Palo Alto Weekly

News - September 28, 2012

The ultimate soccer moms

Neighborhood women take to the field to learn the game

by Sue Dremann

Twelve women lined up for their soccer drill on the soggy field at Eleanor Pardee Park. Each woman alternately tapped one cleated foot and then the other on top of a soccer ball in rapid succession, practicing speed building. Staccato steps propelled the balls forward.

"Quick! Quick! Quick!" ordered Coach Ken Mburu, as the women, who are all moms in their 30s and 40s, sped down the field.

"Speed is not the fastest ball, but the fastest feet," he intoned. "I know you are working hard now. You're going to feel it."

Coach Ken, as he is commonly called, is a popular Palo Alto children's soccer instructor who has raised a generation of young players in his 10 years of teaching. Now he's raising a generation of their moms, many of whom are playing soccer for the first time.

The women panted as they made for their water bottles during a welcome break. Sweat poured down their already glistening skin. In one and a half hours they did warm-up exercises, learned basic soccer moves, scrimmaged and had 20 minutes of real play that put all of the morning's skills together.

In the coming weeks, they'll learn to manipulate the ball forward and back and behind and around them, building up speed.

Besides exercise and badly needed social time, the moms are learning skills that will help them understand the game their children play, they said.

"I never played a sport before. It was never suggested," said organizer Julie Olegario, 36, who lives in Old Palo Alto. Learning soccer put her in her daughter's shoes, she said. During the first days of play "we were feeling as vulnerable as our child had felt," she recalled.

Olegario said she first met Mburu after signing up her shy, 7-year-old daughter and observing the child's transformation under Coach Ken. Every day for 10 weeks her daughter had complained that she didn't want to play the game. But then something changed.

"By the 11th week she went from saying, 'I want to be a paleontologist when I grow up' to 'I want to be an Olympic soccer player,'" Olegario said.

Mburu teaches the moms to play the same kinds of games he teaches their children so they can play together at home. The women played Sharks and Minnows, a soccer-tag-type game, with the sharks trying to gobble up the ball by stealing it and kicking it out of the limit line.

"One reason I'm doing this is that AYSO's (American Youth Soccer Organization) main weakness is that parent coaches don't know about soccer. Teaching moms will help teach their kids better," Mburu said.

In Kenya, where Mburu grew up, soccer is part of the popular culture and people know the sport better, he said.

"For soccer to get more popular in the U.S., we need a soccer culture in the home. We can't have a soccer culture if they don't know what soccer is. Soon, these women will be watching soccer games on television and talking about soccer and going to matches," he said.

Heather Thomas is enthusiastic about the sport.

"It's just fun to learn a new skill when you are in the middle of raising a family," she said.

Linda Henigin said she joined because she wanted to do something to connect with other mothers in town.

"Many women don't have time to go to the gym — and the gym is lonely," she said.

Mburu said the women would do the equivalent of one-mile run during warm-ups and another two to three miles during instruction and game time.

During another water break, the women took long gulps and chatted enthusiastically about the latest family news. Someone discussed the details of a recent wedding.

"We're completely checked out of the mommy role. Once a week it's a mental break," Olegario said.

Just as soccer has helped their children to grow and gain confidence and a sense of identity, moms' soccer also helps the women with personal growth, they said. One of the most challenging aspects of the game for Henigin is to have to call out — to communicate with her teammates, she said.

"To ask for help is generally hard for a lot of women anyway," she said.

Back on the field, the play got rougher. As a red-team player muscled the ball away from Olegario, she lost her balance and tumbled onto the field. Across the field during another play, legs tangled, and another woman skidded to the ground.

"We can practice being assertive and get the ball from each other. But afterward we can still be friendly," Henigin said.

Staff Writer Sue Dremann can be emailed at sdremann@paweekly.com.

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