By Michael Zigarelli

Coach David Sanford and wife Lola

Fall 2002. A year before he took the head coaching position at Wesleyan Christian Academy, Scott Reitnour watched incredulously as a Wesleyan player warmed up before a match sporting a massive clown wig. A few weeks later he witnessed another warning sign: Wesleyan bowed out in the first round of the post-season. Worse still, most of the guys were indifferent after the match. Even the seniors. No tears, no remorse. Just a collective shrug.

The former dynasty that was Wesleyan boys’ soccer had clearly lost its indomitable edge. Four head coaches in the past four years had taken its fatal toll on the culture.

Fast forward to the end of the 2003 season, Reitnour’s first. Wesleyan again dropped its first-round playoff game, but this time there wasn’t a dry eye on the bench. The seniors were especially devastated. On the bus ride home, the team approached Reitnour with a rogue request: “Coach, can we have one more practice tomorrow?” It was from the heart. Nobody wanted it to end. He gladly complied.

The next year, Wesleyan would be the state runner-up; the following year, they’d win it all. The drought dating back to 1998 was over. The Men of Troy were hoisting the North Carolina trophy once again.

A History of Hardware

Despite the hiatus, Wesleyan’s numbers are staggering. Since 1984—33 seasons—the Wesleyan boys’ team has been to the state title match 21 times, claiming 14 championships. That heap of hardware puts them in some pretty exclusive company among private schools in the U.S., many of them more lavishly resourced. Few programs, private or public, even come close.

So how do they do it? Call it “The Wesleyan Way.” It’s a systematic method that anyone can imitate in pursuit of breakthrough results. This article reveals 12 secrets of their success.

But first, let’s be clear on what it’s not. Wesleyan’s soccer program does not have any discernable budget or facility advantages when compared to most of their rivals. The school is not relatively larger in size; instead, they’ve often been smaller than their competition, advancing from 1A to 2A to 3A over this period. And except for their early years, the program’s success has not come from talent transferring to the school. Instead, here are the real and replicable drivers of their results.

Pursue a Purpose Bigger Than Winning

Coach Scott Reitnour

It’s a paradox. Focusing on something other than winning soccer games can help you win more soccer games. It can’t be just anything, though. It has to be a purpose that supercharges everyone in a way that a mere scoreboard or trophy cannot.

John Wooden was fond of saying: “I never mentioned winning.” Seldom do the coaches at Wesleyan Christian Academy mention it either. Instead, their overriding, supercharging purpose is their middle name. More specifically, the primary mission has long been to honor God by developing “men built for others.”

That’s instilled in countless ways, from daily instruction to, more powerfully, the seniors cleaning the bus after road trips to the consistent role modeling by the servant-leader coaches. Soccer results are a byproduct. To take just a small example, a “men built for others” mindset inspires the right wing to sprint 60 yards—without hesitation or complaint or need for recognition—to cover for his overlapping defender. On the next possession, it prompts him to play a seven ball rather than hit a low percentage shot. Later in the match it allows him to give up his spot graciously so the second unit can train for the future.

Multiply those small choices by a thousand over a season and Wesleyan wins games that they may have lost otherwise. It’s not so much “team over individual” as it is “you over me,” a rare and relational disposition that gets guys ready to die for one another.

The mindset also explains the extraordinary time invested by the coaches—themselves men built to serve the boys and one another—coaches who far outwork their peers and their paychecks. Watch for that commitment in these other performance principles.

Hire Over-Qualified Coaches Who Never Stop Learning

David Sanford, the Wesleyan boys’ coach from 1981 to 1998, has a distinctive soccer pedigree: Taught to play soccer by Anson Dorrance, mentored to coach by Hank Steinbrecher—in a way, it’s no surprise that Sanford eventually earned the United Soccer Coaches National Coach of the Year award and a spot in the North Carolina Soccer Hall of Fame. And as he took the team from a few names on a sign-up sheet in 1981 to a state title in 1984 to 13 state final appearances (winning nine of those) and a couple of top-ten national rankings during his career, he had plenty of opportunities for more prestigious, more lucrative positions. But the over-qualified Dorrance disciple remained at Wesleyan, building a team into a program into a benchmark.

His handpicked successor did not sign on until five years after Sanford left, but when he did, Coach Scott Reitnour proved he was the right man for the reboot. He’s now led the Wesleyan boys for 14 seasons, boasting Sanford-like numbers of his own: Eight appearances in the state finals, five championships, a top-three national ranking thrice. And as a three-time finalist for the United Soccer Coaches National Coach of the Year award, Reitnour is clearly as under-employed as Sanford was.

But the leadership acumen doesn’t end there. Wisely, both Sanford and Reitnour recruited high-level assistants. That’s no small task when the money isn’t remotely commensurate with the assistants’ soccer IQ. Reitnour now talks of his staff as “an elite class of soccer coaches who could clearly run high school programs elsewhere and even coach at the college level.” At some home matches there’s a veritable entourage of eight paid and volunteer coaches—truth-tellers, not yes-men—flanking the bench.

This also explains the coaching staff’s success: Their capabilities have never degenerated into complacency. Quite the opposite, they’ve been in perpetual learning mode, earning United Soccer Coaches diplomas, borrowing heavily from other programs, devouring soccer and leadership books on their own and alongside the team. Sanford describes himself as “a voracious student of the game,” an apprenticeship that took him all the way to Holland in the 1990s to study the Dutch game with Assistant Coach Kevin Barrows (who himself earned the United Soccer Coaches Assistant Coach of the Year award in 2012). Reitnour, for his part, in addition to the incessant cutting and pasting, regularly brings in top-flight coaches and players to his training sessions to teach both him and his team. His basic posture could be a leadership mantra: “Humble yourself. Bring people into the program who are better than you. It won’t demean, devalue, or diminish your strengths.”

In fact, it will make over-qualified coaches and over-achieving teams even better.

Build the Best Environment in the State to Play Soccer

It was a new coach’s nightmare, but David Sanford turned it into an opportunity. Only six boys signed-up to play for Wesleyan in 1981, his inaugural season. So he went classroom to classroom, cobbling together a team by recruiting athletic-looking boys. Both that season and the next, Sanford basically ran a full-season soccer camp, just trying to achieve a respectable level of play.

But a funny thing happened on the road to respectability. Soccer studs from other schools started migrating to Wesleyan Christian. Word had gotten out about a coach with high standards and technical know-how who, curiously, also cared about his boys as people rather than simply as players. Coach Sanford was crafting the kind of demanding yet nurturing culture that select players quietly crave. The internal payoff was an increasingly talented and cohesive team; the external payoff was a state title in 1984 and then a reign of seven titles over eight years, beginning in 1988.

Sanford’s theory resonates: Cultivate an attractive soccer environment and the kids will come running. Three decades later, the theory remains and the environment is better than ever. Two hundred rowdy students fill the stands at a typical Wesleyan home game, including many wide-eyed grade schoolers with noses pressed to the fence. It’s a bigger crowd than most of these players will see even in their college careers.

“We have a rich soccer culture,” explains Coach Reitnour. “If you lived with us for a year, you’d say ‘they never stop doing soccer stuff.’”

That’s benchmarking gold right there: Construct a 12-month program, not a three-month program. Make soccer relevant and cool all year long. Energize the community through victories in-season and soccer-related events out-of-season. To become state champions, build the best environment in the state to play soccer.

How? Here’s a peek behind Wesleyan’s red-and-black curtain. In January, they sponsor an indoor tournament, overflowing with 50+ teams of Wesleyan students and soccer alums. In February there’s a tournament that includes everyone else in the Wesleyan community—a competition for “non-athletic regular people,” cleverly packaged as “NARPfest”—where hundreds of parents, teachers, staff, and current players come together on mixed teams to crown an annual “King of the Court.” Throughout the spring, the varsity team runs an instructional league for elementary school kids, the “Wesleyan Instructional Soccer League,” beckoning with the fortuitous acronym WISL. They do it again as a week-long summer camp.

More informally, many varsity players eat lunch together daily in the coach’s classroom, building brick-by-brick what Reitnour calls Wesleyan’s “relationship crucible”—part of how boys become “men built for others.” And pulling it all together, quite inventively, is their annual highlight video, premiering with breathless fanfare at a sports banquet in May. Filmed and produced with Madison Avenue polish by Assistant Coach Harry Sherwood, it recaps the year for players, parents, and posterity, reinforcing the “rich soccer culture” that undergirds Wesleyan Christian.

Train the Varsity from Kindergarten

What if an American high school program created its own youth academy? How much of a competitive advantage would they enjoy?

Whereas the 1980s and ’90s saw success through special players attracted to an environment, Wesleyan talent during the past two decades has been primarily home-grown. First, there’s the aforementioned and acclaimed “WISL program”—after-school instruction in the spring that introduces the elementary school kids to the technical skills and principles of play of the varsity program. Think “two-touch, pass and sprint, a three-touch Cruyff option, one touch in transition” … in third grade.

The goal? According to the varsity coach, whose players run the WISL sessions: “It creates kids who will matriculate into the middle school program with a foundation for what we’re going to do there, and so on to the JV program and to the varsity program. It’s not completely like a European youth academy; it’s also a place to simply attract kids to soccer, build community, train them in the basics of the program, and identify and encourage talent.”

Launched in 1995 by Coaches Sanford and Barrows, and then accelerated by Coach Reitnour in the mid-2000s, at least three-quarters of the varsity players the past several years been WISL trainees.

And the upshot? Reitnour is adamant: “It’s been vital for maintaining continuity and encouraging Final Four appearances in the state tournament. If you don’t have that player development underneath, what you’re relying on is what everybody else relies on—the athletic group coming through, or that random pocket of kids who all started playing club together comes through. But we’re gonna be good year in and year out because there’s a constant drip of developed soccer talent.”

Now, instead of teams with patchy quality, relying on a few guys to get them through, Wesleyan’s varsity consistently has more than 20 quality players, with a second unit capable of beating the first unit. The home-grown approach has been nothing if not ingeniously intentional.

So too has been their “Wesleyan Wednesdays” training. The principle is the same: high-level training for younger players, led by the varsity, preparing the former to become the latter. Unlike WISL, they conduct this in-season, every Wednesday afternoon in the fall, combining the middle school, JV and varsity boys (that is, grades 6-12) using a “pool training” approach. That’s more than 90 kids on the field simultaneously, across eight stations, “with all of the exercises fitting stylistically how we’re ultimately trying to play,” according to Reitnour.

And there’s an inexorable efficiency to it all. They use the scoreboard to show how much time is left at each station and they use a microphone to move everyone along. Kids sprint from one station to the next. Then, once they’ve completed the circuit, they move to conditioned, small-sided games with integrated teams—the twelfth grader alongside the freshman and the middle schooler—with the final 10 minutes of the day devoted to varsity leaders teaching a lesson to their mentees about character development or core values.

Give Them the Keys but Hold Them Accountable

“It was the best coaching decision I ever made.” David Sanford stands by that statement to this day.

In 1993, a spate of injuries mutated into an unprecedented five-game losing streak. The capstone was a particularly unappealing performance in a mid-season tournament. The 5-1 smoking by Charlotte Country Day was the worst defeat ever for a Sanford squad.

It was also their first year stepping up from 1A to 2A. Bigger schools, bigger challenges. The biggest, though, was internal: a team that wasn’t responding to anything the now-veteran coach had to say. So Sanford tasked a couple of team leaders with this edict: “Meet with your team and decide what you want to do with this season. I’m not going to fight you anymore. If you guys want to pack it in, we’ll just finish out the season.”

It was an enormous gamble, but one that’s consistent with the Wesleyan philosophy of player empowerment. Sanford is didactic about it: “I never scored a goal for Wesleyan; I never made a save. These guys had to decide what they really wanted for their team.”

The forty-minute player meeting yielded one concise objective: “Coach, we want to win the state championship.” Assuming this was a quixotic quest to prove their manhood, Sanford pushed back: “Don’t BS me.” But there was a resolve. Sanford could see it in their eyes, so he relented: “Fine, but you have to keep yourselves accountable to that goal. Let’s get to work.”

It was an inflection point. The ’93 Wesleyan team did not lose another game that year, regular or post-season. And in cherry-on-top fashion, the state final was a clean sheet victory over Charlotte Country Day.

Owning the objective helped them own the competition. Current Coach Scott Reitnour ascribes to the same philosophy. He literally hands over a set of keys to the seniors at the beginning of each season, symbolizing their ownership (Wesleyan’s preferred term is “stewardship”) of the program. It’s an entrustment that elevates 17-year-olds beyond themselves. Players rise to the level of excellence expected of them.

But also like his predecessor, Reitnour insists on accountability. He’s built an entire culture around it. One example, but there are dozens: The boys do fitness testing not just in pre-season, but in November, January, and May. Set the treadmill to 12.0 and go for as long as you can. And the results get posted on the coach’s classroom door for the whole world to see.

Think you’re good because you’re at the top of the list? Reitnour pulls out the historical record. “This guy in 2008 went a full three minutes longer than you did. That’s your new standard.”

Nobody blinks at that sort of reframing. Accountability is a way of life here—to the program, to the coaches, to one’s teammates, ultimately to the Higher Standard that is their core mission. Without “deep accountability,” as Reitnour calls it, no one would be writing articles about Wesleyan soccer.

Get Away During Pre-Season

Wesleyan has, for 30 years, brought collegiate level pre-season prep to the high school game—two-a-days, three-a-days, warm-ups at 8 a.m., book discussions at 8 p.m. It builds chemistry and skills while allowing them to unpack every drill and set piece they’ll use through November.

Traditionally, a staple has also been getting out of town. It’s simply transformational. Coach Sanford usually took his teams to a lake retreat, sometimes having to fundraise to pull it off. “It got them away from their girlfriends and intensified our focus. We’d get them up at dark-o-clock and go for a run. We’d have multiple trainings each day, often with guest coaches who would run it at a high level. But we also did things completely unrelated to soccer—team building, competitive games in the lake, talent contests, crazy stuff.”

More recently, getting “away” in pre-season has meant an overnight at the school, deferring their out-of-town trip till September to play top-quality competition. “You have to get on the road once a year,” insists Coach Reitnour, “if you have the means. No cell phones, no ear phones, just relationships, relationships, relationships—time as brothers, hiking, exploring a town, and playing the game we all love.”

Play Stretch Games Early in the Season

His British accent only adds to his soccer credibility, with the boys as well as with inquisitive journalists. Assistant Coach Harry Sherwood, Reitnour’s right-hand-man since 2011, is unwavering on this point: “Wesleyan plays the toughest schedule it can. There’s no point in scheduling weak competition to build an undefeated record. You have to play teams that are better than you.”

There’s an inherent, inescapable logic to this. Playing stretch competition early in the season identifies the holes you have to fill, while you still have time to fill them. It also shows the coaching staff whom they can trust with those critical post-season minutes. In fact, back in the Sanford era they would typically play a tough, mid-season tournament—another overnight away from home—to experience the very format they’d later see in the Final Four. They’d also cross state lines, traveling as far as New Mexico, to duel with nationally ranked programs. Stretch competition, rather than the undefeated season, has always been the better strategy for Wesleyan.

Train Thematically with Increasing Complexity

When the coaches visited Holland in the 1990s, they observed that the same drills were run at all age levels. From the eight-year-olds to the national team, the training templates were parallel.

For decades now, Wesleyan has adopted a similar, progressive approach. Consider their turning sequence. A drill of standard turns (half, Dutch, three-touch, etc.) progresses to turns with time pressure. Then they add checking your shoulder and shouting the cone color being held up behind you. Repetition builds skills; increasing complexity links it to the match. It’s the science of soccer.

What gets trained? They draw their “themes” from the United Soccer Coaches “Attacking Principles of Play” and “Defending Principles of Play,” time-honored and comprehensive curricula. Lately, about 10 percent are defensive sessions, 20 percent focus on transitions, and the rest cover the technical building blocks.

Their 55-page Player Manual—itself a testament to calculation and craftsmanship—sums it up nicely: “We strive for increasing complexity…as we progress through each training session, week and season.” In a world where soccer coaches agonize over what to train and how to train it, Wesleyan’s Dutch-inspired design—traditional themes and systematic progression—offers an elegant model.

Recalibrate Training During the Post-Season

In one sense, post-season prep is no different than regular season prep at Wesleyan. They’ve been preparing for the playoffs all year long.

“Aspiring to the highest possible standard is, more than anything else, what propelled us to sustained success,” claims founding coach David Sanford. His teams were never blinded by the shine of last year’s trophy. “Every game,” he continues, “we came to give our best. We were our own standard. So when it came to the post-season and championship game, we didn’t have to juice ourselves up. We had been doing that for months.”

It’s an echo of Sun Tzu: “Every battle is won before it is fought.” But there is some recalibration. Sanford recalls that every post-season he would shift from a “developmental mindset” to a “performance” mindset: “I was done teaching. Now we had to rehearse and perform.”

Rehearsal meant just what it means for an actor or a pianist—practice over and over again exactly what’s going to happen on stage. For Sanford, that boiled down to shadow play, set pieces, and defensive shape, making every drill as competitive as possible. Simplicity is beautiful.

In the Reitnour era, he too simplifies to what’s primary for post-season, but equally important (something he gleaned from Sanford) is managing mindset. The practice before the first playoff game, for example, is largely a sit-in-a-circle powwow where the seniors offer personal reflections. They speak from the gut about three questions: what are you going to miss the most, what’s the fondest memory of your career, and what advice do you have for the underclassmen?

Says Reitnour, it has the effect of making everyone care even more about tomorrow. They desperately want to continue playing together. It also forms the nucleus of his post-season team talks. Psychology speaks louder than X’s and O’s at this point, and the results speak for themselves.

Unite the Team through Pre-Game Prep

Unity born of focus. And plenty of time together. That’s part of how execution happens on match day in this program.

For away matches, lengthy bus rides through the rural Carolina hills provide that platform. Some of the trip is a silent study hall; some involves team activities. None of it involves ear buds or iPhones.

Preparation for home matches follows the same focus principle, but it’s even more orchestrated. Almost an art form. Immediately after school there’s study hall in coach’s classroom from 3:21 to 3:58. Uncommon numbers prompt precision. Next there’s the team meal in the cafeteria; then back to the classroom where blaring music welcomes everyone to some hang out time. They play a couple of games that have nothing to do with soccer, they dress, they have a brief team chapel, and some private “focus time” to get centered. A few words from the coach and then it’s out to the field: two lines, hand-in-hand, not a word.

They invest nearly four hours together—another half of a school day—before a home match that begins at 7 p.m. (on Saturdays, it’s closer to six hours together). Clearly unusual. Some might say excessive. So I asked the roundtable of coaches I was interviewing: “Why not, like most high schools, just send the kids home at 3:00 and have them show up fresh an hour before kickoff?”

Their disgust was unanimous, almost palpable. An awkward pause, then a chorus of “no.” Just no. One terse, dismissive syllable each. That’s clearly not The Wesleyan Way.

Going to battle with their brothers requires prolonged preparation—focused and collective preparation. Team time builds anticipation. It builds adrenaline. Beyond that, their longstanding pre-game traditions—the team meal, the songs they sing, the sign they slap entering the field, the bagpipes summoning over the speakers—remind these teenagers that they’re part of something bigger than themselves. It fuels what Coach Sanford calls “a championship mindset in every game.” When they finally step across the line at 7:00, it’s the culmination of a highly choreographed process. They’re ready to execute with excellence.

Be Relentless on Both Sides of the Ball

You could call them FC Relentless. At least that seems to be their vision. Out of possession, swarm and suffocate. In possession, attack in numbers. And they’ll often add a touch of anarchy, releasing special players to interpret space and create chaos.

The indoctrination begins in elementary school. Say to any WISL participant “we are nothing” and he or she will instantly reply “without the ball.” Say to them “split second” and they’ll reply “six seconds”—that is, react in a split second to losing possession and regain the ball (with a quick nod toward Barcelona) within six seconds.

Years later as varsity players, the onslaught philosophy is now part of their DNA. Their 12-month fitness standards make the execution possible. But why a predominantly attacking approach when everybody knows that “defense wins titles”? For one thing, they’ve seen how it wears down teams. For another, they prefer what’s aesthetically pleasing. Nobody at Wesleyan wants to grind things out with preventative, reactive, minimalistic tactics, even when holding a lead.

Most importantly, though, if you ask the head coach: “We’re going to play a high press and accelerate the game and keep scoring because it gets Number Two and Number Three on the field.” More goals means more playing time for everyone. Relentlessness develops reserves … which points to their final principle of performance.

Prepare for Next Season This Season

There are no rebuilding years at Wesleyan. Not since 2003 at least. And that’s by delicious design.

As we just saw, their style of play—incessant attack to create distance on the scoreboard—gets their second and third units on the field. It’s on-the-job training in preparation for next season. Of the 26 or 27 rostered for varsity, 20 of them will play regularly. Sometimes it’s a risk. Reitnour admits that they may even lose a game every now and then because they play so deeply, but over the long haul the strategy helps them sustain success.

Makes sense to coaches; doesn’t always make sense to the best players on the team who are only logging 55 minutes. But they get it eventually. They learn the wisdom of preparing for next season this season.

In fact, that seems to be the guiding, gilded metaphor for the entire program. The youth instruction prepares them for middle school which prepares them for varsity. Drill One prepares them for Drill Two. Stretch games prepare them for title games. Through it all, they’re being prepared for life as “men built for others.”

The Wesleyan Way may be 12 principles 12 months a year, but ultimately it works so well because the coaches take an even more transcendent view.

(Originally published in September/October, 2017 issue of Soccer Journal)

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