While 2016 will not go down in USA women’s football history as its most successful year, 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup™-winning coach Jill Ellis continues to push the programme forward. After their early, quarter-final exit from Rio 2016, USA responded positively with six straight wins: a 3-1 victory over a rapidly-improving Netherlands and a series of comfortable wins against Thailand, Romania and Switzerland, featuring fresh faces and a growing player pool.
With a determination to keep the Stars and Stripes at the top of the tree in the ever-growing and competitive environment of women’s football, Ellis speaks exclusively with FIFA.com about lessons she learned in a disappointing 2016, handling the pressure that comes with the job and much more.
FIFA.com: On paper, 2016 hasn’t been a memorable year in terms of trophies for a historically successful team like USA, but what successes have there been behind the scenes?
Jill Ellis: Going into 2016 we knew it was going to be a transition year in terms of a lot of our top players retiring. The biggest focus for us was integrating new players and trying to evolve as a team. In certain areas of our game we have actually improved. But bringing in younger players like Mallory Pugh and to give them a chance to experience a world event like the Olympics, that is going to pay dividends down the line for us in the next World Cup.
Typically an Olympic roster does not change a whole lot from a World Cup Roster. But we mixed things up and brought in some different players. That is important, because it’s our development. We want to win World Cups and using that platform to get our players experience was important.
Every coach in the world is influenced to a degree by former coaches and players, who are your greatest influences in your career as a coach?
A lot of people. In my college days of recruiting players and almost cutting my teeth in that environment in terms of honing my skills, getting better and being a better manager, that was helpful. I would attribute that to all the players that I have coached in the college ranks. My father has had a huge influence over me. He was a coach and probably gave me my first in-depth look into what coaching was about. When I was in college April Heinrichs was our assistant coach. She was a tremendous player and former national team coach.
There have been a lot of people that have influenced me. I am a voracious learner. I love to watch soccer, learn and go and watch other sports to take things away. In terms of players: You can take away something from every player. Abby (Wambach) was a tremendous player to work with. Her leadership skills, her poise, her motivation to players. All those things were wonderful attributes to see.
When did you realise you had a talent for coaching?
At a young age my dad would threw me out in front of 250 people at his camps and say, ‘Hey, go and teach the principles of attack and the principles of defence’. From an early age I was put out in front of people. I am actually a more shy person, but suddenly realising when you are out there, you have to step forward and perform. I realised that that part was not difficult for me in terms of being a presence out in front of people. I never measured myself in terms of being successful or being good at what I do. I just did it. When you do something like that, you just hope that things work out well for you. Being true to who I am probably has been the most influential thing to how I am as a coach. My personality is a blend of how my coaching style is.
Why do you love coaching? Why did you become one?
I did not plan on it. At the time in America coaching was not really a career that women got into. I went actually into the business world for a couple of years, and I was a writer. My passion just drew me back to the game, and I got an opportunity to take a job. And I did it. It was sort of a leap of faith. The pay and the salary were very, very low. So was it a career path at the time? No. It was probably a passion decision in terms of what I love. What I love about the game are the people, and certainly the game itself. But it is the people you interact with, meet, influence and learn from that makes this sport so exciting.
Our game is evolving so quickly that where we are is not going to be good enough to win in 2019.
What are some of the lessons you’ve learned as a coach the past year?
A lot of good lessons. The biggest take away for us coming out of the World Cup was – as I said to the players – our game is evolving so quickly that where we are is not going to be good enough to win in 2019. We have to evolve. The players understood that. Sometimes when you win something you think you have arrived. No chance. We have to continue to grow because the game is growing so fast.
In terms of preparing for an Olympics, we had to balance more this year than we did the previous year. The players with their club commitments as well. A lot of coaches around the world deal with that. Our players were balancing the club world with their national team commitments. That was kind of different for us. Before we always had the players when we needed them. That was important, working with the club coaches, dealing with injuries and that type of thing helped me in terms of my growth.
USA are used to having more pressure to perform and win titles at the major tournaments. How do you handle the pressure, and do you enjoy it in a way?
I don’t think people go into coaching if they are not prepared to deal with pressure. Everything is determined by winning and losing, right? If you go into something afraid of losing, then I don’t think you could be true and successful. You have to plan on every detail happening. And if it happens, it is wonderful and if it doesn’t? You go back to the drawing board and continue to recommit yourself. I knew taking this job, I knew what it was about. I knew there is hardly any margin for error at this job. You know, you have to win. But I enjoy that. I sleep well at night. I don’t feel pressure, because once you know the expectation, you know what you’re getting into. You just go with it.
There is no major tournament for the USA this year. What would success look like for you with the team in 2017?
Our biggest focus coming out of the Olympics was to continue to have a very aggressive schedule. We will play Japan, England, Germany, France and Brazil. We have all these teams lined up to play. That is important, because you can’t take an off year.
The other part of my focus was to deepen our pool and expand our roster in terms of seeing more players. We did that coming out of the Olympics. We have had a lot of players coming in and getting their first caps. What we are doing already is we are building for 2019. It starts with finding players, expanding your player pool and growing as a team. We have some bigger tournaments. We have our SheBelieves Cup, which Germany, England and France come in. It is a very competitive tournament, and will be a good measure for us. What’s important for us this year is getting our younger players experience against those top teams. That will help us down the line.
What do you hope your legacy will be as a coach, whenever your coaching career finishes?
I hope the players would feel that they have a coach committed to their performance and development, and that they enjoyed their experiences. Part of who I am is connection with players and with my staff. Making an environment where people want to be a part of it, that’s a nice legacy to leave. If we can win some medals along the way, that would be pretty special too. When you look back on your career, I don’t think of medals. I think of people that crossed my path that I have learned from or shared a laugh with or even tears with. Those are the memories I’ll take away.