Mark Miller never believed, while working as a financial planner at HSBC branches in Niagara County a few years back, that he’d be able to pursue a passion and end up with office space on the 28th floor of the HSBC Tower.
That’s what can happen when your company sells off its bank branches, you have to recalculate your future, and you follow a dream, says Miller, a Town of Tonawanda dad who for the last two years, with help from his wife, Maureen, has owned and operated the Western New York Soccer Shots program for children ages 2 to 8.
“We wanted to give kids in the area a truly unique and fun-based program,” he says. “In many cases, we’re a child’s first experience in sports, not just in soccer.”
Miller, 41, holds a bachelor’s degree in exercise physiology from Brockport State College and has three children: Max, 11 months, Owen, 2, and Logan, 11. The Hamburg native, several part-time coaches, a soccer ambassador and an office manager run dozens of soccer programs a year, most of which cost $88 to $110 for an eight- to 10-week season.
“We’re focused on building fun, character and skills,” he says. The competition, and scoring, can wait till the kids get older.
The Soccer Shots office is a former supply room space on a floor at the HSBC Tower that includes several Phillips Lytle law firm offices and the main digs of Seneca One Realty, the company that owns the region’s tallest building and gave Miller an affordable lease as the building empties of two major tenants and redefines itself. The view allows Miller to look out over his service territory as he contemplates how to help shape youth soccer in the region.
Q. Talk about your programs.
A. There’s a 2-year-old program, there’s a program for 3- to 5-year-olds and a separate program for 6- to 8-year-olds. … We go to day cares, nursery schools, we run after-school programs and we also run park programs. We expanded in Delaware Park and we’ve partnered at Sportsplex in North Tonawanda …
We have a curriculum. There’s a real consistency, and kids thrive on consistency. Everybody gets to use a soccer ball the entire session. We focus on individual skills, gross motor movements – like coordinating skills – and listening skills. But I think the two things that make us unique is that we have a character development session. Each week there is a word of the day, so if we’re talking about sharing, we’re passing the ball and sharing about soccer, but we’ll also talk about how you share at home with your family members, how you share with your friends, so we kind of make soccer that transition between sports and real life. Really, 3- and 4-year-olds, they get it.
Q. Why soccer?
A. Soccer is the world’s most popular sport. I played soccer in (Frontier) high school. I dabbled with it in college. I do not have a super rich, semiprofessional, professional interest, but I always had a ton of fun playing soccer. I think the U.S. is on the cusp of becoming a real world power, and if we could get someone at 4 years old, and that’s their first experience with soccer, and 15 years later they get a scholarship to go to college for free, what an amazing thing. You can potentially change the direction for a family or a kid’s life.
Q. Has doing this changed your view of soccer?
A. One-hundred percent. I’ve always enjoyed the sport. Now, I can’t stop thinking about it. Luckily, it’s on TV more. The U.S. men’s and women’s teams are broadcast more, so on our parent page (Facebook.com/SoccerShotsBuffalo), we’ll always say, ‘Hey, come on out and watch the men’s team and women’s team.’ … We’re going to try to get some of our families out to the University at Buffalo and our FC professional team games.
Q. You’re looking to help disadvantaged kids?
A. After the first of the year, we’re hopefully going to be offering partial or full scholarships. We are also working with PUSH Buffalo on the West Side. Hopefully that is the first step in a citywide program. We’re a for-profit … so working with PUSH we can get down to our bare-bones costs and they are the organization that can apply for grants to cover it. There’s two sides of profitability in our minds. The one side is paying our bills. We have kids, we need to pay the mortgage. The second side of profitability is being profitable in a community. In our minds, that means making a difference, giving back. We know we’re not going to be millionaires doing this … but our goal is for our kids to see us running a program in our community that’s helping the most important segment of the community, which is kids.
Q. How important is it for parents to be good role models in sports?
A. It’s probably a parent’s most important job. Before kids can speak, they can look, and that’s how children probably learn the most. That’s something we remind our coaches of on a weekly basis. What do I say to these highly competitive parents? I try to explain the value of letting kids be kids and having fun and using their imaginations, because they have their whole lives to be ultra-competitive: Getting into college, getting a pay raise. Let’s let them worry about that 20 years from now. First, let ’em be kids. Let ’em have fun.
Soccer Shots will host a one-hour clinic and 100th birthday party for the U.S. Soccer Federation at 10:30 a.m. today in Delaware Park. A $10 donation is requested. All proceeds will benefit the federation and Global Goals.
On the Web: Learn more about Soccer Shots at video.buffalonews.com