Leadership with a kick
New head coach of Austin Bold FC juggles technique, outreach, and building leaders
This month, Austin Bold FC selected a new guru: the first Jamaican head coach in the USL Championship league, and only the second Black head coach. The team is promoting its assistant coach and goalkeeper director since 2019, affording the team some much-need continuity. Ryan Thompson, whose stern voice belies his wide smile and ceaseless positivity, is jumping right in with drills focused on problem-solving.
“A lot of what we’ve been doing lately is playing,” says Thompson, going over the day’s practice on his drive home. “We give them a problem, and give them the freedom to solve that problem on their own. Because that’s the game. If they don’t solve it, that’s when you come in and give the coaching points.”
One problem the Bold is facing is its future in Austin. In August, the team announced it was considering a move. Attendance was suffering, since the major league team (Austin FC) moved in. But all options are not exhausted, and the team wants to stay.
From Thompson’s perspective, things are picking back up again. In the two games prior to his talk with CultureMap, he noticed attendance starting to rise, attributing the change to increasing comfort around the pandemic. He’s heard his name chanted from the stands, claiming he’d rather the team receive the attention before conceding it’s nice to hear fans care.
The new head coach has played on teams in Jamaica, Ireland, Sweden, and multiple cities in the United States. In his experience, Jamaicans are looking for entertainment and play, with emphasis on the attack. Ireland is more structured and infused with a deep emotional commitment to the game. Austin sits between the two, with community and culture as central elements, and fun all around.
“What you put into the community, the community gives back to you,” Thompson says. “That’s what Austin represents: freedom of expression, freedom to be who you want to be, and community.”
What coach Thompson puts into the community outside Austin Bold goes directly to kids playing soccer. He coaches with the Lonestar Soccer Club, a local organization for athletes ages 4 through 19 that emphasizes player development beyond scoring goals. Its financial aid program ensures every child who wants to play is able to, and its college placement program works to facilitate the transition from the club to college athletics.
Narrowing the scope to goalkeepers, Thompson’s own position, he started the mentorship-based training organization RTG Academy. A video by RTG shows the coach speaking to a group of young players on the field, sharing a personal story of being ostracized in Jamaica as a 14-year-old with underdeveloped goalkeeping technique.
Thompson played in church shoes and was passed up for shoe donations for not earning the upgrade. He recalls crying not being a weakness to overcome — as tropes about coaches and toughness might suggest — but something that would naturally happen to a child being bullied. One person, he says, believed in him, and that was all it took. The moral of Thompson’s field-side story involves equal opportunity; no one at RTG needs to earn a chance at empathy through being good at soccer.
“A healthy environment is everything,” says Thompson in the car. “There’s a lot of people who could be outliers. They could do great things in this world, but their journey or their talent that’s put aside on a journey stops because of an unhealthy environment. They couldn’t proceed past that. If we create an environment that fosters honesty and growth and community, we will see more outliers.”
Now Thompson is an outlier, representing Black athletes in a higher position than the league is accustomed to seeing. He hopes other coaches and coaching hopefuls can look to him for encouragement that more outliers are possible. Until then, he is shifting from the victory of landing the job back to the hard work of being great in it.
“I was never a goalkeeper,” says Thompson of his journey through other positions and sports before the one that stuck. “I was a track athlete. I was also a cricketer and a cheerleader. But life gave me an opportunity to become a soccer fan. Then all of a sudden, that’s what I became. What never changed was Ryan the person.”
Austin Bold FC has seven regular season games left in 2021. The RTG 5-week program begins Sunday, October 3, and is open for registration until it starts.