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.

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...

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.

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.”

Winning state just opened up more teams to take aim, but Coach Cox prefers it that way. “I think that target helps."

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.