The Role Model Coach: Pia Sundhage

By Mike Woitalla

The sideline shots of coaches during TV broadcasts tend not show them in the best light.

The ranting and raving at the refs. The futile screaming when unsatisfied with their teams. The sad, stressed-out grimaces that surely can’t instill confidence in their players should they glance toward the bench.

Then there’s Pia Sundhage. When the camera points to her, we see someone who looks like she’s enjoying watching her team. Her body language conveys confidence – something that very likely contributes to her team’s knack for incredible comeback wins, such as over Canada and France during its 2012 Olympic gold-medal run.

“What she exudes is a wonderful kind of optimism and positivity and I think she has a tremendous calm manner that I think is conveyed very effectively to her players,” says Anson Dorrance, who coached the U.S. women to their first world championship at the inaugural Women’s World Cup in 1991 and is the USA’s most successful women’s college coach with 21 national titles.

“It’s absolutely vital that even if you’re feeling stressed, your players should absolutely never see it. In fact, as often as possible they should see the opposite.”

U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati hired Sundhage after the U.S. women were routed by Brazil in the semifinals of the 2007 World Cup. Nine months later, Sundhage's Americans won the gold medal despite losing key players Abby Wambach and Cat Whitehill to pre-tournament injuries.

In Sundhage’s next championship, the USA lost the final to Japan on penalty kicks after a 2-2 tie in which the Americans played some brilliant attacking soccer.

At the 2012 Olympics, Sundhage’s team scored 16 goals in six games. At all three world championships with Sundhage at the helm, the USA was highest-scoring team. And her teams have played some entertaining soccer, which is what happens when players are enjoying themselves.

Hope Solo has said Sundhage’s coaching style “brings the joy back to us, back to the time when we were kids.” Midfielder Heather O’Reilly described Sundhage’s approach to life as “glass half-full to the max.”

“Even at the highest level, it should be fun,” Sundhage says. “Soccer is the best sport in the world and if it’s not fun it’s not worthwhile to coach. ... It comes back to where I come from. My mother and father said, "You know, you have to behave. But it's important to have fun.”

No doubt Sundhage -- in an era when the USA's competition has vastly improved -- must be good on player selection, tactics and training methods. But her demeanor is undoubtedly a big contributor to the USA’s success.

“I try to use my body language to emphasize what is good,” Sundhage said in an interview late last year. “I’m really happy to hear that when you watch the women’s team play you think I’m calm, because that's what I want my players to believe – because I have faith in the way we play and in our players. I emphasize the good things. I’m looking for good things, instead of doing the opposite and try constantly to adjust mistakes.”

Sometimes the grumpy, sideline-stomping, ref-bashing coaches win. But since she proves that a positive, dignified approach works, why wouldn’t coaches strive to do it the Sundhage way?

(Mike Woitalla, the executive editor of Soccer America, coaches youth soccer for Bay Oaks/East Bay United SC in Oakland, Calif. He is the co-author, with Tim Mulqueen, of The Complete Soccer Goalkeeper, and More Than Goals with Claudio Reyna. Woitalla's youth soccer articles are archived at

10 comments about "The Role Model Coach: Pia Sundhage".
  1. Brent Crossland, August 14, 2012 at 11:14 a.m.

    These statements apply to Norio Sasaki - the Japanese women's coach, as well. Many coaches would have erupted when the Referee didn't call what appeared(to me) to be an obvious handling offense but the Japanese coaching staff, led by their head coach, handled the entire situation with class & dignity.

  2. Chance Hall, August 14, 2012 at 11:26 a.m.

    I have to agree that Sasaki also handled hinself well. Sundage has brought fun back to the US Womens soccer team. It's nice to see her calm behavior on the sideline. But, it was also a joy to see her celebrate the good plays as well during their Olympic games. :)

  3. Brent Crossland, August 14, 2012 at 11:44 a.m.

    Totally agree. I think when Sundage says the game should still be fun she means it's still fun for her also!

  4. Jack Niner, August 14, 2012 at 12:54 p.m.

    Great comments on the JPN coach. What I really like about Coach Sundhage as a fan, is that she does not act like she's bigger than the players, and needs to be the focal point of the team - No sign of arrogance, but the opposite - taking opportunity to lift her players up. I think we used to call that a 'players coach'. And the players responded.

  5. Ramon Creager, August 14, 2012 at 3:29 p.m.

    Well put all-around about Sundhage and Sasaki. As a referee I hated coaches; you know the ones I'm talking about. They yell at you, blame you for their teams errors, etc. Every tackle his/her team makes is legal, every one the opposition makes is a foul. If you tried to rein in the physical play, it's "let 'em play, ref!" But if one of their players gets hurt, it's "you need to call those, ref!" Thus Sundhage's demeanor stands out to me. I'd probably still be refereeing if more coaches were like her.

  6. Ramon Creager, August 14, 2012 at 3:33 p.m.

    Another thing about Pia Sundhage, which should please USA fans. If you enjoy yourself you're less likely to burn out. She might stick around for awhile!

  7. Robert Robertson, August 14, 2012 at 4:48 p.m.

    I particularly like Pia Sunhage for her positive demeanor and flexible approach as compared to previous US Womens coaches. It is true that is far easier to keep a cheerful disposition when the calls go your way but, I don't believe she would have reacted the same as some other coaches. I know I would have been more like the Japanese coach - mad as can be. Sundhage would have been more even tempered - which is why I applaud her success. She also, is willing to incorporate a variety of players and styles into the team - a positive step forward.

  8. Allan Lindh, August 14, 2012 at 5:01 p.m.

    All true, but it was sort of sad during the Olympics to see how infrequently Title 9 was mentioned. Bird and Terzhai got through their entire post win interview w/o mentioning it. We have the best pipeline in the world for women athletes, and if you don't believe me, ask the coaches of the Canadian, Mexican and Columbian women's soccer teams.

  9. Ronnie j Salvador, August 14, 2012 at 9:21 p.m.

    Would have been interesting to see Pia’s reaction if the delay of game call had gone against the USA, or, if a PK had been called on Heath in the final. It’s easy to keep a calm demeanor when your team is ahead or the recipient of favourable calls. It’s another thing when crucial calls go against your team.

  10. bF BF, August 15, 2012 at 11:39 a.m.

    I appreciate her energy and positive approach but the soccer played is just dreadful. My 15 year old knows better about how the game is supposed to be played.

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