How Hard Work Shapes Duke’s Soccer Culture

Chris Bart-Williams with Duke University soccer coaches John Kerr and Robbie Church
Chris Bart-Williams with Duke University soccer coaches John Kerr and Robbie Church.

I recently returned to the sprawling, picturesque Duke University campus in Durham, North Carolina, to spend some long-overdue quality time with the men’s and women’s soccer programs. As always, I received a warm and affectionate welcome from the Blue Devils' coaching staff and players upon my arrival. I'm especially grateful to Robbie Church, Kieran Hall, Carla Overbeck, Lane Davis and John Kerr, who very graciously made me feel at home for the day.

The highlight of this visit was witnessing the precision and intensity of the women’s team’s preseason training – what an impressive operation! When one thinks of preseason, it’s natural to picture hard-working athletes on the pitch running through intensive drills and taking tactical instruction. However, before anyone steps foot on the pitch to train at Duke, a tremendous amount of prior preparation has already taken place behind the scenes.

Carla Overbeck, Kieran Hall and Robbie Church at a pre-training planning meeting.
Carla Overbeck, Kieran Hall and Robbie Church sit down for a pre-training planning meeting.

Early on the morning of my visit, I joined the coaches for a pre-training staff meeting where they finalized the day’s training topics and discussed strategies for players’ individual development. Once those plans were solidified, the team gathered in the women’s soccer meeting room for a classroom session where the coaches presented the details of what the athletes would execute on the field that day. As I looked around the room, each player was actively engaged in the learning process, taking careful notes and asking insightful questions to clarify the lesson’s finer points.

Coach Church on the field with the women's soccer team
Teamwork is fundamental to the Blue Devils' training and playing philosophy.

Flowing from this meticulous attention to planning and instruction, the women’s 55-minute field session was focused and intense, hitting the exact areas that the coaches and players knew to prioritize. On the pitch I was delighted to see the quick, aggressive style of play that I’ve come to expect from this squad. At Duke, the beautiful game is played at top speed and with maximum intensity, yet the athletes don’t appear rushed or panicked. Rather, a calm assuredness pervades the atmosphere in training as well as on game days – clear evidence that the Blue Devils’ success rests on a foundation of unshakable confidence.

Carla Overback, retired US WNT captain and current Duke assistant coach
Carla Overbeck, retired US WNT captain and current Duke assistant coach, reinforces the value of patience and hard work with Duke's student-athletes.

Student-athletes aspiring to play soccer at Duke should be prepared to live up to a culture that demands excellence. Every team member must meet exacting performance demands, and all must be ready to face difficult physical and mental challenges. Along with tough individual standards, Duke’s athletes are also expected to help their struggling teammates adapt and succeed in the soccer program. The players take this responsibility very seriously and go out of their way to support each other.

Beyond sports, Duke’s academic standards are also extremely competitive, and there’s a high bar for excellence. Each year, only 1,800 freshmen are admitted from an applicant pool of over 37,000. Boasting an international student body from literally around the world, Duke’s most popular undergrad majors include computer science, economics and public policy, preparing its hard-working students for successful careers in medicine, law and finance, to name a few.

Chris was surprised by head coach Robbie Church with a signed team jersey.
Chris was surprised by head coach Robbie Church with the gift of a signed team jersey.

Perched in a golf cart next to Coach Church as we toured the university, I was repeatedly struck by the energy and excitement that were on display everywhere on campus. It was especially heartwarming to see students enjoying the late summer weather, studying, relaxing, and socializing in the tranquil 42-acre park that was among my favorite campus features. I must admit, with its impeccable grounds, state-of-the-art training facilities and phenomenal culture and atmosphere, any student-athlete would be lucky to call Duke their home.

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Chris Bart-Williams is the founder and owner of CBW Soccer Elite. After an extensive career in the English Premier League, Chris now uses his vast soccer knowledge to assist families throughout the college recruiting process and prepare players for the mental and physical challenges of collegiate soccer. You can reach Chris at