How Jill Ellis became a world champion coach

By Mike Woitalla

John Ellis, an Englishman who came to the USA in 1980 to introduce European-style youth soccer programs to the Northern Virginia, had a pretty good sense that his daughter, Jillian, could become a successful coach.

At age 16, Jill Ellis starting working at her father’s Soccer Academy camps -- with players from age 6 to 16. Also helping was April Heinrichs, currently a U.S. Soccer Technical Director, coach of the 2004 U.S. women’s Olympic gold medal-winning team, and captain of the USA’s 1991 Women’s World Cup winners.

“I’d give them projects,” says John Ellis. “Like getting in front of 400 players to teach principles of attack or defense. To be a great coach, you have to be a great communicator. You have to have a vision and present ideas in an interesting way. … I’d sit back and watch them, and it seemed to come naturally.”

Jill was a couple months shy of her 16th birthday when she arrived in the USA. She had previously lived two years in Singapore, where her father helped develop a national soccer program. As part of his work as Royal Marine Commander, John worked in collaboration with the English FA in a "Hearts and Minds" campaign that included soccer development projects in nations such as Hong Kong, Malaysia and Thailand.

Growing up in Portsmouth, England, Jill developed a love for soccer early on because, "it was everywhere, it's around you." It wasn't, however, available in an organized manner for girls in the 1970s. That didn't stop her.

"I loved playing in the schoolyard," she says. "I played with the boys. I played with my brother [Paul] and his friends. ... Every break in school we'd play on the playground. We played in the backyard with a tennis ball."

Why a tennis ball?

"I think because it didn't go over the fence as much," she says. "Playing with a small ball kept it down. And probably because my mom would be mad if we broke a window or something -- but we still did. 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."

Not till she came to the USA was she able to join a team. Working at the camps improved her playing skills while building the foundation for a coaching career.

"I worked at the camps, earning pocket money, but more importantly it's where I would actually train," Ellis says. "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.

"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."

Ellis went on to play soccer college ball at William & Mary for Coach John Daly and earned all-America honors, and graduated with an English literature and composition degree.

After a stint as a graduate assistant coach at North Carolina State with Coach Larry Gross, she ventured away from soccer got a job as a technical writer for Northern Telecom in Cary, N.C.

"I wasn't fired up about what I was doing -- wearing a business suit and high heels everyday," she says.

She got a call from Heinrichs, inviting her to become her assistant at the University of Maryland. That meant a paycut from $40,000 to $6,000. "I think my mother was horrified," she says.

To supplement her income she coached youth soccer in Bethesda.

"It was my first foray into coaching club," she says. "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."

The Maryland job led to a head coaching stint in 1997 at Illinois, where she was charged with launching the women's program.

Women’s World Cup-winning Coaches:
2015 USA Jill Ellis
2011 Japan Norio Sasaki
2007 Germany Silvia Neid
2003 Germany Tina Theune
1999 USA Tony DiCicco
1995 Norway Even Pellerud
1991 USA Anson Dorrance

She started working for the U.S. Soccer Federation during her time at Illinois -- following in the footsteps of her father, he also coached in the women’s national team program -- and in 1999 moved to UCLA, where she guided the Bruins to eight final-four appearances before taking a U.S. Women’s Soccer Technical Director position, overseeing U-14, U-15 and U-17 girls national teams, in 2011.

When she replaced Tom Sermanni in April 2014, U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati said: "Jill has been on the bench for more senior and youth women's national team matches than perhaps any coach in United States history.”

Besides several U.S. youth national team coaching stints, Ellis was an assistant on the 2008 and 2012 Olympic gold medal-winning squads under Pia Sundhage.

John turned down Jill’s invitation to attend the World Cup final because he’d rather his daughter save her money. He set up a viewing area at the rec center of his retirement home in Florida, which was packed with 200 people and had “quite an atmosphere” as the USA beat Japan, 5-2, to lift the Women’s World Cup.

“I’m so thrilled for her,” John says. “It takes huge courage to put yourself in a position to take on that responsibility. The expectations in America are so huge.

“And to coach the modern players on the national team is demanding. They are so well-educated and so motivated, you’ve got to be really sharp and explain your ideas with clarity.”

That Jill Ellis succeeded, though, John says didn’t surprise him. It goes back when she was a teenager working with older and younger kids.

“She made sessions fun, she always seemed to have a sense of humor, and she had that skill where she could take people to task -- and they still liked her and wanted to play for her. That’s a balance I’ve seen many coaches not pull off.”

Coaching Advice From Jill Ellis:

* Put players in activities related to the game, something they’re going to have to solve. Players like to problem-solve.

* Player appreciates information. Give them information. Part of it is setting a culture of expectations of what you want and what you expect. They demand to be challenged and they want information and they want feedback.

* Empower your assistants to make decisions, to be able to communicate information to the players. They will provide players even more information and have someone else to communicate with. When the staff is on the same page, it works.

* When you have a younger team, help them build relationships.

* Let them play, make your point, play, make your point while the play is going on because that’s how kids today get information, receive information.

* Find your own voice. Find your own identity. I think it’s a mistake to try to almost coach how you were coached because I guarantee there were certain things you liked and certain things you didn't respond well to.

* Make an effort to see more and learn even more about teaching. ... 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.

2 comments about "How Jill Ellis became a world champion coach".
  1. Bob Ashpole, July 7, 2015 at 5:58 p.m.

    Excellent article. Excellent advice.

  2. feliks fuksman, July 9, 2015 at 10:31 a.m.

    Enjoyed reading the article and like the advices. Congratulations on helping the ladies win their 3rd World Cup!! Excellent Job .

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