Sidelined by injuries, Sydney Sharp and Sam Dreiling find a way to get back on the field
This is the third in a series of articles commemorating National Mentoring Month. Each Friday in January, the Daniels Newsroom will share the stories of students, faculty and alumni benefitting from mentorship. Read part one and part two on the Daniels Blog.
Sydney Sharp was the only women’s soccer player in the NCAA to score in 16 different matches in 2021. She finished second in the country in game-winning goals.
Sam Dreiling is a nationally ranked player who was twice named to the U.S. Youth Soccer Olympic Development Program’s state team.
But none of that mattered to the group of eight-year-old girls sitting in the grass, who really just wanted to know: Had either of them kissed a boy before?
“They were focusing more on our lives and who we are as individuals, rather than the soccer piece,” said Dreiling, a sophomore midfielder on the University of Denver women’s soccer team, studying physiology in health and disease. “Me and Syd, we’ve been playing forever and were like, ‘Let’s go, let’s get the drills done, let’s get better.’ And they were like, ’No, we want to know about you!’”
“It was hard to build some authority,” admitted the senior forward, who is majoring in marketing at the Daniels College of Business. “I think they saw us more as older sisters, the fun girls, and they didn’t super respect us as coaches at first.”
Leading the 8U recreational team in Englewood’s Skyline Soccer Association wasn’t part of the plan when the two committed to playing college soccer. But neither was tearing their respective ACLs before the 2022-23 season.
As Sharp and Dreiling sat on the sidelines, watching their teammates practice, coaches Jeff and Katie Hooker approached them with a proposal. They could skip Thursday night training sessions if they agreed to teach younger athletes the sport that brought them to DU.
“Coming back from such a major injury is as much about the mind as the body,” said Katie Hooker, a volunteer assistant coach. “The opportunity for them to help the community in tandem seemed a great fit. We thought it would give them a chance to appreciate the ability to be on the field and see the game through youth eyes.”
Dreiling and Sharp both liked working with kids; a few times, they had helped at summer soccer camps. But commanding a cadre of curious, chatty eight-year-olds was unfamiliar territory.
They searched online blogs for kid-friendly drills, thought about their favorite exercises from their younger days, and texted back and forth about their plans for practice. And after a little conversation with the team about listening to authority and respecting everyone’s time, they got down to a business.
“The hardest part was trying to have a good balance between fun and making sure they were still developing,” Sharp said. “These parents are trusting us with their kids and they introduced us as, ‘These girls play college soccer. They know what they’re talking about. They’re going to help you get better.’ So I wanted to make sure they were still developing, but also, they’re eight years old, so you have to have fun at practice, not be strict, otherwise they’re not going to like it.”
The hour-long practices went by quickly. But by the end of the season, Dreiling said, the girls were noticeably better at dribbling, passing, positioning and decision making. The pair of Pioneers, on the other hand, was finding its footing as mentors.
“Something I was thinking about all the time [was], how can I make this the best environment for them? Soccer has taught me so many lessons, but how do I teach these girls to become passionate about the game?” Dreiling said.
The answer was a blend of positive reinforcement and gentle, constructive feedback—channeling the coaches they looked up to as young players, while omitting the harmful approaches that pushed some of their friends out of the game over the years.
Things didn’t always go as planned. At plenty of practices, the girls grumbled about being cold and tired. But in the end, the Skyline team won every game but one—although, the results hardly mattered, even to two ultra-competitive athletes who had trained so hard to earn a Division I roster spot.
“When you get to college, sports kind of become your job,” Dreiling said. “It’s such a big commitment and it really just takes a big toll on your physical and mental health. Every day we were with these girls, they didn’t worry about that. They just played freely. Sometimes we forget that soccer is supposed to be fun and is supposed to be carefree and we are supposed to be enjoying what we’re doing.”
Sharp and Dreiling continue to heal their injuries. They hope their rehab will allow them to don their crimson and gold uniforms before too long. But they’ve already carved out time to return to their new team once the spring season begins.
The girls want them back; the feedback from their parents was “phenomenal,” in Hooker’s words. And it’s hard to pass up another chance to mentor the players that helped those “fun older sisters” fall in love with soccer all over again.
“I think it went beyond being a college athlete; I think they looked up to us as women,” Sharp said. “I think they looked up to us more as people than coaches. They thought it was cool we played college soccer, but they were also invested in us as people, which was kind of nice with both of us being injured. I’m not just a soccer player to everyone. I’m a person they can respect on all levels.”