Overcoming Cultural Barriers and Uniting Your Team with Video

As the US unites to fight for racial jus­tice and ral­lies to bring equal­i­ty to mar­gin­al­ized com­mu­ni­ties, a high school soc­cer team in Texas is ahead of the curve. We sat down with head coach Vincenzo Cox to learn how he over­comes com­mu­ni­ca­tion bar­ri­ers, and why per­spec­tive is the key to under­stand­ing one another.

Overcoming Cultural Barriers and Uniting Your Team with Video

As the US unites to fight for racial jus­tice and ral­lies to bring equal­i­ty to mar­gin­al­ized com­mu­ni­ties, a high school soc­cer team in Texas is ahead of the curve. We sat down with head coach Vincenzo Cox to learn how he over­comes com­mu­ni­ca­tion bar­ri­ers, and why per­spec­tive is the key to under­stand­ing one another.

THSCA Soccer from Hudl on Vimeo.

Vincenzo Cox - THSCA speech

Alief Elsik High School’s Vincenzo Cox is one of the best soc­cer coach­es in Texas, if not the coun­try. Since 2013, he’s coached three Gatorade Players of the Year and five Houston Chronicle Players of the Year. In 2018, he was named the USA Today National Coach of the Year and is the first black head coach to win a boys soc­cer state title in Texas history.

The suc­cess Elsik reaps today is the result of the seeds he’s sown over a decade at the school. And, like all the greats, he pre­served through plen­ty of chal­lenges in the ear­ly years but nev­er lost his vision, desire, or patience to take Elsik to the top of the podium.

In 2008, Cox inher­it­ed the Rams’ pro­gram with no pri­or coach­ing expe­ri­ence, lit­tle under­stand­ing of the Texas soc­cer land­scape, min­i­mal sup­port from the com­mu­ni­ty, and a flawed team mind­set. He says, Being Black, it’s real­ly dif­fer­ent. I have kids com­ing from oth­er coun­tries, see­ing my name on paper and think­ing Vincenzo, OK, so we’ve got a for­eign guy’. Kids tell me, I didn’t know it was going to be an American Black guy.’ So I have to earn that kid’s respect, give that kid respect, and let them see that we care. Blending all that togeth­er can be way more pow­er­ful through sport, and you’ll be sur­prised at what you can conquer.”

A daunt­ing start to say the least, but Cox saw this as both a bless­ing and a curse not­ing that the ingre­di­ents were there, it just wasn’t going to be easy to put the recipe togeth­er”. He lever­aged this naivety and expe­ri­ence as a stand-out track ath­lete (University of Houston) to bring a clear mind­set and set a high bar on day one.

Beyond grow­ing up around soc­cer in Europe, Cox comes from a tree of coach­ing great­ness and elite ath­let­ic peers. Training with the likes of Olympic gold medal­ists Carl Lewis and Leroy Burrell under one of the great­est sprint coach­es ever, Tom Tellez, Cox expects his teams to have a win­ning mind­set. So, he set a prece­dent to win every game that first sea­son, and recalled telling the group that they will not only make the play­offs but will be a peren­ni­al threat to win the state title. 

And it worked… even­tu­al­ly. There were still plen­ty of hur­dles to get through first. 

The Right Ingredients

Whether the ath­letes are from El Salvador, Honduras, Mexico, Africa, or just across town, it’s not easy to adjust to a new envi­ron­ment. Cox says there are many times a kid will come in and just be hap­py to be on the team. But the hype lev­els out as they get home­sick, run into lan­guage bar­ri­ers, or start to real­ize they’re not just play­ing for a good team, but a great team. Communication is a chal­lenge with such a diverse stu­dent body, but that’s when Coach Cox turns inward and leans on the team to help over­come any barriers.

He tells a sto­ry about a stu­dent from shell-shocked Ukraine who was an orphan and find­ing one oth­er kid in the school from Russia that could talk to him. While the Ukrainian wasn’t the best soc­cer play­er, the two could talk to each oth­er, so they kept him on the team. Sometimes it’s not about soc­cer,” he said. Keeping that [Ukrainian] kid on the team can change his [Russian’s] whole life and cre­ate a new environment.”

He also notes that hav­ing a team chat helps for var­i­ous groups to com­mu­ni­cate team mes­sages, goals, hold each oth­er account­able, and get every­one on the same page. Taking it a step fur­ther, he has the kids check in on each oth­er by send­ing indi­vid­ual mes­sages to see how they’re doing. In doing so, he’s able to uncov­er things that the kids may not be com­fort­able telling the coach­es. Often, things the team doesn’t need to know. Little things like that let each play­er know they have friends on the team who care about them, and that, for Coach Cox, is what holds the team together.

He also uses the seniors to go over and meet the new kids and wel­come them to their first day of train­ing. If he gets any push­back, he reminds them of the upper­class­men that came to them as fresh­men and how the lessons they learned are com­ing full cir­cle. This makes it eas­i­er for the under­class­man to adjust by know­ing they already have a com­mu­ni­ca­tion chan­nel with seniority. 

Finally, Coach Cox jokes that (as a younger gen­er­a­tion) when the kids don’t under­stand the mes­sage he’s try­ing to get across, he’ll have a play­er explain it to the team in teenage lan­guage”. All of a sud­den the kids get it, and it also presents oppor­tu­ni­ties for the kids to step into a lead­er­ship role.

A New Recipe

One of the first things Coach Cox noticed after tak­ing over was that the team didn’t like play­ing cer­tain oppo­nents. So, the minute he was able to set the fol­low­ing season’s sched­ule, he made sure to put every one of those teams on the sched­ule. They were avoid­ing pres­sure and just want­ed to play some­where where they could get away with what they want­ed to. But they bought in, and it wasn’t a psy­cho­log­i­cal bar­ri­er any­more. I made it nor­mal.” That’s not to say he didn’t do his part to shield the team from unnec­es­sary pres­sure, but it nor­mal­ized pres­sure and helped the team believe they could over­come it.

As an added chal­lenge, he was told that low-income kids may lack dis­ci­pline and it could become an issue. He admits it was frus­trat­ing at first and thought they could just dig through, but (lean­ing of the great influ­ences on his past) he was able to ral­ly the team to share the bur­den” and go beyond what the neigh­bor­hood saw. Everyone want­ed to be a part of [the team] because it was easy to come in and share the bur­den. Once you’re able to share the bur­den, it takes the pres­sure of the individual.”

Moreover, Coach Cox believes the machine is a sum of its parts and that by coach­ing each indi­vid­ual, the team will get what it needs. His goal is to devel­op each kid to the best of their abil­i­ties and then blend them as a team. Of course, the ulti­mate team goal is to win every game, but he says if you don’t improve an indi­vid­ual, it doesn’t mat­ter what your team goals are, you’re not going to go far. If you have one flat tire and three brand new tires, I don’t care what kind of car you have, you’re not going to go far. You’ve got to give every­one care and atten­tion. The last kid on the bench should feel just as impor­tant as a starter.”

There are also many off the field devel­op­men­tal moments, and Coach Cox expects his teams to live a clean life. He tells the kids, Good things hap­pen to good peo­ple. There’s no way you can be a fan­tas­tic play­er, live your life like trash and not expect that to fol­low you back on the field. You want to keep your life as clean as pos­si­ble. If you bring bad habits and issues (that you can con­trol) to the field, it’s going to affect the team…I also do my best to eval­u­ate my life and make sure I’m the best per­son I can be regard­less of soccer.”

To this day, Elsik’s iden­ti­ty remains a broth­er­hood of extend­ed fam­i­ly”. Players remain con­nect­ed beyond their days on the field, hav­ing bar­be­cues togeth­er, stay­ing in touch, and look­ing out for each oth­er in gen­er­al. Although they may have nev­er played togeth­er, they’re bond­ed by their homage to the school. We have a lot of alum­ni that want to come back, sup­port the team, and say I played for Elsik’”.

Eyes > Mouth

As far as video goes, Coach Cox says mis­takes and errors have noth­ing to do with col­or. Those have to do with con­cen­tra­tion, ded­i­ca­tion, com­mit­ment, and aware­ness which are all a bunch of char­ac­ter­is­tics, not a bunch of peo­ple. When these kids get to see them­selves, they don’t see their col­or or their back­ground and it puts things in per­spec­tive. The video is amaz­ing in how it reach­es play­ers because it has every­thing to with their actions and not where they’re from.”

Cox is thank­ful for video because, with­out it, the play­ers remem­ber things a bit dif­fer­ent­ly, and just telling them some­thing doesn’t mean they’ll believe it. But, with video, they can look for the things they want­ed to exe­cute suc­cess­ful­ly as well as where things went wrong. If you do make a mis­take, and you were try­ing to uphold those stan­dards, Coach says there’s no crime or sin against you from the team in the video room. And the kids know this. They can see the dif­fer­ence in an hon­est mis­take or when some­one is screw­ing around and costs the team the game. And, after you get called out like that in front of the team, nobody wants to be that kid again…

The team also has kids who have nev­er seen them­selves on video and it’s kind of fright­en­ing for them. They may have only seen high­lights of them­selves and think, oh — that’s how I look”. But, when you come to the Elsik video room, they’re not look­ing at the high­lights. Those are for the end of the sea­son. Instead, the team focus­es on their aware­ness, respon­si­bil­i­ties, and loca­tion on the field. More specif­i­cal­ly, they want to see what led up to all the goals. Not the goals in and of them­selves, but where did it all start. Coach Cox wants to see the kids that do every­thing right and make that sim­ple first pass that leads to the oppor­tu­ni­ty. And vice ver­sa, where did the team break­down that led to an opponent’s opportunity.

When asked about the future of remote coach­ing, Coach Cox says the pan­dem­ic has giv­en him more time to slow down, look at what he was pre­vi­ous­ly doing, and take a clos­er look at where he can improve guys. He talks about how everyone’s lives nor­mal­ly move at 100mph, but now we have a lit­tle time to look back and find things that will help us grow per­son­al­ly and as a team. There are always things teams say they want to do dif­fer­ent­ly next year but some­thing comes up that doesn’t allow them to get around to it. Now, he can con­tin­ue to dig into Hudl video, jot things down, and find ways to improve the team. He hopes it helps peo­ple pre­pare more in case any­thing like this helps again.

Today’s Special: Championships

As men­tioned, it took a cou­ple of years for Coach Cox’s pro­gram to real­ize it’s full poten­tial. Although he’d set a high bar in his first year to make the play­offs, Elsik didn’t break through and make the play­offs until 2013. But here’s the cool part… a lot of those kids on that first state appear­ance team were young (5th and 6th graders) when Coach inher­it­ed the team back in 2008, and he remem­bers them stand­ing on the side­line just wait­ing their turn and say­ing I’m going to play for Elsik next.”

From 2013 to 2018, Elsik got used to being cham­pi­ons… local­ly. The Rams were peren­ni­al region­al cham­pi­ons and arguably the best team in Houston. Given the local suc­cess, Elsik was accus­tomed to hav­ing a tar­get on their back. Winning state just opened up more teams to take aim, but Coach Cox prefers it that way. I think that tar­get helps. I’d rather have that tar­get and pres­sure on our back than being the hunter. Sometimes, it’s good to be the under­dog, but I’d rather have some­one try to push you off the top than be climb­ing. There are more peo­ple try­ing to get there.”

That state title was the first for a boy’s pro­gram in the long his­to­ry of Elsik. But, through all the acco­lades that come with win­ning it all, what stuck out to Coach Cox the most? The per­se­ver­ance of that team. In that 2018 6A state final, Elsik was shown a red card ear­ly in the sec­ond half. On the sur­face, in a 1 – 0 game, a red seems detri­men­tal. But, as expect­ed, Cox didn’t pan­ic and that calm demeanor was reflect­ed in the kids. One thing that meant a lot to me, when we got the red card, the play­ers didn’t even look over at me. They just shift­ed posi­tions and we held firm. The win was cer­tain­ly some­thing, but know­ing the kids could do that with ice in their veins, for me that was awesome.”

The Melting Pot

In the Elsik lock­er room, because of the diver­si­ty they have across the coach­ing staff and play­ers, Coach Cox believes their team is ahead of the world. The team is rep­re­sen­ta­tive of an entire city and nation and he says, You’d have to take a knee to every­one of every col­or of every back­ground in our lock­er room. Our kids come in and regard­less of what they have in their hearts, minds, or been taught before, they adapt to the envi­ron­ment. They’ll see what our team doesn’t tol­er­ate, how our coach­ing staff gets along and argues in a healthy way. It real­ly sets the tone.”

For unit­ing teams and cul­tur­al devel­op­ment, Cox would like to leave every­one with this word — perspective. 

He con­cludes: 

You may have a boss, a sib­ling, or a spouse that you don’t agree with. But, if you look at things from their point of view, they have a com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive. If you don’t, there’s prob­a­bly going to be some prob­lems. One thing that the kids have taught me, no mat­ter where they came from or my col­or, if I don’t con­sid­er their per­spec­tive, I’m going to lose the kid. If you want to reach a kid, whether it’s soc­cer or grades, you have to con­sid­er their per­spec­tive. And that bleeds into the cul­ture. From friend­ships to lan­guages to col­or to dif­fer­ent groups, if you just look at things from a dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive, it’s a huge part of under­stand­ing each oth­er. Elsik soc­cer is ahead of a lot of the world because kids come in with that per­spec­tive. It’s not easy but, when you take things into con­text and look at some­one else’s per­spec­tive, it helps. I think that’s some­thing I’ll take with me for the rest of my life.”

Believe it or not, hav­ing noth­ing in com­mon has its ben­e­fits. Through sport, we find out we’re the same beyond the col­or of our skin or the lan­guage we speak. From a foun­da­tion like that, we can grow and build friend­ships, bonds, and fam­i­ly. In its own way, this is more pow­er­ful than the most pow­er­ful team or play­er. No mat­ter where every­one comes from, once we share a bond, it’s going to be hard to stop some­thing like that.