St. Louis Scott Gallagher Missouri (SLSG MO) soccer club is one of the founding members of the ECNL Girls, and one of the top player development organizations in America.  Within this storied organization, Scott McDoniel is a long-standing staff member, currently the Girls Director of Coaching and head coach for both the U13 and U14 teams, and has played an integral role in developing hundreds of players for the club. 

While SLSG MO has a history of top-level players going on to further their playing careers at the collegiate, professional and national team levels, the club continues to evolve with the game, looking for innovative ways to challenge young athletes both on and off the field, and to continue to improve their impact on the game more broadly. 

This mindset led McDoniel to launch an exciting new initiative in 2020. With no playbook, past experience or guide, McDoniel poured his energy into getting the SLSG MO Leadership Initiative off the ground, with the goal of encouraging more females to enter into the coaching profession.

“Originally, the intent behind the program was to create a pathway for young women, young players, to become coaches,” McDoniel said. “We wanted to increase the number of female coaches that we had in the club. But with the few young ladies that I started the program with, there was a lot of discussion of expanding it, to just cover all areas of leadership in general, on and off the field.”

SLSG MO’s Leadership Initiative is in its second year, and since its inception, the program has considerably expanded and evolved. With the current COVID-19 challenges, all meetings are held over zoom, which has allowed more people to attend. The virtual platform has given McDoniel the opportunity to bring in a vast range of guest speakers, from former players to leaders in industries outside of soccer, and everyone in between. As a result, interest continues to grow, giving the program the support it needs to grow roots and progress for years to come. 

“It’s definitely evolving and it’s getting bigger,” McDoniel said. “Last year was kind of a pilot phase, just trying to figure out what we were going to do with it. Now I’ve been getting more than 200 people on calls. It’s been great and it’s really interesting, seeing all the girls get involved like this.”

During one of their recent meetings, McDoniel had SLSG MO alumnus Syd Stephens share her story. Stephens was a member of the Leadership Initiative last year during the pilot phase when she was a captain for her U18/19 team. She then graduated from Waterloo High School and attended the University of Georgia. Since becoming a Bulldog though, she’s battled adversity and significantly less playing time. McDoniel recognized her adversity is not an original story and that sharing her experiences would be beneficial for those in attendance. 

“Syd was a super captain and played in ECNL for her entire youth career,” McDoniel said. “She went to Georgia as a former captain, having never sat a minute for her ECNL team. And then she got to campus, barely played and had to figure out how to live with that, and also how to become a leader and contribute someway, somehow, even when she wasn’t playing.”

Stephens was thrilled to be back at the Leadership Initiative. It was an honor to be able to share her story and to be an example of how others can navigate tough times on the field. 

“Scott’s theme for the meeting was actually a quote, which was, ‘If you’re not a leader on the bench, you’re not a leader on the field. You’re either a leader everywhere or nowhere,’” Stephens said. “So my message and my story was that it’s okay to have certain expectations and then those expectations not being met. I played 55 minutes of my first semester, and that was something that I struggled with and was really frustrated with.

“So we had an open conversation about how to hold yourself accountable,” Stephens continued. “I shared a quote that was really inspirational, which was, ‘Adversity should be powerless against your purpose.’ That’s really what I wanted them to take away from our talk.” 

Now, McDoniel has always received positive feedback from Leadership Initiative sessions. But after Stephens spoke he got more texts and calls from participants than ever before. The feedback was overwhelmingly positive, echoing just how important these meetings were. 

“Syd’s experience, it hit home with a lot of kids,” McDoniel said. “As one of the pioneers of this program, she had an influence and a connection with a lot of our younger players and they were engaged. The parents always seem to be around these meetings too, and I was getting texts during the meeting from parents saying, ‘Hey, this is awesome for these kids to hear about the struggles, how to be a better person on the sideline and how to find different ways to contribute.’ I was like, alright, we’re definitely on to something here.”

Much like McDoniel, Stephens also got feedback from those she was speaking to. 

“I got a lot of positive feedback from so many girls and even their parents,” Stephens said. “I felt so honored. And it actually went along with the theme of my talk, just keeping that bigger picture in mind. Doing talks like this and impacting younger soccer players, that goes toward my bigger picture of what I want to accomplish here at UGA but also even further in my soccer career.”

Being a role model for the younger kids at SLSG MO was always part of Stephen’s bigger picture. When she was in the Leadership Initiative, she saw the impact of alumni giving back first-hand and wanted to be one of those girls who would do the same. Returning to the Leadership Initiative as a speaker was exactly the type of opportunity she was looking for.

“I think having women in the sport for other young women to look up to, it’s something we don’t necessarily have a lot of in women’s sports, and so I think that’s where this is going,” Stephens said. “I just want to inspire young women to step into their leadership roles. I want them to be able to know that they have a voice, no matter how young, or what role they have in their lives. And I want them to be confident in growing up and being who they want to be. Because at the end of the day that is who a leader is, someone who is true to themselves and can use their voice to inspire others to do the same.”

Stephen’s wish for the program is right in line with McDoniel’s vision as well. As a way for some girls inside the Leadership Initiative to give back to SLSG MO while also getting valuable experience for coaching, McDoniel has had them assist in training sessions with younger age groups. “I’m getting kids who are interested in connecting with the younger teams, I’m getting them out on the field,” McDoniel said. “They’re going to be working with younger kids and be a role model for these kids. For example, the other night we had a virtual training session and Q&A. It was part of this program and it was a huge hit. The younger ones loved it. They absolutely loved it.”

One of the players who has been very involved in coaching is Alyssa Bockius, currently a member of the SLSG MO’s ECNL U16 team. She too is in her second season of participating in the Leadership Initiative and also happens to be one of the youngest at just 15 years old. She was a natural fit for the program because of her prior interest in coaching. 

“When Scott invited me into the program, he said that I was very young, because you had to be 16 in order to get your D coaching license,” Bockius said. “But he also said there were too many pictures of me with the team I was coaching with for me to not be a part of it.”

Bockius has attended every meeting since she was invited into the Leadership Initiative, which has continued to ignite and foster her passion for coaching. She has already completed her grassroots coaching course and once she turns 16, will complete the in-person grassroots coaching course, which would give her the ability to begin the D-level coaching license. 

Next year, Bockius will be the head coach of an SLSG MO club team, while also competing with the ECNL U17 team and attending high school. It’s something no other player in the club has done before, past or present. 

“When I first talked to Scott about getting my coaching license and playing, we both said this is a once in a lifetime opportunity, to be the first at something like this,” Bockius said. “I would be the first player in SLSG MO to have my D license as young as I am. I’m just so excited for the opportunity. It will definitely be a challenge for me, but I know when I do get my coaching license and have my own team, I’m going to have a huge support system. My assistant coach will be there whenever I can’t, and Scott and the club will help me balance everything to make it work.”

Bockius is a living example of the Leadership Initiative in action. When she joined the program, she was anxious, even calling McDoniel the night before her first meeting to help calm her nerves. Two years later, Bockius will tell you just how far she’s come. 

“The Leadership program has given me so much confidence in all aspects of my life, whether in school, out on the field or wherever else,” Bockius said. “I think back from before I was asked to participate, to where I am now, and you can tell that I’ve gained more confidence. My coaches have even told me they’ve seen how I’ve grown during this Leadership Initiative. So I think the confidence has been a huge aspect of it.”

In just two years, McDoniel has built the Leadership Initiative. It’s grown from a small group of participants to more than 200 at every meeting. The program now presents a mission with sights set on generating role models for young women within SLSG MO and beyond, and provides guidance in the art of coaching, leadership, and communication. 

The Leadership Initiative is constantly growing, with input from all sources: coaches, attendees, speakers, even parents. McDoniel doesn’t know the other areas the program will take on, but he knows it will be impactful. 

“It’s a living breathing program where it’s evolving daily,” McDoniel said. “Not only did it become a program where young females in the club can find, and have found, a pathway to becoming a coach, but it’s also become a situation where older players in the club can be role models for younger players. I’m going to continue to listen to the kids, what they need and what they want to learn and discuss – and to continue to make it a forum with open dialogue. So I don’t know exactly where it’s going to go, I just know it’s headed somewhere positive.”