CHICAGO (Sept. 7, 2012) – The following is the second part of a ussoccer.com Q & A with outgoing U.S. Women’s National Team head coach Pia Sundhage about her experience during the journey to gold in the 2012 London Olympics. Sundhage explains some of the difficult decisions she had to make as well as how she feels she helped the team simply “enjoy the moment.”
ussoccer.com: Often coaches have to deal with player management. How true was that for you during this Olympics?
PS: I think the key is to treat everybody with respect and try to ask them the best questions. If something happened around the team, I ask them questions such as what do you want them to look at? What kind of player are you? What kind of team is this? What do you want to stand for? So I’ve never come up with any rules. Rather, what do we need in order to win? And they say, I’ll do anything. Ok, so what is anything? You represent yourself, you represent your teammates, and you represent your country. Just remind them - what do you want the people watching the team, the people talking about you, what do you want them to talk about? That counts for tactics, that counts for fitness, that counts for how you behave, how you take care of your body, or how you respond to media, whatever. What is important, what do we want to stand for? So it’s an ongoing reminder that one, we create that environment, and two, I truly believe that we bring out the best performance in each other so you look for positive things. It would be easy for all of us to look at mistakes, to look at something I did wrong, instead of emphasizing when it was good and right and we had a good feeling.
ussoccer.com: What role does your coaching staff play in the success of winning a gold medal?
PS: A very big role. I think overall coaches are not good at giving credit for what they do. Not only the coaching staff, but also the medical staff. I’ll give you an example: we had one injury and that was Shannon Boxx, and she came back in the final. That is fantastic. They had treatment four times a day. I just want to emphasize how important the staff is. A good example is the Swedish coach Tony Gustafsson. He comes in four or five months before the Olympics, and he is loyal to my coaching style, and of course brings new eyes. It’s not only the staff but also the scouts. I had smart people, good coaches, and I listen to them. They gave me a bigger picture and painted a picture with all kinds of scenarios. When Tony Gustafsson jumped on, he worked very well, and I give him a lot of credit for that, but also the players. The fact that I’m bringing a new coach and they embraced that and did very well. So I can’t speak enough how important the coaches are. Because this is nothing you do on your own. It’s absolutely impossible. And the fact that I delegate fitness to Dawn Scott. She made sure they were fit enough. Or Paul Rogers when it comes to set pieces. Coaching is very much about making priorities, and using the help you have around you.
ussoccer.com: You have a video analysis coach on staff. What role does video analysis play in the team’s preparation?
PS: John Natale, the Video Analysis Coach, is a part of the coaching staff. It was great for me to have him around, thanks to U.S. Soccer, because that’s something I added from 2011 to 2012. I am very grateful for that. We worked together in Philadelphia for two years and then the Boston Breakers. He is filming video and he also has an input. I talked to him and analyzed the game as well with all the coaches. If I want a couple clips of crosses, or anything with video he gives it to me. I remember before the semifinal, he was sitting with Alex Morgan. He went through clips and had a discussion and then he fills me in, because my time is limited. So the fact that he was around, and that counts for all the coaches, that they have conversations with the players. So he was on top of everything when it comes to video. When we have a pregame talk he pulls out the clips. If you look at Dawn Scott, and the videographer like John Natale, those two are so much different from five years back. Now we use heart rate monitors, we do GPS in practice. This is feedback for us. And then you have the videographer, a coach himself, and he knows my coaching style also. When I played I hardly watched myself on video because nobody videotaped the game, and now-a-days we film the training and do all kinds of stuff and that is very different from just five or six years ago.
ussoccer.com: You have mentioned several of the younger players on the team such as Tobin Heath, Alex Morgan, and Sydney Leroux. Looking at these players, what would you predict for the future of the team?
PS: Unstoppable. I think it’s the American attitude. I’ll give you an example – I’ll bring up Tobin Heath, Lauren Cheney, and Alex Morgan - those three. American soccer always talks about speed and strength. Very often we looked at Japan and say they are so technical. In Sweden they’re very organized. In Germany, they read the game very well. If you look at Alex, she is a goal scorer. I would say she’s a typical American player. So you keep that and you add Tobin Heath with her technique. I think she is the most technical player in the Olympics. Many people talk about Necib, the French player, but I would take Tobin Heath before Necib because she is more technical and her work rate is unbelievable. And then you have Lauren Cheney who reads the game very well. You can tell last year when she played wide that she has the ability to read the game. It was hard for her to play central midfield because it’s a little bit of defending as well, but the fact that she reads the game well, she did okay with Carli Lloyd in the middle. So now you have the American style with Alex Morgan, you add Japanese or technical style with Tobin Heath, and German or Swedish style with Lauren Cheney, where you have a player that reads the game very well, and on top of that a good goalkeeper, which is very important.
ussoccer.com: You have discussed some of the younger players, now how about some of the older players. Who would you say are the leaders on the team and what impact did they have on the team during the tournament?
PS: Christie Rampone leads by example and is the best captain I’ve ever had. The communication with Christie and me has been very good. She didn’t come to me every time there was something she saw done wrong. She’s always prepared, she’s always fit, and she does the right thing. You talk about all of the stars, but I have to say she has been around the game so long, and she helped this team tremendously and she has been a great captain. And of course I have to mention Abby Wambach. She is a great role model, not only for women’s soccer, but I would say for soccer and for women. She is the star. She scored a lot of goals and she played a big part in this gold medal. She talks about the team and the way she speaks about this beautiful game is just fantastic. Her presence on the field is contagious. I think competitively she has an edge. She is so much a better player today – four years later she has improved her game tremendously. And I’m impressed by that, because she’s not 20. She is 32, and she can still improve her game. I’m impressed with that.
ussoccer.com: The ratings were great during the Olympics. What does it mean to the team to play back in the U.S. in front of all their fans?
PS: It means everything. All of us, I have no doubt in my mind, all of us just love coming back to the States to play in front of our crowd. That is the 12th player. It’s such a big difference from back in the good old days where you didn’t have a big crowd. Say the ball is going on the flanks and is crossed, if there is 10,000, 20,000, or in Wembley 80,000, you not only see the ball served in to the box, you also hear it. You can also smell it as well because it’s such a great atmosphere. Going back to the States and getting the chance to do it again it’s fantastic.
ussoccer.com: What advice do you have for young coaches in the U.S. that are just starting out?
PS: Well first of all, I think it’s important who you work with. For me it’s all about the journey. You may win or lose, but if you do that with a person or a team that you like it makes a difference. And it’s not the same type of person as you are but having one person that you have fun with. The other thing is make it fun for the players. Because if you start to believe winning is everything, I think you will not last because every time you lose, you lose something inside. Soccer is so much more than winning and losing. It’s a wonderful game and if you look at improvement, especially when you have fun, then you have a good chance to improve your game. Then the wins come, the victories come. But make it fun because then they will come back. Kids, they go where it’s fun. And what is fun? One thing is to do something together. One thing is to improve. If they feel like they can kick the ball a little bit better or bend the ball a little better after a year, then it’s a great motivation and inspiration. I think that is the most important thing because you never know if they play when they are 25 or 30 but it’s important to have fun and enjoy it.