COVINGTON — When Austin Aldridge started coaching soccer at Covington Family YMCA a decade ago, “In Newton County, not many people knew soccer, much less knew how to coach soccer … You couldn’t even watch soccer on TV,” he said.
Now, with more than 600 kids participating and a dozen teams in the academy program alone, “We’ve come just such a long way in this county,” he said.
Aldridge, coordinator of the Y’s academy soccer program for players age 7 to 12, is Covington Family YMCA’s 2013 Volunteer of the Year.
“Austin is our biggest cheerleader for Y soccer,” said Louly Hay-Kapp, executive director of Covington Family YMCA. “He puts the Y before himself to benefit the program, giving an unthinkable amount of time and energy. Austin truly goes to any length to see the program succeed, so kids can be given opportunity to grow.”
Hay-Kapp said Aldridge works throughout the entire soccer program by scouting and recruiting players and coaches for the academy teams, talking to parents about the program and explaining the “why” behind everything the Y does.
“Austin understands the value of soccer: YMCA soccer is not just a sport but a family- and character-building program. He understands how the Y builds people, not players, and has positive long-term impact,” she said.
A Covington native, Aldridge played soccer in high school. He was asked by another YMCA coach to help with the organization’s soccer program. Aldridge admitted he was a terrible coach when he first started.
“I guess the thought was, ‘I’m terrible. They’re going to keep giving me kids until I get better,’” he said.
Since then, the number of participants in the Y’s soccer program has tripled, perhaps even quadrupled, Aldridge said. An influx of new residents from Northern and Midwestern states, as well as an increase in international residents, has helped, he said, along with increased attention and coverage of the sport nationwide.
“It’s been pretty amazing. We’ve been able to watch the soccer family grow together,” he said, adding that the first group of kids he coached has now graduated college.
The Y has three levels of soccer programs. The recreational level teams play once a week and learn the basics of how the game is played. The academy program is through the Georgia Soccer Association and involves more rigorous training, with kids playing anywhere from two to seven games a week and competing in tournaments with teams from all over the state. They learn advanced level soccer strategy. There are 168 players in the Y’s academy program. Aldridge coordinates this program, along with coaching the 7- and 8-year-old girls academy team, a job that he said has given him a new perspective on the game.
“I can be a tough coach, but those little girls have my heart,” he said.
The Y also has a select program for kids age 13 and older who are preparing to play at the college or professional level.
Aldridge said coaching styles have changed during the last decade, with less emphasis on emotional gesturing and yelling at kids during the game and more on teaching them the skills they need during practice and sitting on the bench during the game, making spot corrections but otherwise letting the players have fun.
“We as parents have to realize we’re pushing our kids to become world-class athletes because we (think we) were, and we were not. We grew up in Covington, Ga., and we’re not. We’re playground heroes,” he said.
Aldridge said he’d rather see the kids enjoy themselves than burn out by age 12. When fun is the focus “most of them are so hungry to get to that next step, so hungry to learn more, we can’t get them off the field,” he said.
Upon hearing he’d been named Volunteer of the Year, “I thought they’d made a terrible mistake,” Aldridge said. “I don’t do this for awards or recognition. I’ve done it for years without awards or recognition. I’m very appreciative for those, but it’s not about awards. Every Saturday when I see kids leaving and smiling and giving mom and dad high-fives, that’s more than any trophy or plaque would ever say,” he said.
Aldridge will be honored Nov. 4 at the Metro Atlanta YMCA’s Volunteer of the Year Dinner at Cobb Galleria in Atlanta.
Aldridge is youth pastor at First Baptist Church of McDonough. He is involved in the South Atlanta Student Ministries Alliance and Georgia Baptist Disaster Relief, among other community organizations. He and his wife, Kimberly, have two children, Tristan, 11, and Karissa, 8.