Coaching Q&A: Women's National Team Head Coach Jill Ellis
The U.S. Soccer Coaching Education Department continues a new series of articles to introduce coaches to its National Instructional Staff. Each month, the department will feature a Q&A with a member of the staff that will delve into his or her background and coaching experience.
The National Instructional Staff consists of top coaches from across the country, leading the sport in coaching education. We aim to share with coaches a small glimpse of our instructors' history, knowledge and expertise that they provide at U.S. Soccer educational events.
This month we continue the series with U.S. Women’s National Team Head Coach and National Staff Instructor Jill Ellis. Ellis took over as head coach of the U.S. WNT in May, 2014. She had previously served as interim head coach for the full team and did two stints as head coach for the U-21 Women’s National Team. Her most recent position, however, was as Women’s Development Director, where she spent three years integrating youth teams on the women’s side. Ellis also has a long history in college soccer having coached the University of Illinois and more recently, the UCLA Bruins. Ellis earned her National “A” coaching license in 1996 and has been a member of the National Instructional Staff since 2007.
- READ: Coaching Q&A with National Staff Instructor Vince Ganzberg
- READ: Coaching Q&A with National Staff Instructor and MNT Scout Carlos Juarez
ussoccer.com: What first motivated you to get involved in coaching?
Jill Ellis: “I have always loved sports. Sports have always been part of my life. My father was a coach and from early on when we first moved to this country my dad ran soccer camps. My initial stint at coaching was as a summer job to earn money. When I was 16 or 17, I was working my dad’s camp in the summer, teaching technique and just having fun with the kids. Those were my earliest memories of teaching soccer to little kids in parks around northern Virginia. I enjoyed it and loved it.”
ussoccer.com: What coaches did you look up to as you began your career?
JE: “I think when I was young the biggest influence was my father. Then my college coaches John Daly and John Charles certainly influenced me. I think they helped keep my passion for the game alive. Certainly April Heinrichs, who came in as our assistant coach when I was a senior at William & Mary, was a big influence. I got to see April’s passion for the game and in a way, seeing April coach made me realize that perhaps there would be an opportunity to coach as a career. I don’t think she determined my career path at that moment but it certainly made me realize that women could be coaches and potentially go on to become head coaches.”
ussoccer.com: What is your most memorable soccer moment as a coach?
JE: “Soccer memories are two-fold for me. I remember a lot of specific games that have held so much emotion and were unbelievable games to be part of. Then my other memories are just seeing players that I’ve coached go on to their lives outside of soccer. It’s always special to go to some of my former players’ weddings or see them become parents and raise children. Memorable moments for me are certainly on the field, but many of them are off the field as well. It’s great to see the people whose lives I’ve intersected continue to go on and grow. That’s very rewarding for me.”
ussoccer.com: As the new head coach of the U.S. Women’s National Team, you have reached what some say is the pinnacle of the coaching profession. What advice do you have for those who are looking to make a career in coaching?
JE: “My advice to young coaches is not to be in a hurry to be a head coach. I think the foundation is so important. I would tell them don’t be in a rush, make sure you’re prepared, and surround yourself with people that you can learn and grow from. I was fortunate enough to have a lot of role models as a young coach. Even as a college coach, I would watch what other people did. It made me think of something new or look at something with a different perspective.
“I also think young coaches need to make sure they’re well-versed in everything from tactical understanding to player management. Often times coaches have a great handle on some of the X’s and O’s but need to work on managing players and understanding how to motivate and connect with them. I would say don’t be deterred because coaching is a roller coaster. You put your seat belt on and enjoy the ride. There will be ups and downs both on and off the field. You can’t get discouraged. Persistence is a great virtue and working to continually evolve and improve is very important for a young coach.”
ussoccer.com: You recently appointed Tony Gustavsson as assistant coach for the U.S. WNT. What do you focus on in selecting and developing your coaching and support staff?
JE: “The two main components I look for are ability and personality. I certainly want people on staff who are excellent at what they do. They have to be exceptionally confident and knowledgeable at what they do especially with the senior team. The personality piece is important as well. You spend a lot of time together and you have to be able to work well together and be part of a team. My staff has different personalities but they have to be able to blend and understand that it’s a team-first environment. I would also add that it’s important to find people that compliment your personality. It has to be someone who can come in and compliment the head coach and bring something unique to the table.”
ussoccer.com: You have gotten to know many of the players on the current WNT through Youth National Teams, college teams, or your time as interim head coach. Do you feel that gives you an advantage as you start out in this new role?
JE: “I think part of my coaching philosophy is creating a connection. I have history with many of these players, either coaching them on youth teams or college teams, so I think the connection is there. Certainly I am in a different role now as the senior team coach. I think having an understanding of some of the players and knowing them on and off the field will definitely help me navigate being the full team coach. The players at this level are very professional and really know that whoever the coach is, they’re going to need to perform. But I think knowing me will help build that bridge quicker.”
ussoccer.com: From a development perspective, what qualities do you think are needed to be successful as a player at the senior team level?
JE: “Everything for me boils down to technical proficiency. For players to succeed and thrive at the highest level, they have to be technically proficient. In the National Team environment, at any age, everything is accelerated; the speed of play, the amount of space you have, how quickly you have to make decisions. A player’s competency technically allows them to have more time on the ball and to think off the ball. Obviously there are other qualities that are important, but what we’ve emphasized and what we’ve seen at the highest level is that teams around the world are so technically proficient that it has to be the common denominator in our National Team players.”
ussoccer.com: You have been a national staff instructor for U.S. Soccer coaching courses since 2007. Describe your experience in this role.
JE: “It has been an honor to be part of our national instructional staff because coaches are ultimately the base of development in this country so being able to influence coaches is important. I think going through the licensing process is important because it allows you to look at different ideas and different ways of doing things. I always say that having a license doesn’t equate to making you a great coach; but having a license shows that you are committed to evolving as a coach. It’s been important for me to encourage all the assistants and staff I work with to get their licensing because we don’t know it all. Regardless of whom you surround yourself with, you’re going to learn something from them. The more open a coach is to learning, the more complete a coach they will become.”
JE: “It absolutely is a priority. As I referenced earlier, ultimately the coaches out there are the ones that have the day-to-day contact with players, which equates to the day to day development of players. As a National Team coach with the youth or with the senior team, we only get to work with players for short periods of time whereas the coaches out there work with them every day. Player development is about excellence and consistency. So the more we can grow and develop and assist our coaches out there that work with players on a consistent basis, the better we will be as a soccer culture.”
ussoccer.com: In a recent interview with ussoccer.com, Men’s National Team head coach Jurgen Klinsmann said, “coaching education is one of our highest priorities going forward.” Can you provide your thoughts on coaching education and the development of coaches in the U.S.?