CARY — Tucked in a corner of MacGregor Village, SportHQ might seem an unlikely tenant for a shopping center. A futsal court is inside, providing a place to play the soccer-like game that’s popular in South America and Europe.
Futsal was the original purpose of SportHQ, which opened three years ago. The ball used in the game has little bounce, requiring players to rely on footwork and ball-handling skills.
“Futsal is a sport for the underdog,” said SportHQ owner Chip Thomas. “An undersized kid can develop great ball skills and foot skills. It gives confidence to those kids.”
While SportHQ counts children as the bulk of its customer base, players from the Carolina RailHawks soccer team come in regularly for performance training with specialist Geoff Christman.
“Three years ago, we thought we would be for elite athletes,” Thomas said. “But that’s not what happened. We stopped doing tryouts. If you want to train hard and still have fun, come on in.”
In the past year, SportHQ has added sports camps as a major component of its program. Josh Merckle, a former high school athletics director, runs the track-out and sports camps for ages 5 to 14.
“We have a lot of fun,” he said. “We joke with them, know their names and have fun. You have to get to know each kid.”
Merckle said the daily schedule is in 45-minute blocks. “Kids get bored,” he said. “We do not duplicate days. If you come for two weeks, each week will be different.”
The camps are high energy, with campers working on speed, strength and agility. The selection of sports used in the camps is intentional, Thomas said. Sports such as basketball and lacrosse require quickness and good movement.
Thomas said he overstaffs his camps. “We err on the side of more counselors. As a business model, it’s not good. All lead counselors have college degrees, and we have some exceptional high school students assisting.
“Everyone here is overqualified,” he said. “I do not have a hard time finding employees. It’s an opportunity to design a program.”
Merckle said he doesn’t regret leaving the school setting to work at SportHQ. “There are no Common Core standards here ... nothing that says you can’t change it up. I get to have fun with the kids now.”
This summer, a coach and four young players from Barcelona will lead the SportHQ futsal academy. Coach Andreu Plaza is the architect of the FC Barcelona Youth Academy, one of the world’s best-known youth programs. Thomas expects his students to learn as much from the players as they do from the well-known coach.
“It’s the first time they’ve sent kids to the U.S. for something like this,” he said. “We’re honored.”
Thomas sees the program as a major step toward his goal. “We would like to be known as the subject matter experts on futsal.”
Meanwhile, he has a message for athletes of any age looking for a place to improve skills: “Here it’s cool to sweat.”
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