President on BSG Podcast
President talks futsal on Bay State Games Podcast
October 23, 2020 - President Zach Rocha was the featured guest on the Bay State Games' "Bay State Beat" Podcast. He discussed the rise in futsal's popularity and announced the Northeast Futsal Association's partnership with BSG.
Listen to the Podcast on SoundCloud
Q & A
The Bay State Games is excited to announce a new sport, futsal. Futsal will debut in the 2021 winter games. The tournament will be played 5v5, with round robin pool games lasting 22 minutes, followed by medal rounds. Teams can enter into a variety of divisions, ranging from U10 to U18. Each Division will be limited to four teams, so teams are encouraged to register early. (Register Here)
Freeman Alfano (Host): We now welcome Zach Rocha to the show, current executive director of Sidekick Sports Academy and current president of the Northeast Futsal Association. Could you tell us a little bit about the sport of futsal and maybe how it differs from soccer and what it looks like at both the local and national level?
Zach: Sure, futsal is very much referred to as a developmental tool for soccer players. I have always been a fan of sports that just aid athlete development. I came into contact with futsal about 7 years ago, well after my playing career, but fairly early in my coaching career and my administrative career and I just fell in love with it. Yes, soccer is the most common sport associated with it; you’re using your feet, you are kicking the ball into a goal, it’s a no brainer. But it also incorporates elements of hockey where you have substitutions on the fly and the game is extremely fast. Often you have just a speed and a frenzy that you see in hockey that you don’t usually see in soccer. And then basketball would be the other sport that is very much in tune with futsal. Basically, because the numbers are the same; it’s 5 on 5. Here in America, the sport is very much in developmental stages. It’s been around for probably two to three decades, I would probably estimate, being in the sport as deeply as I am, it will probably be another two to three decades before it actually becomes mainstream. But the process has begun. For example, we have to use basketball courts and modify them in order to play futsal here in America. If you look at the rest of the world that’s developed the sport, grown up with it, and it’s very, very popular in those nations, Brazil, Portugal, Spain, a lot of Europe, Australia, New Zealand, a lot of Asia as well, they have actual futsal courts and they are a little bit larger than a basketball court in terms of the length. And that allows for just a different style of game, so we do our best to modify and when you do see it on a big court, it’s beautiful. But when you see it on the small courts that we develop it is also a lot of fun to see.
Freeman: I know you talked about this a little, I feel like the gap between the other countries you mentioned, like Brazil and Spain and their futsal infrastructure and America's is just the lack of attention that’s been placed on soccer recently in America. It’s not as prioritized as a sport compared to other ones like basketball or football, but it must be really cool for someone like you to be a part of that development process as it kind of goes through the stages into the future.
Zach: Yeah and, you know, certainly it can be frustrating at times because once you see the sport, once you get involved with it, like I did, I just fell right in love. And I said, “Hey, so how can this thing get bigger?” And, to a degree, "Why is it not bigger?" So I spend a lot of time working on the operations, the management, and the putting together of the sport so people can play. You had mentioned I’m the executive director of Wolves Futsal Club and I am very proud of that. My club has been very successful. We’ve certainly won tournaments and leagues over the years, but I’ve never really cared too much about the winning and the losing when it comes to the actual result. Did you play the game with respect? Did you get the best out of your athletes? Did you do the best you could? I have taken that mindset to the association level because I believe if the sport can’t grow, then the clubs can’t grow. And if the clubs can’t grow, then it’s just never going to get to the place where it ultimately helps - what it should be in this country - which is helping our men’s national (soccer) team win a World Cup. I think we all know the women’s national team is incredible and seems like they don’t need futsal in order to develop themselves, but the men’s national team … Soccer in this country is very much a recreational sport in a lot of ways. I mean, I’m young enough to remember in ’96 when MLS began, in ’94 when we hosted the World Cup, it was a 40 year drought from 1950 to 1990 for the men’s team to even qualify and, unfortunately, we are in a drought again. So soccer, unfortunately, is not growing at the speed it needs to and I think the speed of futsal would be massively helpful if we could incorporate that into our soccer culture. I think you’d see a huge development across the board for us.
Freeman: If other countries have the infrastructure for it and it helped their soccer programs, why couldn’t happen in the U.S.? That’s a great point to put up. You touched a little bit on this earlier, but how were you specifically introduced to the sport of futsal and what made you want to dedicate your career toward it some aspects?
Zach: I really stumbled into it by happen chance. I was a youth soccer coach at the time and I had been a college coach. I was a pretty accomplished soccer player at the D3 level and so as I was developing my career, the soccer club I had been working with at the time in that winter had said, “Hey, we are going to give you guys a few months off.” And for those of us trying to make a living and work full time in the sport, that was kind of a shock. So one of my friends is Ecuadorian, another friend spoke Brazilian Portuguese, and they told me about futsal and I said, “Okay, what can we do?” And they said, “Let’s try an academy.” I said “Alright.” So we got a gym. I had a basketball background from also playing that in college. It’s still my favorite sport. And we opened up the academy and within 24 hours it sold out. So then you went, “Oh goodness, Alright.” So now we have to educate ourselves on the sport and, to be honest, because it was really really new, and this is going back to 2013, 2014 it allowed us to kind of fudge it for a little bit. But what’s happened since 2014 to now, especially in the Boston area, you got stand-alone futsal clubs, like the Wolves and like several others. And we are really teaching the sport in a way that’s very very impressive, but yeah that’s how I fell into it and what I’ve done is continue to educate myself, so that I can educate others. I feel very fortunate to be in that position.
Freeman: Yeah, that’s really awesome because obviously you weren’t able to be introduced to it at a younger age, but now you are able to teach younger generations about the sport through your program. That’s a really cool turn around.
Zach: Yeah, and I say these things out loud and you go, “Wow, it actually has been faster than you realize.” It hasn’t been that much time in the grand scheme of it all.
Freeman: It just flies by too, I’m sure. Moving on, so as the executive director of Sidekick Sports Academy, how have you incorporated the sport of futsal into your company’s program and the mission to meet the needs of every athlete?
Zach: Yeah, as I touched on it earlier, I have just always been a fan of total athlete development. I was very lucky to just be brought up in sports and just fall in love with it. I mean, my parents put a basketball in my crib as far as I know and ever since then it has just been a part of my life. What I think I always noticed was that I was a seasonal athlete. My entire neighborhood growing up, we were seasonal athletes. So in the spring we would play outside, street baseball, and in the summer, street baseball or basketball. In the fall we played touch football. In the winter, we’d play other sports. Coming out of my neighborhood we had such a concentration of college athletes. It was kind of crazy that this just small little part of New Bedford, Massachusetts, and a dozen of us went on to play college sports, but all different ones; lacrosse, baseball, basketball, soccer, you name the sport. So when I got involved with being a college athlete and then being a sports professional educator, I remember that what I learned in basketball made me a better soccer player. What I learned in soccer made me a better basketball player and the different muscles that you develop mentally and physically and emotionally. Because, you know, some sports are super-fast and you’ve got to be able to react quickly. Some sports are a little bit slower pace and you have less chances as a result of that, so you have to be more focused in the moment. So, yeah, I’ve always just been a big fan of developing athletes in full and I think when we have our athletes doing different sports, it’s going to make them better for the sport they eventually settle on. Certainly in this country we are in the pay-to-play system for everything. I honestly, sadly, think that many people in my position don’t think about the athlete first and foremost. They think about the dollars and cents and I get it, you know I certainly do. But there is a line and you have to know where the line is on that stuff. So, for these soccer clubs that are all soccer all year round, ultimately when you are 10 or 11 years old you don’t need to be specializing in one sport. You should be playing different sports as your body develops, as your brain develops, and as you emotionally start to equip yourself with coping mechanisms. And if you just stay in one lane you just become a one trick pony and, eventually, it just doesn’t work out, or at least that’s my experience. So I think futsal is a different sport than soccer. In many, many, many ways I think it’s a completely different sport. If it’s treated as such, it really, really benefits anyone who wants to play any sport. Obviously, particularly soccer, for the fact that you are kicking the ball and a lot of the similar rules. So, yeah that’s my diatribe on all of that, but I think what I’m trying to get at is let's develop some athletes in this country and let's expose them to things that they are not necessarily getting naturally from a lot of these youth clubs that only specialize in one sport.
Freeman: Yeah, definitely, you talked about that a decent amount, just the nature of specialization in sports today. It’s gotten to a really heightened level where athletes are basically going all in on one sport in hopes of getting a scholarship in college, even though, like you said, it’s really important to get skills from other sports to be able to excel in one sport. And having a diversified skill set, in that sense, is going to help you more so in the long run. It’s really cool that companies like Sidekick Sports and Bay State are able to provide those avenues to give athletes a chance to play other sports besides just one. Going on from that, so the Bay State Games has recently announced a partnership with your company, Northeast Futsal Association, to introduce futsal as its newer winter sport. So what are you most looking forward to for your organization's partnership with Bay State Games and how do you feel the relationship will increase exposure for the sport and help with its overall growth in the Boston and Massachusetts area?
Zach: I think you said it in the question, which is, we want to keep increasing the exposure of the sport and I think Bay State Games is a brand that -God I’m so old now - I played in the Bay State Games in High School in tennis, my brothers played in it in basketball, it’s obviously got a legacy in the state of Massachusetts that if you played sports in the last 50 years you’ve heard of the Bay State Games. So, for them to take a chance on our sport, on my organization in particular, and say, “Hey, we want to take our brand and we want to align it with yours and see if we can help grow the sport that, (we just talked about) is so developmentally beneficial and so much fun to watch.” I think that’s the big goal, to get the exposure and to do it correctly. We are entering our 4th year, which doesn’t seem like a long time, but we’ve been able to have a lot of international and national partnerships already and we feel very proud of that and this newest partnership with the Bay State Games is one that we are very very excited about.
Freeman: Yeah, that’s really awesome that you were able to come full circle as a former athlete in the games and now your organization is partnered with them, so that must be a really cool feeling.
Zach: Yeah, it’s also a feeling that will make you feel a little old. I see grey hair in the mirror now. What are you going to do? (laugh)
Freeman: That’s one of the things with the games, too. It seems like no matter how long ago you played, you always come back to it, in a sense. Everyone in the group has a real sense of community. It’s just a really, really special place for organizations and people like you.
Zach: When I told my staff we were doing this, they were really really excited to give back and to see futsal in the games.
Freeman: Definitely, that actually ties into my next question. Like the Bay State Games, one of the main tenants of both your organizations is to give back and have a meaningful place in the community. So why is this commitment towards a sense of community so important to you? And how have you incorporated this sense into your events with the Northeast Futsal Association?
Zach: That’s a great question. I have always just felt that if you are going to use sports the correct way, let’s use it for everybody. For me, I love watching basketball and watching the Boston Celtics and that’s my form of entertainment. And that’s my way to tune out a lot of things from the day to day grind of work and that’s my role with that organization; I’m a fan. For some people that can’t play or just can’t play at a certain level, that’s what they are. For others they give back to sports by coaching, for others they give back to sports by refereeing, and again, obviously, players are the ones that we always focus on. Those are the true entertainers. When we started the association, we wanted to make sure that we incorporated an education program for coaches and referees that our country has never seen before and we are very, very proud of that. We have had coaches from Australia, Spain, and Brazil travel to Boston for some of our events. We are currently working on getting our education online, and the in-person education we’ve been providing for a few years, it just improves the communities we are a part of. Because, let’s be honest, in youth sports a lot of the coaches if they are not, like myself, making a living out of it, they are volunteer parents. If we can support them and their mission of helping their children, who are the first and foremost, then we are doing our job. Furthermore, I have always just had a special affinity for the special needs community. When I started out coaching, I saw a flyer when I was in college, that there was a special needs soccer program happening in Somerville and John Teves was the coach. And I just was blown away at what I could do in one hour working with athletes like that, adults and kids. So, in the last few years we’ve had the first-ever Unified Sports tournament for futsal in the country’s history and we partnered with Special Olympics Massachusetts on it. Fingers crossed we can have our third annual this year. We are just trying to get out the word that sports are meant to be enjoyed by everybody, from every walk of life, in every single way we can. And that brings with it a lot of responsibility for myself and my staff and our organization. And I know the Bay State Games have the same kind of mission, which is just get everybody playing the game because it brings a higher quality of life. We really, really mean it and that’s why I think this partnership matters and I think all of the partnerships we have matter. We want to bring the community together. We want to let people know that sometimes you are going to win the trophy and sometimes you are not. It’s just how well did you do that day, and did you play with respect to the game. That’s all I was ever taught as an athlete and that’s all we want to teach our athletes now.
Freeman: Definitely, you really summed it up all there. I mean the tenants of your organization, just wanting to provide a sense of community and provide sports for everyone, the fact that you really go to the length to meet that mission really shows what you as a person and your organization cares about, so kudos to you for that. That’s really awesome and definitely fitting to be part of an organization like Bay State Games as well.
Zach: I’m very lucky to have a tremendous group of people and staff that just keeps exponentially growing in terms of their quality and how hard they work and how caring they are. And I’m just honored to represent them on this podcast and speak well on behalf of everyone involved.
Freeman: That’s awesome, I’m sure you have a great group helping you out there, too. To wrap this up, to all of the athletes listening out there, whether they are soccer players or not, why should they play futsal? What makes this sport so special and unique compared to other potential sports they could play?
Zach: Like anything, it’s fun right? That’s the first thing in sports, it has to be fun. It’s just fast and it's fun. I think the style of life, more so now than ever, it’s just a fast-paced life, right? We are on our phones, we are on our computers, we are eating information so quickly, and, you know, at the same time, our bodies are acting in a way to that. Futsal is just that. I mean futsal forces you to think critically over and over and over again, make decisions over and over and over again, quickly and efficiently. When we talk about sports helping people and their quality of life, what’s the most important thing for that? Education. I know there haven't been enough studies done yet, but I have to tell you that every single time a kid comes and plays futsal in the winter, not only do they go back to their sports in the spring and the summer more ready to compete and develop and get better, but I’m sure they are taking the intellectual challenges that they are getting from the sport and they are translating that into their education in the classroom, I’m sure that that’s happening. I think that’s really the greatest benefit of any sport, but definitely the sport of futsal, absolutely.
Freeman: Yeah, that’s a great way to put it. Sports can really incorporate into a lot of other facets of life, whether it’s learning or preparing for a career ahead or even just becoming a leader. Futsal seems like a really exemplary sport to do that … That’s going to do it for our interview with Zach. Thanks so much for joining us again.
Zach: My pleasure. Thank you again. This is always fun to talk the game.