juned is a spectacular coach and leader as he puts all his energy and enthusiasm into teaching and coaching his players how to play football,” said Erik Elington, whose son plays for Refai. “What sets him apart from other coaches is that he spends a lot of time with individual players during training. He doesn’t just lead the team, he shows them what needs to be done and leads by example.”
When asked if he could leave a lesson for his players that they would take with them for the rest of their lives, Refai simply said: “Always be positive. Find the positive in everything.”
This feature appears in the April 2022 issue of Haymarket-Gainesville Lifestyle Magazine. Get your copy here!