His persona is one of inclusion.
Anyone who has spent any sizable amount of time on Free State High’s campus surely recognizes his welcoming smile and the distinct accent that doubles as the only proof he hasn’t lived in Lawrence his entire life.
Kelly Barah grew up thousands of miles from Lawrence. A native of Cameroon, where his lifelong devotion to the sport known there as football began, Barah coaches soccer and teaches biology at FSHS. The Firebirds head coach has so vigorously embraced his role with the boys and girls soccer teams that his devotion has forged a genuine community among players, parents and coaches.
Barah first came to Lawrence in 2003 to get his degree in human biology at Kansas University. “I loved the place way too much to leave,” he said.
Eventually, Barah found his niche with Free State soccer, first as an assistant to former head coach Jason Pendleton. Now in his second year leading the Firebirds, Barah has constructed a family environment using ubuntu, an African philosophy that means “I am who I am because of who we are.” It has become Free State’s soccer slogan.
Said Barah: “I see this program as being a community thing, it’s a collective thing.”
Operating on a plane where winning and personal connections share equal importance, the coach set out to get soccer parents involved in his burgeoning colony. Barah’s offseason conditioning program immediately drew attention, because the coach kept it intense, but wasn’t afraid to mix things up by using workouts that weren’t necessarily traditional, such as yoga for flexibility. Wanting to fully enjoy the training and make it a family affair, Barah thought: “Why not throw some parents in there?’”
This past fall he introduced Saturday morning boot camps for the players’ mothers and fathers. Personal training is one of Barah’s loves, and he wanted to help people in his soccer family interested in getting into shape. For about an hour each week, he leads the group in lunges, ab exercises and anything else he can concoct, such as whipping a giant gymnasium rope, to get the parents’ heart rates up through fat-burning labor.
When Missy Allen first saw her sons Nick and Chris go through summer workouts, she thought the activities looked fun but nearly impossible for her to duplicate. Upon joining boot camp, Allen got past her “no way can I do that” mindset with Barah’s help. She said the coach’s acceptance of the dozen or more parents and their varying abilities made that possible.
“He has a way of bringing about the best in you,” Allen said, “in a very understated, quiet way.”
That’s the same kind of response Barah gets from his players. Free State senior goalkeeper Elena Auer said the Firebirds love their coach’s approach.
“He’s very positive about everything,” Auer said. “He’ll let you know what you’re doing wrong, but you won’t take it personally.”
Plus, junior Abbey Casady said, Barah makes a point to connect with people and understand personal outlooks.
“He is really good at thinking of everyone individually,” she said.
Boot camps were just the beginning. This spring, Barah added a 30-day challenge regimen for the parents. On weekday evenings, when Free State doesn’t have a game, Barah leads workouts after he gets done with soccer practice. On game nights, the parents get “homework” assignments.
Brian Gay and his wife, Lisa, have enjoyed sharing a coach with their son, Zach. Brian called Barah a great motivator, citing exercises geared for what each individual can do. He said workouts don’t seem to go as quickly on homework nights, when Barah isn’t around to keep saying “five more seconds.”
“I think his personality,” Brian said, “is just that you almost don’t realize or even know you’re working out.”
Allen said Barah’s encouraging phrases, such as “Do your best, forget the rest,” are what keep parents coming back.