North Carolina FC is Cultivating a Leadership Pipeline


North Carolina FC is Cultivating a Leadership Pipeline

Katie Neff

never miss a play

Get weekly articles on sport culture, relationships, and identity. 

“How do we keep building into these players?”

It was the question on Jonathan Van Horn’s mind as he considered the extensive network of athletes connected to the pro soccer team North Carolina FC. A soccer player himself, Van Horn played at Ohio Wesleyan University and joined Athletes in Action as a full-time staff member after college, where he ministered on campus at The Ohio State University for four years. 

Van Horn has spent his career coming alongside elite-level soccer players, which includes serving as chaplain and character coach for the past nine years for North Carolina FC. Although he was encouraged by the outreach and impact happening among the first team, Jonathan felt there was more work to be done. 

Particularly, he wondered what investments might be made to more holistically support the thousands of athletes, ages 13 to 18, playing within development academies not just at NCFC, but around the country. These academies supply a pipeline of highly trained soccer players to the waiting pro-level teams and universities with elite programs. 

At the same time, as a result of his leadership role in Athletes in Action’s national pro soccer outreach, he was hearing conversations across the league about players struggling due to lack of character, particularly revealed through their interactions on social media.

“We’ve been seeing this need more so in recent years,” Van Horn says. “From the perspective of the club — they know how to teach the sport, they don’t necessarily know what to do with this character stuff.”


Desiring to build into young athletes in the academy, Van Horn began looking for tools he could use to teach personal development to a teenage and young adult audience. 

That’s when he discovered Habitudes, a character development curriculum that leverages imagery to communicate character and leadership principles. He started experimenting with the material, trying it out with teams at varying levels, including his own kids’ sports teams. Finding success, he went through the teaching certification process with the non-profit Growing Leaders who created Habitudes. 

Van Horn then reached out to his friend, Michael Milazzo, head coach of the U19 academy team at NCFC, and offered to provide leadership development training using Habitudes for his team, as well as academy leaders and coaches. It was an easy “yes” for Milazzo, given his shared passion for developing a positive leadership culture within the club.

To get started, the two discussed the specific needs of Milazzo’s team, which allowed Van Horn to tailor his instruction to relate directly to issues the team was dealing with at the time. Habitudes contains a library of 150 images that each represent a unique aspect of what it means to have character and be a leader, which makes it a powerful tool for connecting with a generation of visual learners. 

“We have taken the imagery and connected it to the team’s subculture and our values.” Milazzo says. We’ve worked together to highlight which message, which image, connects our experiences,” 

Team captain Aaron Messer believes he and his team have benefited from these training sessions.

“I think Jon does an exceptional job of explaining tricky yet integral topics through the use of analogies and metaphors. What I have seen is that we are all very similar and like-minded individuals, so in a way, I think these workshops have brought our team closer together,” he says.

I think many people would love to have an opportunity like this


Despite challenges posed this year by the coronavirus pandemic, Van Horn’s involvement with the U19 team continued via zoom meetings during the shutdown, resuming again with social distancing protocols in place. 

This fall, Van Horn’s efforts within the academy expanded to include training sessions with the recently formed sport leadership group. Witnessing the effectiveness of the character workshops with the U19 team, Milazzo wanted to create a way for players throughout the academy to benefit from this training. 

By bringing captains of all the teams, ranging from the U13 to the pro team, together, he hopes to create a cultural pipeline of leadership. 

“Athletically they are getting high quality coaching,” says Van Horn. “Now you have this area of character development getting incorporated into the club as a whole. The leadership group creates a place for that to happen.”

“This allows all of our leaders — 21 players representing eight different teams — to become integrated and share their experience and knowledge with each other,” Milazzo adds. “If the goal is growth mindset culture, the way you get there is through a common language.” 

“I think many people would love to have an opportunity like this.” 

The sports leadership group met for the first time in early September, with plans to meet regularly throughout the season. Although the group is just getting started, a vision for what will grow out of the time spent growing together is already developing among the athletes. 

“Just being able to learn from older boys how to lead a team the right way, and how they have done it is just amazing to hear,” says Zachary Horn, a leader on the youngest academy team. “I’m learning that leading a team doesn’t always have to be by words. It’s also by your actions.” 

Messer agrees that the time the club is spending on developing leaders is invaluable.

“I want the things I learn [in the leadership group] to be transferable to any aspect of my current or future life. Leadership is a highly coveted quality and I am thankful to be receiving such valuable information at a young age,” he says. “I think many people would love to have an opportunity like this.” 

As a chaplain, Van Horn hopes that these lessons on character will encourage athletes to also consider their own spiritual development. Some sense there is more to the conversation than character alone, and Jonathan is there to speak with them individually, answering questions and sharing how his faith impacts his view of these things. 

For those who have a personal faith, Van Horn says the training has been a lightbulb moment when it comes to integrating sports and faith. 

“Athletes will say, ‘This totally resonates with me. I never understood how I could bring my faith into my sport,’” he says. “I can display my faith through being willing to sacrifice, being courageous, and persevering through hard times.”

Find your place here