April Heinrichs and Jillian Ellis Reflect on Their Passion for Soccer and Discuss the Future of the Game in the U.S.
CHICAGO (Jan. 3) – April Heinrichs, former U.S. Women’s National Team player and coach, possessed a passion for soccer from an early age. After playing three sports for most of her life, Heinrichs focused on soccer in college while playing at the University of North Carolina. She went on to the National Team and captained the team that won the first ever FIFA Women’s World Cup in 1991. She later became the head coach for the WNT, which won the 2004 Olympic gold medal.
Jillian Ellis grew up in England surrounded by a soccer family. She had a successful playing career at William & Mary before beginning her extensive coaching career. Ellis coached the UCLA Bruins for 12 years and also served in many roles for the U.S. WNT programs, including head coach for the U-20 and U-21 Women’s National Teams. Most recently, she served as interim head coach for the WNT for seven games during their victory tour.
Heinrichs and Ellis both work for U.S. Soccer, with Heinrichs serving as the Technical Director and Ellis filling the role of Development Director for the U.S. Women’s National Teams. The women work together to improve the development of women’s soccer in the U.S. They each recently spoke with ussoccer.com to reflect on their soccer careers, to describe where they feel women’s soccer is headed and to tell us how they believe we can get there.
ussoccer.com: You both had successful careers as players and coaches. How did your passion for the game begin?
April Heinrichs: “I believe it started when I was five or six. I would put on my stir-up socks and stick my Readers Digest magazine in for shin guards. My jersey was one of those reversible gym jerseys – red on one side and yellow on the other. My soccer ball was like my personal logo, it was everything to me. I didn’t come from a soccer family, but I literally slept in my cleats and I loved my jersey. I loved chasing the little black and white ball around. I can remember loving it from the moment I started.”
Jill Ellis: “I grew up in England and as long as I can remember, football has been part of my life. My father was a coach, my brother is currently a coach, and from the time I was little, soccer was big in my family. Growing up in that climate, I think you become attached to teams. There wasn’t much opportunity for me to play in England; girls at the time were not encouraged to play there. It wasn’t until I came to the States that I played formal soccer. So I would say my passion came from my upbringing and the people around me.”
ussoccer.com: What memory stands out for you from the 1991 Women’s World Cup? How did it feel to be part of such a significant moment in women’s soccer history?
AH: “It has been 21 years and maybe 10 days, something like that. What stands out is our team being on the stand with the trophy and once the music starts playing you start bouncing and dancing and you just have a great time with your teammates. That moment sticks out as sort of reaching the peak. It’s like climbing Mt. Everest. You stab your flag in and think ‘I’ve done this, let’s celebrate.”
ussoccer.com: In 1998 you became the first female player to be inducted in to the National Soccer Hall of Fame. Can you talk about that experience?
AH: “When you’ve been inducted in to the Hall of Fame, it’s a chance for you to give back to the people that have supported you. It is a chance to honor them in your speech and to tell them how much you love them and how you couldn’t have done it without them. Because nobody does it without a close knit group of friends and family. And it’s just flat out an honor. Whether I was the first or the last, it’s just an honor to be recognized as part of what was, is, and will be the premier nation in women’s soccer.”
ussoccer.com: Describe your transition from player to coach.
AH: “I was already coaching before I retired. I was literally a National Team player and a Division I college coach at the same time. So compared to today’s standards, it wasn’t a very difficult transition. I don’t think I had the angst that many players have today. I already had a career in a place that I loved. I was just as entrenched as a coach as I was as a player at the time.
Now that’s not to imply that I was a good coach by any means. Coaching is a skill that just like playing, requires a minimum of 10 years of doing it every day to really be an expert at it. So being a young head coach and being close in age to the people that I was coaching was difficult. When I became the head coach of the WNT, I had played with five of those players, so that was difficult. It was not without adversity and trials and errors both from my perspective and probably from the players’ perspectives as well.”
ussoccer.com: What do you feel were your greatest accomplishments as head coach for the WNT?
AH: “When I look back on my time as both the technical director and head coach in the early 2000s, I think one of my achievements was also integrating our Youth National Team programs. When I coached the WNT, we had maybe two Youth National Teams when I first started. We finished up with five or six. I would go in to all of those camps and I would help integrate and help select the coaches and assistant coaches and help mentor them. We coached all the teams in a very similar style, with similar and like-minded coaching philosophies and implemented sports science in a trickle-down effect. I think that was a really important model for our development so I’m very proud of that integration.”
ussoccer.com: What was the most challenging aspect of being head coach for the WNT?
AH: “One challenging aspect was juggling the jig-saw puzzle of great players and who should start and who isn’t going to start and what her role is. Whenever you’re in a leadership position, at least 20 percent of your party or your team is unhappy. Your role is to manage the jig-saw puzzle and figure out who should start and in what system and what’s best for the team. When you’re a player, you care about your role and your playing time. When you’re the coach, you’re trying to manage 20-25 players’ roles and what’s best for the team, not what’s best for one of them. That is the most difficult challenge in head coaching.
ussoccer.com: How did you deal with some of those challenging aspects?
AH: “You manage it by creating a team of people around you so that you make no decisions in a vacuum. I think one of the dangers of what some coaches are doing is that they’re so used to making all of the decisions, that they make all of the decisions on their own. We’ve recently tried to implement training design sessions where all of the coaches sit down and design the training sessions together. When we were at the Under-20 World Cup, we had five coaches in the room. The minute the game was over we would go back to the hotel and watch the game and debrief on how we thought the game went. We would have an open conversation where nobody felt threatened. You create a team of coaches that you feel open and honest with and you can bounce ideas off of in such a way that no decision is made in a vacuum and no option is not considered.”
ussoccer.com: As the U.S. Women’s National Team Technical Director, can you describe your role and some of your responsibilities?
AH: “The Technical Director, in concert with the Development Director, is responsible for the development of the women’s side of the game. From the YNT programs to partnering with ODP and elite clubs, to coaching education and even to parent and administration education.
We have established a vision and a mission. It includes everything from integrating our YNT program and defining and describing a national style of play. It also aims to provide YNT players that are more technically and tactically sophisticated, and capable of moving up the pathway to the next YNT and ultimately up to the WNT. Jill Ellis and I spend a lot of time in with National Teams. I oversee the Under-20 and the Under-18 National Teams. Jill oversees the Under-17 team and the 15s and the 14s.
Overall, I research a lot as part of my job. I also travel around the world to see what’s happening in other parts of the world in development. I think it’s my job to know every country’s population, their population of players, what their coaching education model looks like and what their YNT program includes. As Technical Director and Development Director, Jill and I divide the responsibilities. We focus on our respective YNT programs and we also have a great deal of responsibility to educate, to research and to partner with the people who are developing the YNT players on a more daily basis.”
ussoccer.com: Jill, can you elaborate on this and your role as the Development Director for the U.S. Women’s National Teams.
JE: “April and I were hired at the same time so we have a lot of joint responsibilities. We work together in almost every facet of our jobs. Primarily for me, I oversee the younger teams and I also have the scouting network in my scope of responsibility.
Informally I think the position is to help not just the players within our National Team program, to identify and develop those players, but I also think a big part of my job is to work with the environment our players come from. For example, partnering with the club environment and guiding and leading them and being able to communicate with that environment is a big part of my job. We are a big country so it’s challenging at times, but I feel like in the past couple of years we have made inroads.”
ussoccer.com: In your current roles, what do each of you view as the biggest obstacles or challenges?
AH: “Some of the biggest challenges we face in the women’s game is educating the community on the proper training to game ratio. Many kids are playing two, three, or four games per week in some parts of the season. We think depending on the age group they should be closer to two, three, or four training sessions per one game. On the whole, players should not be playing more than 50 games per year all inclusive of indoor, outdoor, club, high school, etc.
Another significant challenge that we face that I’m not sure many people are aware of, is that around the rest of the world, girls are playing with boys up until the age of about 16. That is helping other countries develop national team players faster. We have so many kids playing today that we separate the boys and the girls. So that’s contributing to why the rest of the world has caught up.”
JE: “One of our main goals is to positively influence the club environment. I think the scope of the country geographically is a big challenge. Making sure we can communicate with all of our parties out there and trying to get our messaging out is difficult.
Other challenges are the volume of games players play, the level of training, and the level of coaching. I think there are some fantastic coaches in the club world doing great things, and I definitely think our players are evolving, but we always want to push for more. We are working on helping with coaching education and getting the messaging out.”
ussoccer.com: It has been said that the rest of the world is closing or has closed the gap on the women’s national team program. Are there concerns that the current US club structure is not developing enough players?
AH: “The gap isn’t closing, it’s closed. The rest of the world is caught up. Other countries are just pouring more people, more resources, and more money in to women’s soccer now that it’s a popular sport.
Another reason the rest of the world has caught up is that their best 16 - 19 years olds are playing in the first division professional league in their country, when ours are playing down. Our teenagers are playing high school soccer, which is not the most challenging environment. Kids are playing down when they opt to play for a team that wins game 5-0. In other parts of the world, teenagers are playing up. They are either 13 and playing with 15 year olds, or they’re 15 and playing with 17 year olds, or they’re under 17 and they’re playing for the first division. That has certainly been a huge concern for us the last two years. ”
JE: “There’s no gap anymore. In many instances, we are now looking at other countries and what they’re doing and saying ‘wow’, could we replicate that or add that to our repertoire? I think it’s very apparent just how competitive the rest of the world is. We are no longer automatically at the top of the pile. I think we’re still ultra-competitive and obviously this year with winning the under-20s World Cup and the Olympic gold, we are doing a lot of good things. I think what’s innate in our program on the women’s side and just in our culture is to never rest. We are developing technical players. I think the next step is to make sure that our top end athletes are also developing technically. There are some wonderfully technical players out there. But I also would like to see us bring along our incredibly athletic players as well and have that magic combination of a tremendous athlete and a tremendously technical player. So now we can play against the Japans of the world and against the Germanys of the world because we have a great blend of athleticism and technical ability. That’s what I think we will continue to strive for.”
ussoccer.com: What short-term and long-term goals do you each have for women’s soccer in the U.S.?
AH: “One short term goal is to become even more integrated with the YNT program. All of our YNT teams are under our direction. We’ve selected some great head coaches and created a coaching pool with coaches that are aligned philosophically. We are running what I am certain are top-shelf training sessions and are really challenging our players. But I still think we could actually function like a small country. Small countries get together with their national team coaches every Tuesday or the minimum every month or at the absolute minimum four times a year. We have not been able to do that. I think we are integrated compared to just two years ago, but there is much room for improvement.”
JE: “On the female side our goal is to continue to be leaders in the world of soccer, competitive at the highest levels. Those are certainly our overall program goals. I think the ultimate goal on the youth side is to prepare players to ascend to the National Teams to someday compete at the highest level with our Women’s program. Everything else kind of falls out from that such as affecting the player’s cup environment, giving them the best training opportunities, exposing them to the levels and expectations and philosophies of the National Team standards when they are with us.
Communication is the way we can affect change. One of the things we’ve really tried to do is become vertically integrated. Meaning that within the youth teams, we are all on the same page, we all understand the level we’re looking for, the type of player we’re looking for, and the system we’re going to play. Once we’re all on the same page it becomes easier to provide a unified message to our club environments and our constituents that are working with the youth players day to day.”
ussoccer.com: Jill, how do you feel the National Women’s Soccer League will influence women’s soccer in the U.S.?
JE: “The league for our women is very important. Having just been in with the women (editor’s note: Jill was interim head coach for seven WNT games at the end of 2012), I saw the importance of having a league where our players can stay in this country, can get quality competition and quality training environments, and it will pay back to our women’s program.
In the bigger picture, the league for our country is equally important. As good as we are in the world, we should be able to have a sustainable league that provides opportunities for players. A lot of players don’t start to truly hit the top of their game until they are out of college; that’s when they really start to mature. We need something beyond college where our players can continue to develop. I also think it’s important that we give our players the option to play in the U.S. If they want to play abroad that is their own decision and may be what’s right for them, but at least they have the option.”
ussoccer.com: What advice do you each have for young coaches just starting out?
AH: “Two things. First, find a great head coach to work for and stay there for three years. Learn as much as you can from that coach and then get out of your comfort zone and go find another great coach to work alongside. Find a coach that respects you, delegates to you and gives you responsibility; one in which you will mutually grow and challenge each other.
While you’re doing that, pick up a U15-16 girls team and become the head coach of that team so that you understand the role of the head coach. I think many assistant coaches, myself included, glamorize the head coaching position and think that it’s really easy. But good coaches make it look easy. While you’re in your learning curve years, you should be out there functioning as a head coach. Find a club team where you can make mistakes in training design and you can have a session not go well and you’re not under the microscope. You can make mistakes in player communication and parent communication without having it blow up in your face or get fired.”
JE: “I think we end up as coaches because we have a passion for what we do. Coaches have asked me if they should go into coaching and I ultimately turn the question back on them - do you have the passion for the game? I tell young coaches, coaching is a roller coaster and there are going to be highs and lows. You can’t allow yourself to get too high and you can’t get too low.
My advice for young coaches would be to find a mentor and create a network around you of people that you can talk the game with. I think we sometimes insulate ourselves as coaches because we are naturally competitive. I’ve now know the value of having people that you can talk to and communicate and share ideas with. I also think that finding an environment that you’re going to grow in is essential. Sometimes it’s not choosing the glamorous position; it’s maybe choosing the position that’s going to help you get better as a coach.
Another thing I would say to young coaches is to go and watch other coaches work. I think Coaching Education programs are great opportunities for seeing other coaches work. At coaching courses you learn different ways of saying something and different ideas. Having a license is not going to make you a coach but getting new ideas and adding to what you already know and learning more is vital for all coaches. I’m a big proponent of Coaching Education.”
ussoccer.com: What advice do you each have for young female players in the U.S.?
AH: “There are a lot of little pieces of advice that we give youth players. We talk about the importance of their involvement in terms of their technical development. They and only they, can develop their technical skills; it is time spent with the ball. Today’s players don’t spend nearly enough time with the ball in a non-structured environment. If they really want to be great, they have to get out in the back yard with a buddy, with a parent, with a wall, or with a net to develop their skill set.
JE: “I think our messaging to the players is to focus on technique. Players should have a high comfort level on the ball. You only get that by spending time and effort working with the ball. At the end of the day, we want to put players on the field that help us keep possession.
The other part of the messaging is to make sure players build in breaks and have some down time. I think some of our young players are exhausted. They often play other sports and have a huge volume of games and then you add on their academic responsibilities. They’re tired physically and mentally. Part of the messaging we give our young players is to make sure they find some time to build in breaks.”