Kelley Pulisic on Raising an Exceptional Player & Soccer Character
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Kelley Pulisic on Raising an Exceptional Player and Teaching Character Lessons through Soccer

I am honored to make this interview from the 2016 Soccer Parenting Summit available to all parents and coaches.  The Soccer Parenting Summit was a virtual gathering of youth soccer, performance, sport psychology, parenting, nutrition and coaching experts with presentations and interviews uniquely tailored to soccer parents.  The majority of the recorded interviews can be found at the SoccerParentResourceCenter.com.

Kelley Pulisic, mom to Christian, in an interview from December 2016 speaking candidly about Christian’s playing and developmental environments while growing up.

TRANSCRIPT:

Skye:
The next speaker that we have is Kelley Pulisic. Kelley is the mother of Christian Pulisic, and I would assume that I don't need to introduce Christian Pulisic and who he is as he has been truly just the new phenom in terms of breaking through on the men's side with soccer. Christian's currently playing in Germany for Borussia Dortmund and is the rising star on our men's national team.

Kelley and I actually grew up playing against each other, playing with each other in ODP and Virginia. She grew up playing for the Braddock Road Shooting Stars. And which is a phenomenal team of many, many top players. Mia Hamm being one of the key players on that team obviously. Kelley went on to play collegiately at George Mason where she met her husband, Mark, who also played there.

In the interview, we get into a lot of really exciting topics. Just feel like Kelley's uniquely positioned as the parent of Christian to really provide us with some insight on not just his development, but just giving some parents some guidance on just having some perspective in raising a child and raising a high performing athlete.

Really, really excited to bring this information to you. We reference once in the conversation, just quickly, and I thought it was worth explaining about them being in England. When Christian was seven. They moved to England for a year for Kelley to have a teaching sabbatical, and they feel like that time was really instrumental for Christian just because of all the free play for soccer that was happening and just was that moment or a moment of ignition for him.

And as parents of kids was looking for, is those moments that they can have that'll transform the way they look at themselves or the way they feel about soccer, the confidence, those types of things. We referenced that they had moved to England, so I just wanted to make a point of mentioning that here. Also, at the end of the conversation, we get into character. Which I've always been so impressed with Christian and his character that he demonstrates just from the interviews that I've seen of. I've never met him myself.

I was really interested in understanding what they've done to build this sense of character in Christian. And she provides some really interesting insight in that as well as some really interesting mentalities that they had with Christian and making sure that he was in the right environment.

I'm really thrilled to bring Kelley Pulisic to the Soccer Parenting Summit. Great playing background. And as you'll get a glimpse of as she talks here, just a wonderful, wonderful parent and person. Kelley Pulisic.

Welcome to the Soccer Parenting Summit. I've been really looking forward to this conversation with Kelley Pulisic because who better to learn from about being a soccer parent than the parent of US soccer's rising star, Christian Pulisic. Kelley, welcome to the Soccer Parenting Summit.

Kelley:
Thank you. Thank you for having me.

Skye:
You bet. So many articles about Christian allude to the fact that he's this perfect storm of mentality and skill and thoughtfulness as far as being a player and his speed, all coming together in this perfect storm, along with playing in a really competitive environment growing up. Those articles also often talk about the fact that you and Mark were both players and the experience that your playing potentially had in his development. Do you see any correlation to those two things? Do you think Christian's a better player or a different player because of your experiences?

Kelley:
Well, I think that he had a little bit of an advantage because Mark especially, not so much me, but he is a soccer coach. I mean we both played collegiately, but he played professionally. But he also did his coaching license here in the US and also in Europe. And I think knowing what to do with the young kids and when to do it, I think absolutely did help.

Skye:
Yeah. From a nature versus nurture concept, do you think that Christian would be the player that he is today if it weren't for those experiences that he had just in the environment he grew up in?

Kelley:
I mean, I think he has a lot of both because naturally, he's very gifted athletically. And without those athletic talents God given, then you're not going to be able to nurture someone in if you don't have those. I think it was just a bonus for him.

Skye:
Yeah. Tell us about the environment that he grew up in. Some of the things that I read about just Mark was coaching an indoor team then. Christian was around a lot of these professional players at a young age. Can you tell us a little bit about that environment?

Kelley:
Sure. I mean, even before that, when he was young, I mean very young, my husband coached at a college. And was always around coaching and playing. He was playing professionally as well. He was always with a ball at his feet. I mean two years old, it's almost how he learned to walk.

And just being naturally athletic, he just loved the game. I mean, Christian was in love with soccer from day one. And obviously we had a part in that because he was around it, but I think he truly loved it himself. From that point, when Mark then did go coaching indoor, yeah, he was around it. He was around the guys. He loved being there. And he was there with them, learning their tricks and things like that. Very young age and he just ate it up.

Skye:
Yeah, I think if you could write a story about a child with a growth mindset, it seems like Christian could potentially be the main character in that story. Just his mentality of it seems as though his mentality of believing that the harder he practices or works on something, then the better he will therefore become. He sees a correlation to those two things. I think I remember reading an article about one of the players in the indoor team would show him a move. And then he would work and work and work hard to master that move and come back and show the guys even at a young age that he could do it.

Kelley:
Yeah, he did. He did that a lot. He would learn something and then he would try to bring something to them and show them how to do it. And it was fun. He'd like, "Hey, look at this. Who can do this?" And they were mad sometimes when he's so young and he could do it and it took them a day or two to get it.

Skye:
Oh, that's so funny.

Kelley:
His mentality was not Mark and I telling him, "Go out and practice." We never truly ever told him, "You need to practice harder." It was all his, I mean internally, that's what he wanted. He wanted to be the best, he wanted to learn everything. And that's not something I think you can actually teach.

Skye:
Which I think is really important because one of the other speakers that'll be speaking later today is Tom Ferry with ESPN. He works on the Aspen Institute, Project Play. Tom's book, Game on, talks about Tiger Woods and refers to this Tiger Woods phenomenon with youth soccer, or with youth parents, youth sports parents.

Thinking that because Earl Woods said, "I created Tiger Woods. I put him in this environment where he was putting at such a young age and sleeping with a golf club in his crib, therefore, parents, you can also do something like this."

And we had this phenomenon that we experienced 10, 15 years ago within sports parents about that. It's refreshing to hear you say, "Hey, we really didn't do that. He just gravitated towards it."

Kelley:
Yeah, that's I really believe. I think if we would've pushed him in any way, he would've turned completely away from it. But it was his mentality that, and he loved it. And he loved all sports, but he loved soccer the most. And he just would be outside at five years old, juggling, because he wanted to and he wanted to be at his record. And it's something, like I said, that you really can't teach.

Skye:
Yeah, that's very true. That's very true. Did he play other sports growing up?

Kelley:
He played pretty much everything. Time restricted him to actually playing soccer. I mean he did play basketball, but he played everything with everyone. I mean, he'd stay after school and do volleyball or this, that and the other. And all the coaches are trying, "Oh, play volleyball. Play football. Run track." And he's like, "Yeah, yeah. Well, soccer's my number one."

Really, he played soccer and we offered him to play any of those, but he just really wanted to stick with soccer as his main activity that he played on an actual team. But like I said, he did play all sports. I mean it was all sports all the time in my house.

Skye:
Was that part of your mentality? I mean, I know you're a physical education teacher and have been for the last 24 years. You have a really good sense of physical literacy and the importance of kids developing other physical traits along with everything else as they're growing up. Was that something you were thoughtful about with your kids or especially with Christian?

Kelley:
Yeah, because we didn't want him to burn out. I mean it was huge for us to go out in the yard. Well, actually the driveway. And we'd play tennis, just hitting the tennis ball back and forth. And then we'd convert the driveway to hockey and we'd play floor hockey. And it is just one thing to the next. And then, basketball.

And then, it didn't make soccer a chore I think especially when it became more strenuous and more demanding. Big tournaments, big cups, going with the national team. A lot of things we did at home was going outside, playing horse and things like that, just around the basketball court. Just to give him a little bit of a break and just so he knew you can have some fun with other sports as well.

And he loves golf and he's a great golfer as well. His dad can't go golf at all, terrible. But his dad and some friends, I mean they're constantly out golfing. And that's a nice leisure activity for him as well.

Skye:
For sure. There's a theme that I see with Christian sometimes or that was apparent, especially as he was making his debut with the men's national team of not too much too soon. John O' Sullivan talked earlier today on the Soccer Parenting Summit. And that's one of the themes of his company, the Changing the Game Project, where he's trying to put an end to this mass sports specialization at such a young age. Is that anything that you've thought about with Christian or do you think that we have an issue in our country with too much too soon? Sports too soon. Too many focus on one sport too soon.

Kelley:
It's hard because it depends on the kid. I mean, if your kid only loves one sport, it's a difficult question. But if you don't allow them to have those opportunities to see if they do other sports, I think that's sad.

I think for Christian, it was like he loved it so much. We're like, "Hey, you want to play basketball this year?" And he played a couple times. "You want to play again." "Nah, I just want to stick to this." It depends on the child. And I think he really can't push them and say, "Oh, you've got to sign up for this team, that team," and all within the same sport. I think you do have to open the doors and let them choose what they like.

And if they want to be multiple sport athlete, there's nothing wrong with that. I think, I mean if they want to be elite in certain sports, I think by the time they get to high school, I think it's a little bit difficult to be a three sport athlete.

Skye:
Sure.

Kelley:
Depending on the level you want to go, but you know, don't want to close any doors because there's many kids that change up in high school. It's a tricky question because a lot has to do with the child themselves and their mentality.

Skye:
Yeah, you're right. I think it's a combination of mentality, athleticism and just those things combined. Do you look back on any decision that you made and that you and Mark made about Christian and his involvement with the game and say, "Wow. I'm really happy we did that"? Is there any specific things that you look back on and think were good decisions for him?

Kelley:
I think so. I think we always said not too much. And I think one of the problems today is get them on another team, let them practice another night. And I think sometimes we're like, "All right. Well, you're not training for the next three days because your body needs rest." It's like, "What? What? What?"

And I think taking it away a little bit makes you really love it even more. And not allowing, I mean we were getting calls. I mean he was eight, nine. And, "Oh, can he play on this tournament this weekend as a guest player? Can he play?"

And he wanted to do all those things but we're like, "No." Sometimes parents have to say no because even young kids need a break, their body needs a break. And you take something away, they're going to want it even more. I think that was one of the decisions we made early on that I think is really smart looking back. Not too much every single day. He still has that desire and love for it.

Skye:
Yeah, for sure. One of the other common themes that we see in soccer and with soccer parents is stress. Did you feel any stress, I mean we all want our children to thrive. Do you look back and think about times that you felt stress? What were some of those times?

Kelley:
I mean, I don't really think stress really was in the picture for us because I think Mark and I had a plan of not too much. And I think the parents that maybe are just go, go, go, go. Trying to get that extra training, trying to get personal training, team training, all sorts of different teams.

And we didn't do that. I mean we were just like, "Hey, train a little on your own. Train with your main team. If you get called to the national team." We tried to just bring it down a level and let him achieve what he achieved. And let it develop on its own. Because I think that is way too much pressure if we were putting him in all those different training.

Skye:
I think you're raising a good point. And I have to say that there's probably a correlation between you and Mark's experiences. Whether or not it be as soccer players, but just as athletes. And having some perspective on just, this is a long term process. They're eight, he's nine, he's 12, whatever. He's got a long path ahead of him in order to develop. I think sometimes for parents, if they don't have that perspective, it's confusing. Those are hard decisions to make or even to think about.

Kelley:
And I think kids need to be kids. I mean sometimes they just need to come home, do their schoolwork if they need to and just go play. And if they choose to play at the court with friends, basketball, soccer, whatever it is, then it's just free play. But it's not in their brain that someone is coaching, coaching, coaching, where it's so demanding on them.

I mean they can just go have a kick around and that's so much more fun. I mean big kids, little kids and it's what he did in England a whole lot of. I mean they go there themselves and they just play. And there was no coaching involved. And that wasn't, I don't think, overdoing it because that was play, not soccer training. But got a lot out of it. But we didn't tell him to do that. He could have chose any sport over there. But I think that really is key. Just not pushing so much. I mean, let the kids be kids.

Skye:
Yeah, for sure. Did you ever get stressed watching him play? I think you did. I mean I've read stuff about how you would get nervous just in the moment, in the game watching him play. Did you ever find that hard?

Kelley:
Oh, absolutely. I mean every time he plays, I mean I feel like I want him to do well. And I think when he was little and younger, I didn't really... Whatever happens, he's young. But I feel now just because the media and everything is all over him, I feel like it's harder now. Because every touch, every time he walks in, every time he does anything, he's being judged.

And now, more than ever, I feel like, "Oh, I want him to do so well. Oh, be nice to him. He didn't have the greatest game." And that's where I get nervous because I don't want that to stunt his development. Because he's so young and he got such a long ways to go, where he can go or if he ever does. I just want take time, go easy on him, let him develop.

Skye:
Yeah. Let's shift a little bit here to character. Because something that I've always been impressed, I've never met Christian, but just watching interviews with him, is just the sense of poise and maturity and character that he demonstrates with how he carries himself. Even just with the press. Is this something that you all thought about when he was growing up and trying to instill these qualities in him?

Kelley:
I think just raising your children. All three of our kids wanted to be good people. And more than anything, it didn't matter about soccer. I mean you want to raise good, kind people. And in our family, hardworking and kind is really the two most important things that we really have taught our children. And I'm glad that when I do see Christian, when he does speak, he is humble. He's kind. He is a good person on top of being a decent soccer player. It makes me the most proud because in the end, that's where it's going to lead him further.

Skye:
Yeah, I spent 15 minutes a couple weeks ago watching and listening to him give a 15 minute interview in German on the team's station or TV station. And I don't speak German, but I was just completely impressed by one, at such a young age, that he has the maturity and the empathy to understand, "Hey, I've got to speak the native language proficiently in order to really connect with my teammates and connect with this environment." And I think you got some props in that interview. It sounded like he was talking about you and what a great athlete you were. I thought he was saying you that you beat his dad in one V one. But maybe not. I don't know.

Kelley:
Yeah, it was a great interview. I actually, I don't always share everything in social media. It's one thing I did because it's really impressive for him in a year to be fluent in German. I mean that's really impressive.

I was excited because I was there for three months and I mean I could barely even enunciate the words properly. I was proud of that. But yeah, back to that, it was a funny thing because he said that I was very fast and he got his speed from mom.

Skye:
There you go.

Kelley:
And then he was joking and he said that I beat his dad in a race. Yeah, that's always a funny story in our family.

Skye:
Looking back with him and then helping him these last maybe two years as he's gotten older and had some more media attention. Had there been any specific conversations you've had with him about his character or about the way he holds himself, his connection with his teammates, those types of things? Was that anything that you really were thinking about or have been thinking about?

Kelley:
I just think while he was in middle school and in high school, I always taught my kids one decision can really change your life. One thing you say, one thing you do can really alter how people look at you or just the path that you're going to go down. And I always say think about that because one tiny, little thing can really alter a lot about your life and how people look at you. And I'm hoping he took that to heart. And as of right now, I think he has. I hope he continues thinking about that statement.

Skye:
Yeah. Following this session is going to be James Leath. James is the development of leadership and character development, that's his title down at IMG and Bradenton. And James is going to be talking about specific things that parents and coaches can do to try to build character in these kids as we have such an influence on them from a sports perspective. Do you have any advice for parents as far as that goes either?

Kelley:
I think what you teach at home, and what you show them, and how you behave on the soccer field I think is also really important. Shouting out at the game and being negative in any way toward another player, it doesn't make any sense to me. Just always the positive part.

And if you have anything to say, that's going to be closed doors to someone privately. But screaming out looking foolish in any way as an adult I think is important because we have to be the role models. And that goes along with coaches. I mean, I would never allow any of my kids to be on a team where a coach was being derogatory or negative towards another team or coach because that's a role model. And I don't ever want my children to act like that.

Skye:
Yeah, that's fantastic. Was there ever a time where you had to say, "No, we're not going to be on that team or we're not going to guess on that team again, because I didn't like the way the coach was acting"?

Kelley:
Oh yeah, absolutely. I'm not going to share further. But yeah, we had to step away because it was just blaming the ref and blaming this.

Skye:
Sure.

Kelley:
And just being negative to other children. I mean, to me that's awful. I mean they're kids. You can't do that. I mean it's a team game at a young level. I mean nobody needs that.

Skye:
Yeah, that's a lot of what we're trying to get across through the Soccer Parenting Summit. Is parents, let's give you some education so you can take your power back. Removing your child, I mean, in this situation from a team or putting them onto another team is a good thing. Is something that you should feel like you have the authority and the power to do. And a lot of times in new sports, for some reason, parents don't feel like they have the ability to necessarily do that. Hearing you talk about that I think will be really impactful.

Kelley:
Yeah, I think it's important because sometimes parents look at, "Oh, I want my kid to be on the best team." And if you have a coach that's not a good role model and the best team, why would you really want your child being in that environment? And I mean, I've seen that over and over again. And I would refuse to put my son in an environment where someone's being negative.

I mean that to me is unacceptable. And parents do have to step up and say, "You know what? You're not going to be on the best team, but you're going to be around better people." And really, life lesson, that's going to be more important later on.

Skye:
Yeah, that's fantastic. Thanks for sharing that sentiment. And really, Kelley, thanks for taking the time to join us on the Soccer Parenting Summit. We all want our children to thrive. And hearing these stories from you and these sentiments from you will really help parents make that a reality. Thanks for taking the time today.

Kelley:
Great. Thanks for having me.


About the Author Skye Eddy

Founder, SoccerParenting.com Skye is a former All-American goalkeeper, professional player and collegiate coach. She holds her USSF “B” License and USSF National Goalkeeper License and is an active youth coach, soccer parent and coach educator.

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  • Alison says:

    Skye-I loved watching your interview of Kelly P. it does my heart good to my Former ODP teammates stepping up as leaders and getting the right messages out to parents. Great job and thank so much!
    Ali (Bradley)-Thoman

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