Interview by Mike Woitalla
Coach Jill Ellis, currently leading the USA in qualifying play for the 2015 Women's World Cup, has coached at every level of the youth game. She served as U.S. Soccer Women's Development Director, overseeing U-14, U-15 and U-17 girls national teams, from January 2011 until taking the full national team’s helm last May. The former UCLA head coach’s youth national team coaching experience hails back to 1999.
SOCCER AMERICA: Tell us about your youth soccer experience?
JILL ELLIS: Growing up in England, I loved playing in the schoolyard. I played with the boys. I played with my brother and his friends. … Every break in school we’d play on the playground with a tennis ball.
Sometimes we’d have an old soccer ball. We’d go round the corner of streets and there’d be a wall and we’d play all those kinds of games against the wall.
It wasn’t until I came to the States -- shortly before my 16th birthday -- that I actually got to play on a team and officially got to suit up and be a part of something formal.
SA: You moved to the USA because your father came to work in Northern Virginia youth soccer …
JILL ELLIS: Right. He ran camps and I worked at the camps, earning pocket money but more importantly it’s where I would actually train.
There were teams from age 6 to 16. Whenever the kids I was coaching went on a water break, I’d jump with the older group to get some technical work, repetition.
My dad worked with me after camp or sometimes at home. We’d go out and kick the ball around.
Coaching-wise, the camps were my first introduction to teaching. Working in the camps with dad and working with a 6-year-old and then a 16-year-old, or 14-year-old … you’re constantly having to adapt your teaching. I think it helped me because I was able to bounce back and forth.
SA: What should coaches keep in mind when they move between different levels?
JILL ELLIS: One of the things I’ve always said to teams is, I’ll be patient, but once you show me you can do something that becomes your standard.
What I like to do is connect with the players. For me, it’s about building trust. To build a relationship with the players, whether it’s the national team or a club team or a college team -- you have build relationships to really get your information across, to get the buy-in.
SA: When you became April Heinrichs’ assistant coach at the University of Maryland in 1994 was when you started coaching youth club ball?
JILL ELLIS: It was my first foray into coaching club. It was really good for me. As a head coach -- setting the philosophy for your team, making those decisions, dealing with parents, management -- it was good.
I tell young coaches now, if you can have your own team and be an assistant on another team at the same time, you can learn so much. As head coach, everything rests on your shoulders. It was a really good complement to what I was doing at Maryland.
SA: Have you seen a difference in players over the generations that may affect how they need to be coached?
JILL ELLIS: I do. I don’t think it’s bad.
What I always appreciated about my dad is he never got stuck in the past. It was always you have to look at what’s around you.
When you have a younger team, you have to help them build relationships because most of their relationships are over their phones. …
Gone are the days where you can stop a training. You’ve got let it play, make your point, play, make your point while the play is going on because that’s how they get information, receive information. …
I’ve seen young players doing things that I didn’t see at the same age six years ago. There’s a lot of positives.
I think we have made great strides in our club environments as far as teaching, level of play, level of information and level of exposure to the game.
SA: Today's coaches should be aware that the way they were coached might not be the best method now?
JILL ELLIS: You have to find your own voice. My personality is going to be completely different than someone else's. You have to have your own voice.
I say this to young coaches: You have to find your own identity. I think it’s a mistake to try and almost coach how you were coached because I guarantee there were certain things you liked and certain things you didn't respond well to.
At a certain point as a young coach you have to filter.
The players coming through today, they respond less to the drill sergeant approach. … Players don’t relate to that -- some might -- but certainly not as much. I think we’ve got a really smart generation of players … You’ve got to be able to connect with them on different levels.
If you say, “Make this run.” A lot of them will say, “Why?” And you’ve got to be OK with explaining why. I think for a coach, male or female, it’s about finding your identity …
I was really lucky. I got to see a lot of coaches work. I even go watch other sports’ training because you can always take something away.
You’ve got to make an effort to see more and learn even more about teaching.