Lessons from Jill Ellis and the U.S. women

By Mike Woitalla

It's wonderful that millions of aspiring players and coaches watched the Women's World Cup final. Not because the USA won, but because how it won. Many aspects of the victory serve as excellent examples of how to play successful and entertaining soccer.

Play Low, Win High.
When Megan Rapinoe lined up to take a third-minute corner kick, everyone expected a high ball into the area. Instead, she drove a low ball that Carli Lloyd met eight yards out and shot into the net with the outside of her foot.

Not that low corner kicks will work all the time, but, besides demonstrating the value of executing the unexpected, the opening goal showed something crucial that’s often ignored by players and coaches -- that well-aimed balls on the ground are harder to defend than crosses “whipped into the mixer.”

Lloyd’s second goal, just two minutes later, came from Lauren Holiday’s free kick on the flank. Again, it was a low-driven ball that the Japanese couldn’t handle.

The USA did get success in the air, such as Lloyd’s headed gamewinner in the quarterfinal victory over China, but high balls were a very small part of the U.S. game. The majority of its offensive success came from combination play on the ground -- a wonderful example being the second goal of the semifinal win over Germany.

Savvy is Better than Brawn
That the U.S. four-player backline combined for just three fouls in final against Japan – and only 14 fouls total in the tournament’s seven games – reveals what kind of defenders Coach Jill Ellis fielded in Ali Krieger, Julie Johnston, Becky Sauerbrunn and Meghan Klingenberg. They used smarts, good positioning and good timing to stifle opponents.

Johnston may have been lucky to escape with a yellow card when she took down Germany’s Alexandra Popp in the semifinal, but that was one of only two fouls Johnston committed in 630 minutes of soccer.

All four players were more than comfortable with the ball at their feet, able to maintain possession after they won it, by being able to elude the first opponent who challenged them and hitting accurate passes of various ranges.

The outside backs surged forward with confidence and the central defenders didn’t just “clear” balls out, but aimed for teammates.

A major part of the USA’s success at World Cup came thanks to the backline -- not just for its defending, but it because it was comprised of multidimensional players who also helped the offense improve from game to game.

Trust Your Players
Just imagine the pressure there was on U.S. coach Jill Ellis. The USA hadn’t won a World Cup since 1999 and anything other than first place in Canada would be considered a debacle.

But you would never have thought that Ellis was anything but confident in herself and her players when you saw her sitting on the bench during the final -- or anytime during the tournament, even when the USA struggled to find its groove.

Once in a while, she would get up and convey an instruction -- before returning to the bench. She wasn’t pacing, prowling and yelling from the sideline, but watching in way that made one feel she believed in her players.

I imagine when players see such positive body language from their coach it helps them keep the confidence that will get them through the high-pressure periods.

Coaches who behave with such dignity as Ellis does on the sideline -- instead of bouncing around, gesticulating and screaming -- look like coaches who know they’ve done well to prepare their teams and can trust their players at game time.

21 comments about "Lessons from Jill Ellis and the U.S. women ".
  1. Lou vulovich, July 6, 2015 at 3:03 p.m.

    What a great point made in this article about the
    defenders intelligence and ability to win the ball without fouling. Second great point about Jill Ellis
    and her sideline demeanor she is a great example to coaches at every level. Reason I fired myself permanently from coaching and others should also. If you can't behave in a manner similar to Jill Ellis, you are not doing the players you coach any favors. No matter how great you knowledge of the game is .

  2. John Polis, July 6, 2015 at 3:04 p.m.

    Good points Mike. I was also impressed with the way Jill Ellis handled (and deflected) questions from journalists. We are in an age (especially television) when questions about soccer are still, unfortunately, too often centered around "how did you feel out there" and "what does this all mean" banalities. And then there were really dumb questions about formations from reporters you knew had no clue about what a 4-3-3 really was. Ellis, showing superb media savvy, handled each question skillfully and refused to get drawn into a formation debate. More often than not her reply to such questions was -- soccer is about players, not formations. Indeed.

  3. Amos Annan, July 6, 2015 at 3:19 p.m.

    deciding that all coaches must sit down to look dignified and confident in their players is RIDICULOUS

  4. Soccer Madness, July 6, 2015 at 3:48 p.m.

    So for all this talk about focusing on skill only without worrying about picking strength speed height, can we all admit that Usa's biggest and I obvious advantage was those very factors, that gave them the clear and huge advantage? Japan was equally as skilled if not a bit more but USA outmatched them physically big time. USA had the best blend of skill speed strength and height. This helped them jump to a 4-0 lead right away over a much smaller slower weaker Japan.

  5. Lou vulovich, July 6, 2015 at 4:16 p.m.

    All the coaching from the sideline should be done
    Monday through Friday, game time a coach should be calm on the sideline, this not only shows confidence in your preparation but also in your players. Most important if you are calm on the sideline, your players will perform without fear.
    I am simply saying, I admire this type of coaching.

  6. Soccer Madness, July 6, 2015 at 4:21 p.m.

    Lou, that's your taste in coaching. Different styles of coaching can fire up a team and give them confidence. A coach that runs the sideline and yells can help his team. Depends on how he does it and his presonality. Nothing is ever just one way effective. That's the beauty of it. Worst thing to do is be somebody you are not just because someone else did it

  7. Eddie Frill, July 6, 2015 at 5:39 p.m.

    Thank-you for your comments on Ellis. I hadn't thought about it until you mentioned it. As someone with kids in club soccer there is way too much screaming and coaching from sidelines. It feels like kids rely on coach to survey field and player's job is to wait for instructions from the Coach. Glad to see Ellis showing a different way to Coach and being successful.

  8. Gus Keri, July 6, 2015 at 5:52 p.m.

    I was wondering what this article is doing in the "youth soccer insider." I found the answer in the last comment. So, Mike is trying to tell youth soccer coaches to follow Ellis example. Got it!

  9. James Madison, July 6, 2015 at 6:10 p.m.

    Mike's right. Ellis's game demeanor is an excellent model for youth coaches. Youth players will never learn to make appropriate decisions in a tame if coaches make decisions for them from the touchline. And it often either distracts or annoys the players. I am forever recalling a community college female player who, when I was the referee, once asked me to "please red card our coach" to stop his yelling.

  10. Brian Something, July 6, 2015 at 6:36 p.m.

    To the critics, I think the author's point is that you don't HAVE to roam the sidelines ranting and raving like a lunatic to be effective. I was once told by a parent that I didn't really care much about my team because I just sit and watch most of the time and mostly coach my players quietly when I've subbed them out. For too many Americans, their idea of a good coach is one who makes him/herself seen. Coaching is about getting results, not making oneself a spectacle. The game's about the players. I'm just there to help out. I don't object to coaches who are more dynamic than I am but you're not the center of attention.

  11. Brian Something, July 6, 2015 at 6:38 p.m.

    ^^-When I said getting results, I don't necessarily mean wins and losses but rather getting the best out of one's players.

  12. Eddie Frill, July 6, 2015 at 7 p.m.

    You are dead on Brian Something. One of my kids had a Club Coach who wasn't screaming from sidelines whole game. He would move kids off the ball and explain things, but not micro-managing. The kids loved playing for him. I asked him why aren't more coaches like that. He said ego and job security. If you scream, coach gets all the credit in wins (they listened to me) and kids get blame in loss (they didn't listen to me). If you are quiet, Coach gets blamed for loss (should have fixed something, doesn't he care?) and when win kids get credit (the players won it, the coach didn't do anything). Unfortunately, coach was let go after 1 season. Believe club said he didn't have enough "passion" for the game. Team didn't do as well next year, kids didn't enjoy it as much, but most parents and club felt the Coach had a passion to win since he was screaming and directing so much. Guess that is the important thing?

  13. Daniel Clifton, July 6, 2015 at 9:14 p.m.

    I remember as a coach receiving some severe criticism from some parents because I did not scream at my girls. Oh well, I am not coaching anymore. I really enjoyed the point made by the author about the early corner kick and free kick being played on the ground. I noticed this right away. It completely caught the Japanese ladies off guard. I had been saying along with many other observers that this team needed to keep the ball on the ground and not play so many long balls. As the tournament developed that is exactly what they did. It seems to me the more they kept the ball on the ground, the more successful they became. Those two early goals were a prime example. I also appreciated this writer's point that the back line of the US team played great defense without fouling. Yes, great defense can be played without fouling, by using anticipation, positioning and timing. This team also showed that not only are they big, strong, fast, and athletic, but the are also quite skillful. Holiday made that volley look so easy.

  14. Stevie G, July 6, 2015 at 11 p.m.

    One senses a little dig at the non silent type coaches. Would anyone seriously try to claim that Mourinho has not sufficiently prepared his team? The truth is that there is no right way or wrong way to coach. Some prefer to believe they shouldn't attempt to influence proceedings during a game, while others know that they absolutely can.

  15. Lou vulovich, July 7, 2015 at 12:08 a.m.

    My comments were merely in reference to youth coaching. And I don't believe all coaches roam the sideline yelling and screaming for attention or job security, many are great intentioned, just overly intense and overly passionate...(with good intentions)
    I just belive that by controlling your emotions on the sideline you are giving the player the opportunity to tune you out and play free.

  16. Lou vulovich, July 7, 2015 at 12:13 a.m.

    Also the US was the best skilled team in all the right places. Take Alex Morgan out of the lineup and the level drops 30%, it is her speed and movement that puts fear into defenses and allows Lloyd to be great.
    Take her off and play Wombach and the US does not even get to the final.

  17. Bob Ashpole, July 7, 2015 at 3:28 p.m.

    Great article. I really dislike the current conventional youth coaching wisdom "keep the ball on the ground." For youth it stiffles development of passing. For adults anything done constantly becomes predictable and surrenders initiative to your opponent. Solely passing on the ground allows the defense to become more compact (i.e., reduce depth) restricting the space available to exploit. Good combination play has always involved a mixture of short and long passes calculated to stretch the defense. (Even in Barca tiki-taka, the object of the short passing was to set up a long diagonal pass.) Not that the article recommends otherwise. Combination play is just basic common sense tactics, which the article assumes the readers understand.

  18. Bob Ashpole, July 7, 2015 at 3:32 p.m.

    There is nothing wrong with passion or a coach yelling during matches. It is what he yells that is important. Positive reinforcement--good. Instructions and criticism--bad. A well coached team already knows how to play before the match.

  19. Margaret Manning, July 7, 2015 at 3:47 p.m.

    I am sure Ellis won only because she listened to all the male "experts" criticism during the tournament.

  20. Santiago 1314, July 7, 2015 at 5:47 p.m.

    @Margaret...Yeah, and those Females, like Michelle Akers, and all the Female "Coaches" on Fox sure where "IN" Jill's Corner, When Coach Jill didn't have the correct players on the Field, in the Correct Position...NOT, But you go ahead and throw Sexism in there, if it makes you feel better..

  21. beautiful game, July 8, 2015 at 5:27 p.m.

    A good coach prepares the team knowing its strong and weak points; so what's the purpose of growling on the sidelines.

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