Olsen adjusts to new role in D.C.
Ben Olsen knew his way of life would change this winter.
Having decided in November to drop the curtain on a decorated playing career that helped make him one of the most beloved athletes in Washington, D.C., Olsen soon moved up to a position on the D.C. United technical staff under new head coach Curt Onalfo.
The step up to a new calling after 12 years of service on the field was always going to require some starting over. But perhaps nothing drove that reality home like the task that faced him and equipment manager David Brauzer ahead of United's first day of preseason: Shoveling nearly a foot of snow off the artificial turf field at RFK Stadium so the squad could train.
"There's an ego adjustment for sure. To go from being a big fish to being a student again, almost, learning things. It's a new trade. As close as it is -- it's all the sport of soccer, right? It's what I've done my whole career. But I haven't done this. This is a whole new animal," Olsen said with a wry grin this week.
"My schedule has changed -- that's a big transition in this whole thing, your daily routine. But it's good. It's about time I put in a hard day's work after all these years of living the dream."
A player's workday is typically no more than four hours long, while a coach's runs two or three times that -- the first of many new realities for someone in Olsen's position. Countless pros have made the leap into management after hanging up their boots, but each one negotiates the move from pampered performer to workaholic leader on their own terms, and Olsen is characteristically frank about his own learning curve.
"A lot of the things that you're concerned with as a player don't necessarily translate when you go to the other side, to the dark side, I suppose," he said, again cracking wise. "I think players in general are very selfish -- I know I was. You're pretty selfish and it's not a bad thing. You're thinking about you and how to keep your body tuned up and how to get the most out of yourself throughout the season.
"Of course you're worried about your team and everything, but I think your main focus as a player is making sure you are doing the best job possible. And you have control of that. As you go to the other side, you're now managing a group of guys and I think that's one of the obvious and major differences between the two."
Though he's playing catch-up on the intricacies of salary cap economics and day-to-day man management, Olsen can call on his ample playing experience at both the club and international levels as he picks up tricks of the trade from Onalfo, general manager Dave Kasper and the rest of the D.C. brain trust.
Olsen benefited from the lessons he took in during his extended stint on the sidelines during an injury-hit 2008 campaign, and his familiarity with United's veterans puts him in a unique position to understand and communicate with the squad. Yet all involved recognize that it also holds the potential for complications as former teammates come to terms with his new role.
"There's a line that the guys have been around here long enough don't cross, because he is our coach," said midfielder Santino Quaranta, who used to room with Olsen on road trips. "But Benny's Benny, and he likes to have fun. He's kind of similar to Curt: you put the work in when we're out on the field, and you do it with a smile on your face because it's a privilege to have this job. That's the way they think and you really enjoy it as a player."
Olsen admits that his new responsibilities will eventually require him to re-orient his approach to certain matters but he has little intention of changing the quirky, spontaneous manner that has made him a favorite of fans and colleagues alike.
"I'm not going to change personalities, because people see through that. People know me, these guys in this locker room know me. If I come in here with a briefcase and a sweater vest and tie every day, they'll be the first to say I'm a sham," he said.
"I think it's a benefit, they way I can relate to guys. They know I'll be honest if something's not going accordingly and I feel like I need to say something. I've never been one to hold back. Hopefully I'll find that balance."
Olsen always displayed a passionate approach to the game and last year's dogged comeback from crippling ankle injuries would suggest that the onset of preseason might leave him tormented about the decision to hang up his cleats. Yet he says he's feeling no regrets.
"I've been in a little bit of a honeymoon with the retirement, everybody patting me on the back and saying, 'great career, blah blah blah.' And maybe as the season gets closer, the games creep in, I'm sure there's going to be some times where I'm like, 'it'd be nice to be out there playing.'
"But I've got a constant reminder, every time I walk, that I can't be out there. The ankle is real and I can't imagine playing soccer right now. So that helps. It's unfortunate, but it's certainly going to help me from feeling too sorry for myself ... I feel fulfilled. I don't feel that I've missed out on anything."