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  • Soccer Without Borders

Volunteer Spotlight: Mike Woitalla

By day, Mike is the Executive Editor of Soccer America, writing about soccer at all levels from youth to professional. By evening and weekend, he does it all for SWB Oakland. He’s been a volunteer coach, and referee, and photographer since April 2017 and joined the Oakland Advisory Board in 2018. In 2019 he was recognized as the SWB Advisory Board Member of the Year.

When did you first start volunteering for SWB and how did you learn about the program?

I started volunteering for SWB in April of 2017. I heard about the program a couple years earlier and my daughter Julia volunteered at the SWB summer camp. In late 2016 I interviewed Ben Gucciardi for Soccer America, where I’m the executive editor, and Ben learned that I've been a longtime coach in local club soccer. He suggested I coach with SWB — and it took me about a second to decide I definitely wanted to.

I've been on the advisory board of SWB Oakland since 2018.

What has surprised you most about working with SWB?

Not so much a surprise, but I was particularly impressed with how excellent the coaching is by SWB's full-time staff. It’s the best youth coaching I'd seen during a career of observing coaches and covering soccer as a journalist. They have an ability to create an enjoyable, positive environment that also lets kids improve their game — learning without it seeming that they're being "taught." The concise and positive way the SWB coaches communicate is a model for coaching at any levels, with all types of players. Understanding the need for players to learn from the game — and not be stifled by overbearing instruction that denies kids freedom in play holds the key to improving skills and increasing enjoyment.

I'm amazed at how welcoming the kids are to newcomers, regardless of their wide variety of backgrounds.

What’s a favorite memory of your time as a volunteer with SWB?

1. Within a few weeks of arriving in the USA, a couple of unaccompanied minors were playing on a Soccer Without Borders team at a high school stadium, with excellent turf and good competition. After the ordeal that they had gone through to flee the dangers of their faraway country, arriving in a foreign land knowing nobody, it was obvious how much they were enjoying themselves, playing soccer with new friends and having great fun for the first time in a very long time.

2. I was coaching U-18 boys and while getting ready for the game we didn't have enough shorts for all the players. I asked the biggest kid if I could wear his jeans, then gave my shorts to the player who didn't have shorts. I posted a picture of me coaching while wearing baggy jeans on Facebook and asked for donations … We quickly had various people donate shorts for the team.

3. I was playing along during a scrimmage with 13-14 year olds and kept getting nutmegged. At one point, one of the players came up to me after a nutmeg and with a smile and said: "That's three times, Mister!"

4. During practice I told the boys I would miss the next weekend's game because I was visiting my mom for her birthday. After practice, one of the players came up to me and said, "Say Happy Birthday to your mom for me."

5. We had a girls’ practice on the day that Kamala Harris became Vice President and we discussed with them how Kamala was born in Oakland to immigrant parents and if there had been a Soccer Without Borders when Kamala was a child, she could have likely been SWB player just like they are.

What’s the best part about being a SWB volunteer/your favorite thing to do?

1. I love watching the kids play soccer, whether I'm there as a coach, referee or photographer. Most of them arrive after years of free play without adults around and that creates a skill level and technical ability that can't be taught.

2. Watching how SWB staff helps kids who are struggling in a new country enjoy themselves and navigate the challenges of school.

3. The feeling that all’s right with the world when youngsters are enjoying themselves on the soccer field.

What do you do when you aren’t volunteering?

I'm the executive editor of Soccer America. I enjoy time with family and extended family and friends, reading mysteries especially ones set in Italy, relish long walks and hikes with my dog Cody.

Who makes up your family?

My wife, Holly Kernan, is the Chief Content Officer of KQED San Francisco public radio. My daughter Julia Kernan-Woitalla is a recent graduate of UC Santa Barbara.

Anything else you’d like to add about yourself?

I was born in Germany and arrived in the USA at age 3. At age 10, we moved from Texas to Hawaii. During both moves, soccer became a major source for fun and meeting new friends.


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