Leadership & Culture, Performance | Mar 17, 2020
Jill Ellis, the former Head Coach of the US Women's National Soccer Team, on reaching the top of the world... twice.

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Jill Ellis offers the Leaders Performance Institute a friendly handshake with a warm smile of recognition. 

By John Portch with Matthew Stone

“How are you?” she asks. “It is good to see you again.”  

Just three days earlier, Ellis completed her 132nd and final outing as Head Coach of the United States women’s national team. A 1-1 draw with South Korea at Soldier Field in Chicago saw her finish with a record of 106 wins, 19 draws and seven defeats. 

Her remarkable five-year stint takes in back-to-back Fifa Women’s World Cup triumphs and Ellis departed as the most successful coach in the program’s history. 

“It’s a sense of feeling like it’s a story written and it’s a chapter closed and it’s on to other things,” an emotional Ellis said during her valedictory press conference, her voice breaking with tears in her eyes. “But it’s been an unbelievable journey.”  

That journey has now brought her back to London in her native England where this evening she will win the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2019 Leaders Sports Awards at South Kensington’s Natural History Museum. Beforehand, we meet in the plush Hyde Bar at the Park Tower Hotel in nearby Knightsbridge.  

The last time we met had, by coincidence, been at Soldier Field two years earlier when she attended first the P8 Summit [“one of the most memorable moments I’ve had in learning about leadership”] and then spoke onstage at the 2017 Leaders Sport Performance Summit just months before she earned her coaching Pro License from the US Soccer Federation. Though two years out from the World Cup in France, she left us in no uncertain terms that the preparations were well underway on a personal and team level.  

She had barely taken the applause of the audience that afternoon when she jumped in a taxi to be whisked away to another national team engagement. 

Long-time readers may also recall that Ellis first spoke to our Performance journal in 2015, a matter of weeks after her United States side won the 2015 Fifa Women’s World Cup. That day, the conversation took place over the phone, with Ellis sat in an airport departure lounge waiting to board yet another flight. 

These encounters served as a reminder of the hectic schedule of the Head Coach of the USNWT and she will still travel home and abroad in her role as an Ambassador for US Soccer, which she will hold until the end of 2020. There seems little doubt that her services will be in high demand should she wish to return to the dugout. 

The focus this afternoon, however, is her coaching career so far. “It’s a bit loud in here so maybe the lobby would be better?” she helpfully suggests, mindful of our recorder and the loud ambient music of the Hyde. 

She spies a free table in a corner of the hotel lobby. Soon, another taxi will arrive, this time to take Ellis to the Natural History Museum, but there is time enough for her to reflect on her coaching journey so far. 

‘No one was too small’ 

Ellis, who emigrated to the United States with her family in 1981, enjoyed a distinguished high school and college football career at the College of William & Mary in Virginia. She progressed to North Carolina State where she studied for master’s degree in technical communication while working as an assistant coach on the school’s women’s soccer program. She had also taken a position as a technical writer in a local telecommunications company; not that she found it fulfilling. “The money was decent but it was not my passion,” she tells the Leaders Performance Institute. 

She was to last 18 months in that office. The turning point was a call from April Heinrichs, a former United States striker who had just been made Head Coach of the Maryland women’s program. Heinrichs had enjoyed a working relationship with Ellis’ father, John, who was himself a soccer coach of some repute, and she wanted Jill to join her coaching staff. Ellis jumped at the chance, despite admitting that her mother was distraught at the idea of her daughter walking away from a promising career. John Ellis, however, seeing himself reflected in Jill, offered her the encouragement she needed. 

Ellis would go on to serve as an assistant at Maryland for three seasons, then at Virginia for one, before she was offered the opportunity to build the University of Illinois’ women’s program from scratch in 1997.  

Those two years spent in the Midwest, her first as a head coach, shaped her style as a leader who brings together individual talents for the collective good. One name on campus sticks out in particular, that of Lon Kruger, who coached the men’s basketball programme at the time. 

“I purposefully went to different trainings,” she recalls. “I went to see the football team practice and then I went to watch Lon’s because I always think you can pick up something in how someone structures something. 

“What struck me with Lon was he knew the janitor’s name, he knew the secretary’s name; he knew every coach in there and, to be fair, in a lot of the colleges I’ve been at, the basketball and football coaches are almost in a separate realm and they don’t have the time or the energy to really connect and get to know people. Lon struck me with the way he carried himself and how he treated people; nobody was too small. 

“People always reference humility and it was really imprinted on me that you’re not above people and you really get the most out of people by working with them and connecting with them. I think Lon was just a really good role model for me.” 

It’s having an appreciation for the players, not as commodities on the field but their lives outside.

Jill Ellis

Her next move was to UCLA, where she led the Bruins to eight NCAA final fours during her 11 years as Head Coach. It was in LA that Ellis began her fruitful working relationship with US Soccer. Early roles included Head Coach of the under-21s, followed by the under-20s, and she also served as an opposition scout for the senior team ahead of their gold medal-winning 2008 Olympics campaign in Beijing.  

Ellis later joined senior Head Coach Pia Sundhage’s coaching staff, but temporarily took the reins herself following the Swede’s departure in 2012. She again filled the role on an interim basis in April 2014 before her appointment was made permanent the following month. 

In her time as Head Coach, Ellis impressed observers with her ability to connect with players in the goldfish bowl that the USWNT can be, particularly ahead of major tournaments where the team is expected to top the podium as a matter of course. 

A cursory glance at her roster for France reveals unparalleled talent but also disparate characters across the 23 players. “The reality is that you’re going to be closer to some players than others; I think that’s a natural human dynamic in the office, the classroom, anywhere,” she says. “It’s having an appreciation for the players, not as commodities on the field but their lives outside. 

“One of the things I was asked a lot going through the World Cup was ‘how do you manage your players having a voice about social or political issues?’ and I remember saying, ‘As long as nothing is a detriment to the performance on the field, you’ve got to appreciate that you are together. You become a family; just like any dinner table you have a conversation; people do have issues. Enabling people to express themselves, to be able to have a voice, I think it tips your hat to it being not just what they do for 90 minutes between the white lines.” 

It was something she learnt well in the college environment. “When you’re dealing with the college-age player,” she explains, “You get to know about the context of the player. You don’t just recruit them, you get to know their family, you see them regularly and you see more of their lives; it’s the academics, the social piece; it’s the total fabric of your players, who are more than just athletes.” 

The national team setting provides a different challenge. “Connectivity is important regardless of which platform you’re on but with the national team it’s a little different,” she continues. “You could have a 37-year-old and a 19-year-old; you have a huge range and they’re all professionals.”

Team gatherings at international level are also fewer and further between. “You have to create opportunities outside of camp while making the most of their time when you’re together. We would try to help them thrive in their club environment, to feel balanced when they weren’t with us. When they came in, we would have what us coaches would call a ‘reset meeting’ where we’d try to review our defensive, attacking or set-piece principles. We could then send them information through their phones so that they could also process it when they were not with us.” 

Ellis admits that it would be easy to ‘bombard’ her players with information but more important than strategic or tactical instruction is the person receiving the WhatsApp. “You need to make sure that you know Rose Lavelle has a dog named ‘Wilma’; that you know Julie Ertz’s husband [Zach Ertz, tight end, Philadelphia Eagles] has a big game coming up because, for me personally, the ability to truly understand your players beyond football is critical to building a team and getting the most out of them.” 

‘Rio was a wake-up call’ 

Full-time in the World Cup final at the Stade Lyon: United States 2-0 Netherlands. Victory meant Ellis became the first Head Coach to win back to back World Cups since Italy’s Vittorio Pozzo at the men’s tournament in 1938. 

After the 2016 Olympics in Rio, this was anything but a given. Ellis’ side had been knocked out at the quarter-final stage when they lost to Sweden 4-3 on penalties following a frustrating 1-1 draw. It was the earliest-ever major tournament exit for a US women’s team. 

US Soccer, still mindful of the team’s triumphant 2015 World Cup campaign, afforded Ellis the opportunity to turn things around for their 2019 defence. “I think the loss in 2016 was actually the catalyst for 2019,” she tells the Leaders Performance Institute. “It was a wake-up call.” 

That day, Sweden confounded her expectations in setting up a defensive low block that the US found difficult to surmount in regulation time. “Here was a top-five team sitting low when typically in our sport the top 10 teams tend to get out and play.” 

For Ellis, the next steps were obvious: “Not only did I know we had to reshape, refocus and reboot in a tactical sense, I also performed an autopsy – that’s what I secretly called it to my bosses – I said, ‘We’re going to have to make some changes; it’s going to be hard, it’s going to be a really tough period; the players are going to question it – you are going to question it – and it may cost us some results, but that’s what I believe has to happen.” 

Ellis was going to need every bit of her rapport with the players to prevail as formations changed, results suffered, and players moved in and out of the picture. “I took the same messaging to the players,” she continues. “‘You’re going to be uncomfortable; I don’t care how many caps you’ve got, how many medals you have, we’re in this period right now where we’re willing to find more people and really grow as a team tactically.

“It was incredibly hard – probably one of the hardest periods of my career.” 

The scrutiny was overbearing at times and there were numerous observers who harboured doubts going into the World Cup, but a formation change from 4-4-2 to 4-3-3 and various tweaks to the roster ultimately paid off when the matches mattered. 

I told the players: ‘You’re going to be uncomfortable; I don’t care how many caps you’ve got, how many medals you have, we’re in this period right now where we’re willing to find more people and really grow as a team tactically.

Jill Ellis

“Coming out of the Olympics, it was a moment to kind of reflect and look at making sure we played competitive games and increased our roster in terms of finding players like Rose Lavelle,” said Ellis during the World Cup. Lavelle made her debut in a 1-0 defeat to England in 2017 in the invitational SheBelieves Cup, as the US relinquished a trophy they had won 12 months earlier.  

“Sometimes it’s part of the growing pains when you want to shift something,” Ellis continued. But full credit to the players. You build the system around them. They’re the gasoline that makes it work. That process was to get to this point with players in their right spots.” 

Right-back Kelley O’Hara was vocal on the matter during the World Cup. She said: “I remember thinking after that [Sweden] loss that we had a long way to go, but that’s kind of a good thing, you know? You don’t ever want to feel like it’s easy all the time and there’s no obstacles or need for growth.  

“After 2016, [Ellis] put out a statement saying ‘I’m about to put this team through an evolution that I feel is necessary to win us a World Cup in 2019’. And as hard as that was—it was hectic and stressful and full of uncertainty for a lot of people – it was necessary.  

“I respect her a lot for doing that and sticking to her guns, and I respect the individuals on this team and how we handled ourselves through that time.” 

O’Hara was echoed by her teammate Alex Morganas the striker emerged as a leader of the team: “You have to give credit to Jill for looking at new things throughout the course of the last three years in order to see what the right direction was for us. 

“When you have a chance to coach a team for two World Cups in a row, you’re able to learn a lot along the way, what worked and what didn’t. For Jill, it was a little bit of experimenting, and she did it in a way that a lot of people criticised. But at the same time, when you get to where we are now, you can’t help but applaud that.” 

It must also be highlighted that O’Hara and Morgan were both attending their third World Cups in France – a distinction they shared with Megan Rapinoe, Tobin Heath and Becky Sauerbrunntheir teammate Carli Lloyd was even playing in her fourth. Ellis made changes but they were not wholesale. All in all, 12 players from her 2015 roster returned for 2019, eight of whom started the final; and 15 were retained from Rio.

 I had ridiculously good staff’ 

Behind the scenes, Ellis worked hard with her support staff to make the necessary changes. Her trusted lieutenants have been key to her success across her five years as national coach and it comes as no surprise that her staff were celebrated for their own ‘call-up’ to the World Cup entourage. 

“When I announced the roster going to the World Cup, when I congratulated the players in the first camp, I also congratulated the staff,” she reveals to the Leaders Performance Institute. “In many ways they’ve also gone through a gauntlet; they’d been tested and challenged. You can’t go into a pressure cooker of a massive event and not know if people can perform in that stressful environment. 

As the professionalism and infrastructure of the women’s game grows, Ellis has made a point of surrounding herself with assistants who themselves have served as head coaches. “I think it’s massive,” she says emphatically. “Where the game is today, where there’s so much detail. I remember when I got the job, one of my former coaches said to me ‘it’s almost like an NFL organisation’. If you truly want massive detail, I think most managers have a right hand. I think it’s critical and I think it’s important that you empower them. 

“I’ve always said the two things I can give my staff is trust and clarity; ‘here’s what I need you to do, here is the role, I believe you can do it and I believe in you.’ I know we had a lot of talent on the field for sure but we also had world-class staff in every capacity; medical, sports science, in the soccer realm, the tactical realm. 

“When you’re together that much you just want people to enjoy what they’re doing and you don’t want the sort of coaches who go and just put out cones; you want an equipment guy who can have input into the selection of the kit or says ‘here’s how we should structure this’ because then you have people who will give more of themselves and it makes for a better environment.” 

Ellis is all too aware of the potential consequences of players – or staff for that matter – not pulling in the right direction. “My staff were prepared, whether it was writing a note, catching somebody, or making sure everyone is alrightI would check-in with people regularly and by the time we got to the World Cup I was so in-sync with my staff and I knew them so well; even the medical staff.  

There can’t be any grey areas; I’ve got to know the absolutes in that split-second moment. For example, if Kelley O’Hara gets hurt before half-time in the final, my staff have to walk back off that field and have the confidence to make that decision; she’s either in or she’s out. You want to make sure they can handle the fact that there’s 20 million people watching their decision or how they function. I was super-blessed; I had ridiculously good staff.” 

The conversation comes to an end when Ellis’ car arrives. Her Lifetime Achievement Award awaits her down the road, as does a standing ovation she later describes as “really cool and humbling.” 

The evening provides yet another chance to reflect on the past but, with 2020 just around the corner, Ellis is looking towards her next challenge.

What does the modern coach need to know?

We tackle this question in our latest Performance Special Report. Download Coachmaker: What the Modern Coach Needs to Know, which features sports organisations as diverse as Ulster Rugby, the Geelong Cats, Minnesota Timberwolves and US Special Operations discussing personal development, creating performance environments, recruitment and using data in smarter ways.

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