Dozens of small children and parents came and went at Monroe Middle School's field in South Tampa last Saturday morning, braving the heat and humidity for one more chance to run, kick and laugh.
As kids left the field for the last time this spring soccer season, Brandon Crane, executive director of Tampa Bay Soccer Shots, handed out bronze medals affixed to bright orange lanyards.
Soccer Shots is just four years old, but in that time it has grown from a handful of players to more than 1,000 in Hillsborough County, including players with physical and developmental disabilities.
Crane was busy managing his property maintenance business and his wife, Melissa, was in between sales jobs when they learned of the Soccer Shots national brand.
Enticed by the company's creative approach to teaching soccer to small children, the couple purchased a franchise with the expectation of adding part-time work to their routine.
Within a year, the couple was so busy that Crane sold his first business and dedicated himself full time to the local program.
Soccer Shots now operates in Carrollwood, Riverview and South Tampa and hosts children between the ages of 2 and 8. Crane says 90 percent of his small athletes are between 3 and 5, usually considered too young for traditional soccer.
"We teach through fun games," Crane said. "We engage the kids' imagination. Instead of putting one ball down and saying, 'Everybody go run after that,' we give every child a ball."
Crane rattles a few games off the top of his head. There's the game with volcanoes; the cones are "hot" so the players dribble the balls around them. There's the cookie monster game, where the ball is the cookie and the coach is the cookie monster, so the players want to keep their cookie away from the cookie monster.
The Winnie the Pooh game teaches players to go after targets; the players are bees with honey, the ball is the stinger, and the coach is a bear. The players' goal? Sting the bear.
"They're learning real soccer skills, but they think they're just playing fun games," Crane said.
Activities like these make it possible for some children with disabilities to learn soccer skills, too.
One 4-year-old player can't see the ball or her teammates, but she plays as well as anyone. The little girl, who was born blind, follows along by listening to her own soccer ball, which is equipped with small bells.
"Her mom had called and asked if it would maybe be something that would be good for her," Crane said. "They were trying new things and I told her I thought it would work perfectly."
Crane says the girl's parents are amazed at how long she has been engaged by the games.
There are children with autism on the teams, too, Crane said.
Some coaches also take time to visit various schools, including Tampa Day School. There, coaches work with children with ADHD, autism and social anxiety.
Soccer Shots coaches come from various backgrounds. Some specialize in early education and sports management, while others come from unrelated fields like finance.
"I have coaches that put their careers on hold because they have so much fun coaching and they coach all week long," Crane said. "In my experience, it has been that if you're having the worst day but get to coach the kids, it all melts away. Even if you're having a great day it makes it that much better."
Sarah Gottlieb can be reached at [email protected]