Get to know: Jason Freeman

South Bend Lions coach Jason Freeman.

While playing for Triangle Futbol Club Alliance – which now forms part of North Carolina FC’s youth program – a coach told Jason Freeman that he had a mind for the game and how it could be played.

Those words stayed with Freeman and inspired a coaching career that has brought him to South Bend Lions a decade after finishing school.

He recently extended his duties as an assistant coach to lead the club’s new U-18 girls soccer program, which staged trials in November and has kept him extra busy during the winter months.

The presence of a soccer club like South Bend Lions has only enhanced the pleasant and welcoming atmosphere that Freeman has found while living in the area.

“This is my fourth year now in South Bend; I met my wife here and we have settled in at this point,” said Freeman.

“It’s a great place to be; we have plenty of snow here but it gets warm in the summer, and eating out in South Bend or Mishawaka will definitely leave you satisfied at the dinner table.

“The soccer community here is poised to flourish and it’s ready for something new, ready for something to build on, and it’s going to be a great fit for South Bend Lions.

“Thiago [Pinto, technical director] brought me into the loop early on when he heard some investors were evaluating the opportunity and the excitement has built since the announcement.

“It’s great to be involved in different layers of the operation; you can see how much has progressed in a short span of time, and it’s only going to grow from here. I’m excited and blessed to be a part of it.”

Freeman has gained plenty of coaching experience since moving to Michiana, working with Soccer Shots, Junior Irish Soccer Club, as general manager of SoccerZone in Granger, and as an assistant with the Bethel University men’s soccer team.

In September, he was appointed as interim head coach of Bethel’s women’s team and managed the side through the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s a challenge for them, as college players, to realize they have a big impact on young players looking up to them, and the same will be true for South Bend Lions’ groups.”

Jason Freeman

But after graduating from Appalachian State University with a Bachelor of Science in Athletic Training, and teaching students at NCAA Division I level, Freeman believes his education will bring something extra to his coaching approach.

“Having been at the other end of the hall in the athletic training room, I’ve seen first-hand how much work players put in coming back from a serious injury.

“You have to keep in mind that it’s going to be taxing at the collegiate level where they are putting in that work alongside their academic studies, and some players will get down on themselves if they are out for too long.

“Understanding the sports performance side is critical for player development. Research is always shedding new light on best-practices for topics such as recovery, mental performance, nutrition and readiness tracking.

“Every player is unique, and the challenge there is tailoring all aspects of the game for optimal performance on and off the field, not only for the team as a whole, but also looking to the individual’s needs.

“There are a lot of different things to learn at various stages of coaching, and as a head coach now [at Bethel], I have a different perspective of all the management details that go into working with players, staff, and schools.

“I’m finding that the culture must come first. As you develop the environment, you can bring players in who can merge into that team culture.

“It’s imperative to know our foundational values and how are we going to instill those in the team, have the team dig into those themselves, and then they begin to teach others and teach us as coaches. As coaches, we always have something to learn.

“We really look for character in players and that’s one of the things I value with South Bend Lions. I love working behind the scenes with such a great staff to really impact the community and make the dream become a reality.”

Freeman thinks his passion for soccer and the community will one day be shared with his five-year-old daughter, who occasionally accompanies him at Bethel women’s training sessions.

“Her eyes light up at 7am practice and she’s running around, wanting to help set up cones, so just to have her around the game is pretty special.

“We are not necessarily pushing her in the soccer direction, but she has over 20 college-age female role models around her. It’s a challenge for them, as college players, to realize they have a big impact on young players looking up to them, and the same will be true for South Bend Lions’ groups.

“She sees players and says, ‘I want to do that’, because at five, you want to do what the big people do. Seeing that pathway and others influencing her is pretty cool, and the game is ready for continued growth on the women’s side.”

To progress along the pathway in the game, Freeman understands that gradual day-to-day improvements should be at the forefront of any keen player’s approach – something which applies to his own coaching journey as well.

“I knew it would take me some time to go from working in one field and then suddenly making it full time in another, so I had to build a resume and get to where I am as a full-time coach. I’m coming up to my sixth year and looking back to see the growth is an ongoing highlight.

“I wake up in the morning and think ‘I get to do soccer today’, which is a great feeling. But you never know how good a coach you are in the moment; I won’t know until 10 years from now.

“Those players who passed through teams that I was coaching, are they good wives, husbands, parents, and how did I maximize my opportunity to influence them toward something so much bigger than the game? That’s the part that keeps me going.

“It’s good to set those long-term goals – we’ve been working for almost two years now and we can’t wait to see the ball rolling this summer – but then always bring the focus to today, and what you can do today to get closer to that reality.

“When opportunities come to you, you take them in stride with gratitude, and this is one worth taking. There is a lot to learn; it’s about enjoying the process and growing every day.”