Assistant soccer coach walks the talk

Coaches wish they were still players.

They miss putting on the jersey. They miss standing at midfield before the game as the national anthem plays and their adrenaline begins to build.

And they miss scraping and clawing for every minute because they don’t want to leave behind any regrets.

Jessica Smith, 26, represented all these qualities when she played at Kansas between 2002-2005. Now, in her first year as a full-time assistant coach, she’s hoping to pass on those same traits to the current Jayhawks

“As a coach, things are a lot different and as a player you don’t realize all that goes into being a coach,” Smith said. “It’s been fun seeing the other side of it.”

A team captain for two years at Kansas, Smith’s passion for coaching started when she helped run the youth soccer camps.

“She’s lived it and breathed it,” coach Mark Francis said. “So I think it’s easy for her to translate it, especially to recruiting, because she’s been here and done it.”

Other than recruiting, Smith also occasionally shows her soccer skills by scrimmaging with the players during practice.

“I think we practiced Saturday and she had every single goal on our team,” senior forward Kelsey Clifton said. “You’d think she wouldn’t be as good since she hasn’t played in a while, but she’s awesome.”

Although Smith crushes the competition in practice, it’s a little more taxing physically than in her playing days.

“At the end of the day, in my heart, I’m a soccer player and I always will be,” Smith said. “It’s just now my body isn’t working quite as well as it did when I was in college.”

Kansas’ players realize the reason she plays so hard against them in practice is to improve the team.

“She makes it really competitive but also helps you out when you’re playing to know what you did wrong,” freshman midfielder Kelsey Lyden said.

After leaving the program upon graduation in 2006, Smith coached in the Kansas City area before coming back to Kansas in 2009 as a volunteer coach.

In her current position, she works with the Jayhawks with a hands-on coaching style. Throughout the week she teaches players during individual workouts and is a constant presence around the program.

“She knows if we’re having an off drill or something,” senior midfielder Jordyn Perdue said. “But she also knows how to crack a joke and get us to smile and relax. She’s a leader, and she wants to win, and you can work hard for someone like that.”

Fine-tuning the players during the one-on-one sessions are an enjoyable part of Smith’s job.

“How do you bring these elite athletes to their full potential and get them to the next level?” Smith said. “You have to be creative and figure out all sides of the game and figure out ways to keep pushing them to get better.”

In addition, the individual workouts are beneficial to the players because they are able to open up with Smith on more than just soccer.

“She can relate to all of us as individuals and soccer players,” Clifton said. “She’s someone we can go to for anything whether it be personal life or on the soccer field.”

As the Jayhawks move deeper into conference play, Kansas can also rely on Smith’s experience in the postseason. She was a member of the program’s first Big 12 regular-season championship in 2004.

Even with her long list of accomplishments, Smith doesn’t like to talk about her glory days unless it helps the team.

“There’s time when I do talk about my experience,” Smith said. “But really I want to have them to build their own experience.”

— Edited by Jayson Jenks, originally published Wednesday, September 28, 2011 in the University Daily Kansan

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