How Edu­ca­tion Changed the Game for NCAA Soc­cer Coach Tafadzwa Ziyenge

Coach Ziyenge learned the impor­tance of edu­ca­tion ear­ly, and it’s affect­ed his coach­ing deci­sions every step of the way.

How Edu­ca­tion Changed the Game for NCAA Soc­cer Coach Tafadzwa Ziyenge

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.”