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Professional soccer player brings Jamaican influence to Ithaca

Chris Thomas is the coach of four youth soccer teams in the Ithaca area
“Tata-vay! Oh tata-vay!”

The coach has seen something he doesn’t like. The players recognize his made-up phrase—”emotional onomatopoeia” he calls it—and freeze.

“This is a big problem we have. You have to be ready to receive the ball, you can’t just be standing like this—” he plants his feet into the ground, slouching dejectedly and the girls giggle.

Chris Thomas coaches soccer the same way he was taught on the sandy beaches of Montego Bay, Jamaica: with humor, passion, and an eye on the bigger picture.

Thomas coaches four teams, a total of 50 girls between 9 and 11. There are several youth soccer programs in the Ithaca area, including a Youth Development Program and the club programs TC United, TC Waza and OnePlus Soccer Academy, but without their own dedicated league many young girls are forced to play on boys’ teams.

“Where the problem comes in for girls in this area is that there’s no real program that catches large quantities of girls in the early ages, 6, 7, 8 and 9,” Thomas said. “As a consequence, when I get the girls at 9, they don’t have the requisite skills to play.”

In high school, Thomas played regularly in front of crowds of 10 to 20 thousand fans. He was selected to play for the Jamaican national team in the run up to the 1998 world cup in France, but a hamstring injury held him out of the tournament.

After giving up the chance to play professionally in Europe to pursue his education, Thomas moved to Ithaca to get his PHD in electrical engineering. He began coaching immediately but quickly found problems in the local youth system.

While the skills are important, Thomas’ teaching philosophy extends off the field.

“We have an environment now where we can get a girl at 9 and we learn them and know everything about them. We understand what makes them uncomfortable, what makes them happy,” Thomas said. “You can put organization to a group and you can get a team, but you need relationships to develop individuals.”

Susan Young, an Ithaca resident whose daughter Rosie plays under Thomas, said that the coach’s approach has been key to developing her 12-year-old.

“He’s taking a long-term perspective with kids,” Young said. “He doesn’t just want to win tomorrow’s game but wants to see each child’s potential and nurture it for the long haul.”

Last week Thomas won the New York State West Youth Soccer Association’s Girls Recreational Coach of the Year award. He said he is happy with the award, but there is still work to be done to improve the local system.

“One of my short term goals is to set something to put in place for those younger girls,” Thomas said. “The game is a language unto itself and once you get into the framework of that language everyone understands it.”

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