Jake Bender really loves soccer. Everything about it. Some of his earliest memories? Playing soccer — he started at age 4 after all.
“I remember being on some small fields near a park with everybody wearing green shirts or something,” he says. “I remember trying very hard to kick the ball into the goal, but it not ending very well.”
And not just playing soccer, a Liverpool fan, Jake can talk Premier League stats with the best of them, according to his mother Missy.
“He actually really just wants to run away to England and go and play soccer 24/7,” she says, “but his dad and I have kind of said, well, there's some other things you need to do first.”
But Jake is no slouch in school, a soccer dreamer with follow through — he’s a focused student with plans to go into engineering and play soccer in college. Although he is just now entering the eighth grade at Crestwood Middle School, Jake started training at Players Fitness and Performance in Frederick, Maryland four years ago, when he was just 10 years old.
“We were looking for somewhere for him to work on speed and agility over the winter,” Missy says. “When he started going twice a week, within four months, his speed was through the roof, his strength was through the roof. It got to the point where other people were making comments about it.”
Starting serious training so young did present Jake with some challenges older athletes don’t face. He began training with bodyweight only, and then learned the transition to weight training as he grew older, only to have to adjust again when he hit a major growth spurt.
“Jake grew six inches between sixth and seventh grade,” Melissa says. “Sometimes you see kids that grow that fast and they can’t control their feet, their legs, their arms. I call it a ‘puppy phase.’ For Jake, that never really happened.”
That’s because Jake worked hard with his coaches at PFP, though in many ways the hard part was learning how to take things easier. According to PFP Coach Erik Robert, though Jake had just learned to excel at weight training, they had to walk back the intensity of some workouts to work on training his coordination.
“Most athletes you mention something like that, ‘we’re going to lower your weight and change it up to make it easier,’ and they say, ‘I don’t want easier!’” Robert says. “But Jake was like, ‘this is going to make me better? I trust you guys,’ and he did it like he did everything else. I think that’s why he’s where he is where he is today because he doesn’t let his ego get in the way of things.”
It’s that ability to focus on details without getting in his own way that Robert believes not only contributes to Jake’s success in the gym, but the joy he shares while doing it.
“He always comes in and works his butt off, absolutely hammer down, focus time. You could tell the difference between him and other kids his age in that he wanted it,” Robert says, “but Jake always has a smile on his face while he’s doing it.”
“If you go into that place and you're having a bad day, you're tired, it just picks you up,” Jake adds.
And Jake helps pick up others as well. Robert notes that though Jake was a bit quiet and reserved when he first came in, he’s really grown in his social confidence.
“He’s really confident when he talks to people, a complete stranger can walk up to him in the gym and he is able to hold a conversation,” Robert says. “When we get new athletes in the gym and they are awkward and confused and don’t know exactly what to do, Jake is one of the people who gravitates toward them to make it feel a safer place for them to work out. It’s been really awesome to see him grow into being a leader.”
The attention to detail, the physical success and attentiveness and growing into leadership, they all contributed to Jake being named PFP’s Athlete of the Month for September, according to Robert.
“We do a vote every month out of a list of candidates. I’ve been like, Jake! Jake! Jake! For the past three months,” he says. “Jake’s really earned it. His work ethic, his attitude, the way he talks to people and leads — it’s trademark Athlete of the Month material.”
“I was pretty happy because I've been there for a long time,” Jake says of his learning about the honor. “That just made me happy. It just reminded me of how hard I worked to get there.”
Jake has taken to heart one of the motivational messages, a lesson on training mindset he learned from PFP, that it takes consistent daily watering of a sapling, sometimes without apparent results in the short term, to grow a massive tree. One day you wake up and it’s just sprouted up a whole foot.
“That's always really stuck with me because I have been doing this for a long time and it reminds me just to keep going and get better,” he says.
Heading into eighth grade now, Jake still has high school sports to look forward too, a possible career in engineering and collegiate soccer. He has time, but he’s not going to waste it.
“I want to continue to learn, to be better at soccer, but also to learn how to be a better person,” he says. “To make sure my body is strong, and my mind is strong, so I am ready to roll when the time comes.”
That’s Jake Bender’s why. What’s your why?