As virtual teaching launches in many schools across the country, coaches need to help keep their athletes motivated in the classroom. Coach Ziyenge learned the importance of education early, and it’s affected his coaching decisions every step of the way.

Before they had the chance to influence the development, strength, and mentality of the game, many fantastic soccer coaches from around the globe were putting in their hours on the pitch as players. Auburn-Montgomery head women’s soccer coach Tafadzwa Ziyenge is one of them.

Coach Ziyenge played for the University of Alabama-Huntsville, an NCAA Division II program in the Gulf South Conference. He still holds the GSC scoring record for one season, scoring 25 goals in 18 matches back in 1996. An impressive 23-year old record in a very competitive conference.

Ziyenge didn’t know the impact education would have on his life as he grew up in Marondera, Zimbabwe. He was much more focused on excelling at his favorite sport.

Playing soccer was (and still is) one of the only options in his hometown. “When you come from a smaller African country, you only have one choice, or one and a half choices—you are either playing soccer, which we call football, or you’re running cross country,” said Ziyenge.

“Soccer was the cheapest, most convenient choice. You only need a makeshift goal, a makeshift field, and a ball. We didn’t need a uniform—we played shirts and skins. We didn’t need shoes—we played barefoot. When you grow up in humble beginnings like I did, you have those options and that’s it.”

Ziyenge dreamed of playing professional soccer in his home country. After years of hard work, that dream became a reality—he had an offer to play professionally in Zimbabwe. 

“Don’t limit yourself, you just never know. Being rejected is part of the game and part of life.”

But fate (i.e., his mother) stepped in. She grabbed the contract, ripped it up, and sent him to the U.S. to concentrate on his education. Though not keen on the idea at the time, Ziyenge now admits that turn of events changed everything for him.

Education became an unparalleled motivation for him, not because of his academic abilities, but because of his competitive spirit and dedication to get better. He knew not having an education would hold him back from what he wanted to achieve. And now he instills this drive in his players. 

From Arkansas State to his current team, Auburn-Montgomery, his student-athletes remain among the top in average GPA in the NCAA. In 2012, his Arkansas State team boasted a 3.599 team grade point average, the highest of any team in the Sun Belt conference, seventh highest among all NCAA Division I programs.

Ziyenge uses education as a motivator for his players. (Credit: AUM Athletics)

Ziyenge has a simple way to enforce the importance of education. Miss one class? You’re going on a very long run. Miss two? You aren’t playing. He’s never had a player skip a second class.

After not just seeing the impact of education, but living it, Ziyenge uses his first-hand experience to guide recruiting decisions.

“I don’t like to say it’s just education that I look for, because I wasn’t the brightest student. But the drive to learn, and understanding the amount of work it takes to succeed, are traits I look for,” said Ziyenge.

The lessons don’t end on the pitch or in the classroom when you’re on Ziyenge’s team. He never hesitates to share his personal story or his humility with his players, making sure they know the most important life lesson he’s learned.

“My resume is littered with mistakes,” said Ziyenge. “There’s been a lot of failures, so many tears, so many frustrations, so many dark moments. These are things people don’t like to talk about, but without failure, you’ll never taste any success.

“Don’t limit yourself, you just never know. Being rejected is part of the game and part of life.”