Sharing The Joy of Soccer – Cal South TOPSoccer Program
Written with Cody Bryant-Zygowski
“We’re all soccer players, special needs or not,” says Sandy Castillo, chair of the Cal South TOPSoccer program. Celebrating its 25th season, this outreach program for soccer was established in 1991 and is a place for children and adults with special needs to be engaged in soccer.
The beautiful game of soccer is played all over the planet, in fancy stadiums to back alleys — and by all types of players. Making sure every child has the opportunity to experience the joy of soccer and benefit from the lessons learned on the field is what TOPSoccer is all about. Youth soccer players with disabilities deserve the chance to have time on the soccer pitch too — and they receive this opportunity through TOPSoccer, a community-based training and team placement program organized by youth soccer association volunteers.
The nation-wide TOPSoccer program has a home in all 55 US Youth Soccer associations, yet Cal South’s program is unique. Cal South’s TOPSoccer program not only has full board support, but it has the benefit and leadership of powerhouse Sandy Castillo. Castillo has been coaching youth soccer since 1985 and coaching in TOPSoccer since 1991.
While TOPSoccer receives free equipment and education for its coaches from Cal South, the program flourishes in many ways because of Castillo’s dedication. She is a woman who has singularly made a difference for children in Southern California with disabilities. Castillo fell into her role in what is now known as the world of TOPSoccer and her big heart helped her help others.
Everybody can be successful in TOPSoccer because in Sandy Castillo’s eyes, success is measured in different ways:
“If we can get a kid who hasn’t ever been kicking a ball, and at the end of the season he is kicking it — then that is a success.”
The fact that soccer can be played in many different ways allows the program to cater to all its players’ needs. At the beginning of each season, the program runs a camp to get to know each player better; the coaches decide who needs assistance and who can be more independent.
To adjust to everyone’s skill level, the rules of soccer are modified, which is very easy to do when you compare it to other American sports such as baseball. For example, children unable to throw the ball in can kick it and children in wheelchairs can be goalie. The soccer ball can even have a rattle inserted to accommodate blind players. Castillo stresses that the spirit of the beautiful game is intact as long as everyone is involved. The goal of TOPSoccer is to provide a safe playing environment for young athletes with disabilities to become successfully part of a soccer team.
This may all seem very straightforward but for Castillo, and the other coaches, it wasn’t always this easy. Castillo was just a mom coaching her daughter’s team in 1988 when she first had a player with Down Syndrome on the team.
“My first reaction was to panic”, Sandy admitted. But the season went fine; Castillo’s team played very well and the child was on the field almost half the game and enjoyed participating. All the players were happy.
Nancy, the child’s mother, told Sandy that if the season hadn’t been as successful, the reaction toward her daughter might have been very different.
In 1991 Nancy attended a meeting at USC where the idea for a soccer program for kids with special needs was first discussed. She immediately asked Sandy to help coach the team. At the beginning, things didn’t go so well. The kids were fine; it was Castillo who — over twenty five years ago — had trouble adapting. She had no idea how to work with kids who seemed “different” and she thought they had to be treated differently.
“There was one child could really push my buttons,” Castillo says. “One day, I was at the end of my rope and thought I’m either going to strangle the kid, I’m going to quit or he is getting a timeout. I went to his mom and told her that her son needed a timeout. I thought she was going to explode but instead she just looked at me and said ‘OK.’ Castillo hadn’t been disciplining the kids because she thought they were special and needed a different set of rules for behavior. She quickly learned that maybe the rules of the game needed to be gently adjusted but good manners still ruled.
“Ten minutes later I went back to the kid and asked ‘Are you ready to play?’ He said ‘Yes’ and went back on. This time he was great. Lesson learned.” Castillo realized that she was treating this group of players differently then she would her daughter’s team. Castillo knew that if she treated them like soccer players, they would respond like soccer players. But she needed to put the work in. There were disabilities to be learned about, parents to be talked to, and ways to simplify soccer to be figured out.
Castillo loved the job, but it took on a new meaning after her daughter’s death in 2000 from injuries sustained in a car accident. Castillo wanted to keep her daughter’s dream of becoming a special education teacher alive. Today, the TOPSoccer program in Southern California has really taken off and is a leading example across the nation.
With Cal South’s full support, outreach has kept up pace. Cal South offers all their TOPSoccer coaching courses for free, plus offers a reduced cost to register TOPSoccer players, and provides a complimentary annual coaches workshop. The volunteers who help the kids come from high schools and recreational soccer teams. Even an entire college team came out to run training last summer.
But what Castillo finds most important is that the program benefits not just the kids, but also the “typical community” by creating a bridge of understanding between two different worlds. The team building between the two communities has become so intertwine that Castillo happily remarks that she hasn’t had a free Saturday in years. And there is no stopping in sight.
“The Sharks offer a TOPSoccer Program that is run by Dr. Mariette Boyce,” said Shannon Mac Millan, DMCV Sharks Director of Club Operations, “Being a community based club, the Sharks take pride in offering an opportunity for kids of all levels to play soccer – from our Elite National Championship team to our Recreational Program to our TOPSoccer program and everything in between. Our TOPSoccer athletes are a great reminder that we should be playing for the love of the game!”
“Our TOPSoccer program is one of the most rewarding parts of our youth soccer club, it was started 5 years ago as a Senior project for one our players and continues to grow each year. It is a wonderful program,” said Pam Bikel, Poway Vaqueros Soccer Club President, “If your club does not have a TOPS program you should consider starting one, the rewards are endless.”
“The TOPSoccer program has provided a wonderful opportunity for our youth players to help out with a program where they are ‘buddies’ to the TOPSoccer players,” said Brian Quinn, former professional soccer player and Director of Younger Boys Soccer at SDSC. “It has provided San Diego Soccer Club with another meaningful avenue to be involved in our community. Bob Whitney has been superb in his leadership of this program.” Quinn is also the Assistant Coach in his 8th Season at USD.
Cal South’s outstanding TOPSoccer program offers players, ages 4 and up, the chance to participate without high fees –making the program more accessible for the kids who really need it. The goal is to enable the thousands of young athletes with disabilities to become valued and successful members of the TOPSoccer family.
TOPSoccer was formed to perpetuate the US Youth Soccer mission statement which is, in part, “to foster the physical, mental and emotional growth and development of America’s youth through the sport of soccer at all levels of age and competition.” There are thousands of children with disabilities who need, and can be provided with, the opportunity to play soccer through the TOPSoccer program. Cal South’s program, lead by Castillo, makes sure every kid who wants to play soccer, has the chance to discover the passion, beauty and joy of the game. Everyone is included. After all, soccer unites the world and everyone. For more information on how you can get involved US Youth Soccer and Cal South are here to help.