For those who are part of the thriving community that is East Side Youth Soccer, its success can be attributed to one man in particular. Rick Clarkson, husband and father of four boys, has helped develop youth soccer on the East Side into something that extends far beyond the sidelines occupied by parents, coaches, and kids on those crisp autumn afternoons. His passion for the sport and for the kids in the program he now heads is legendary, earning him the reputation as not only a longstanding soccer coach, but as a true East Side community leader and innovator.
Currently the Headmaster at Westbay Christian Academy in North Kingstown, Clarkson recently took some time to reflect on his accomplishments and devotion to local youth soccer that have helped define him as “Mr. Soccer” to decades of East Side families. His hands-on commitment to providing a solid foundation for young kids through involvement in sports has extended over 25 years.
“I became involved in the mid-1980s when I enrolled my oldest son (age six) and continued to coach all four of my sons over the next 20 years,” Clarkson recalls. The East Side youth soccer program was started back in the ‘60s by longtime Brown University soccer and lacrosse coach Cliff Stevenson when he first moved to Providence and discovered there was no youth soccer programs being offered for kids. In those days it was a well-run but modest program that consisted of four to six teams. Stevenson also provided soccer coaching to the volunteer parent-coaches, some of whom didn’t know much about the sport themselves.
Clarkson took the reins of the program from Stevenson about 12 years ago and while keeping the low-key style of his predecessor, he began implementing his own changes as well. For him, that meant providing a more “developmentally appropriate” experience for younger children, which led to a significant increase in the number of overall participants. A new program for three and four-year-olds was put into place, as well as one for seventh and eighth graders. The latter was the result of requests from parents whose kids attended public schools that did not offer soccer programs of their own.
“When I took over we had about 180 kids on 12 teams. We now have over 30 teams spread across five divisions, with approximately 500 children,” Clarkson notes with justifiable pride. Coaches in East Side Soccer are still made up primarily of parents who are willing to volunteer. Previous soccer knowledge, while welcomed, is not required so much as the desire and ability to work well with young kids.
For many kids, organized activities, whether it be in sports, the arts, or any other form, often provides the basic foundation for a successful future. The classic concepts of teamwork, trust, commitment and responsibility are instilled at an early age, while allowing kids to partake in some of their favorite activities and have fun at the same time. Clarkson’s overriding objective for the young participants in his program has always been to provide all of these concepts in a consistent, but not overbearing, way.
“Our goal is to provide an enjoyable, instructional soccer opportunity for families that does not require an unrealistic amount of time,” Clarkson says. “It not only gets kids off the couch, it provides a ‘neighborhood’ event where people can meet and get to know a variety of other families.” The first games took place at the old Marvel Gym Field on Elmgrove Avenue. Over time they moved to fields at places like Moses Brown and later East Providence High School and Gordon Wheeler, the school for the deaf, and PCD. The games are now played on Sunday afternoons at the Wheeler Farm in Seekonk, which Clarkson describes as a “classic New England autumn experience.”
While the thrill and satisfaction that comes from providing young kids with the basic skills to become successful athletes is always rewarding, the lasting relationships that are formed as a result of it are equally fulfilling for Clarkson. “In my case, and with most who participate, friendships are forged that last beyond the soccer season,” says Clarkson. Clarkson jokes that “it is both affirming and a little disconcerting, to realize that I now have participants who are the children of kids I formerly coached.”
Clarkson remains committed to providing the same experience to kids now, that he was able to do for his own four sons. It’s what drives him to keep coming back year after year, with his unequaled devotion and energy. “I continue to believe that a well-structured youth sports program can have a very positive impact on the lives of children, teaching them how to work hard, get along with others, demonstrate respect to all, all the while enjoying a competitive game, where everyone can go home at the end of the day and say that they had fun.”
As the 2012 season comes to a close, parents interested in getting their kids involved with East Side Soccer next season can find answers to most of their questions at www.eastsidesports.net/faq.html. The site lists general information, contacts, and frequently asked questions. Registration generally begins in mid-July. Games run through early November.