Commentary

College coaching trailblazer Nancy Feldman on women in soccer, Generation Z, and ECNL vs. DA

Boston University's Nancy Feldman  is one of three women among the Top 20 winningest coaches in NCAA women's soccer, along with Aliceann Wilber (William Smith) and Becky Burleigh (Florida).

Feldman, a 2017 United Soccer Coaches Long-Term Service Award recipient, played college soccer at UMass and served as an assistant coach at Smith College while getting her master's degree in exercise and sport studies in 1988.

After two seasons of head coach at Lake Forest College (1988-89), where she also coached softball, she was in her fifth year (1994) of as the head coach at Plymouth State University (also basketball head coach), when her father told her that an article in the Boston Globe reported Boston University was looking for a soccer coach to transition its club soccer team into an NCAA Division I program.

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Especially attracted to the position to be closer to her father, who was ailing at the time, Feldman interviewed for the position -- and has now been at the BU helm since 1995.

Feldman spoke with us about her start in coaching, the progress -- and lack thereof -- of women getting head coaching jobs in college soccer, the #MeToo movement, the possibility of a female U.S. Soccer president, the current generation of players, the U.S. Soccer Development Academy and ECNL -- and her advice for young players, their parents and their coaches.

SOCCER AMERICA: How did you get into coaching?

NANCY FELDMAN: I played enough to know how much I loved soccer. I didn't think I was going into coaching when I graduated from college because there was no real career path for coaches in women's college soccer. I knew women basketball coaches who were full-time, softball and field hockey -- but not for soccer. Although I played and loved every sport -- soccer was my sport.

While I was working toward going to medical school, I coached a JV high school boys soccer team and realized this is something I'd really like to do.

As time ticked away, I started picking up on the idea that college coaching was a possibility, because there were more established programs. And I got my first coaching license in 1986.

What was that like?

I went down to Cocoa Beach, Florida, and took a national diploma from the NSCAA, now known as United Soccer Coaches. It was difficult. I was the only woman there of any candidate or staff. I had my own wing in the facility because we were housed in the Cocoa Beach training center that was used by the Houston Astros at the time.

It was lonely, but I stuck it out and learned a lot. It was pretty significant, that I went ahead and did that. I was a little naive. How hard can this be? I played, I coached a little bit, I dabbled in some high school coaching. And I didn't question going down there and putting myself in that environment. When I got there, I was intimidated. But I gained competency, and I gained confidence.

And now you've won 297 games at Boston University, where you arrived when it was a club sport …

To start something is a great opportunity. Not everyone gets a chance to be there at the beginning. A few of us, a handful, started and stayed with the same program all the way through. Twenty-three years later, I feel we've built a pretty sound, consistently successful program because of great student-athletes and great university support.

We've graduated kids in any and every area of academic study, who have gone on all sorts of different career paths, from full-time mother to MDs, attorneys, veterinarians, working for NBC and in media, marketing, PR, advertising, Nike, business management, educators and coaching professions and professional soccer players, to name a few.

The Tucker Center gave NCAA Division I women's soccer a "D" on its gender report card because of the low percentage (26.2%) of women head coaches at D1 programs. What's your impression?

There has been an increase in women coaches, both head and assistant, but given there are more positions and opportunities these last 20 years, the percentage has certainly diminished from where it was or should be.

What do you think the reasons are that we don't see more female head coaches?

It's a lot of reasons. I think athletic directors are mostly men. I'm not sure everyone values the importance of having qualified female role models and leaders.

Not enough are willing to give female assistant coaches a chance to become head coaches -- instead hiring men who had been successful coaching at other programs at lower divisions or who have also been assistants.

Women are right there on the cusp, so give them a chance. There isn't a priority placed on helping grow that, or grow women in the profession. It takes a commitment to the ideal that it is not only the right thing but the best thing.

Some of it is possibly the choice by the women, choosing to either not pursue positions or to leave coaching before they hit the ready mark for head jobs because they feel they cannot meet the demands while doing what is the right thing for their other priorities like family and work-life balance.

And maybe there's a third component. If the girls have been only coached by men, I think they can be pretty hard on female coaches in their expectations and in what they let male coaches get away with and they don't let women get away with. Those expectations can be hard to measure up to and feelings of failure can take its toll emotionally and be a cause of attrition.

It seems that there are cases when programs hire male head coaches, instead of promoting female assistant coaches, the male coaches haven't been extraordinarily successful at the programs they're leaving?

I haven't studied that. I just don't see enough women being hired for these full-time positions that are opening up. I don't why. I make phone calls. I advocate, not just for women, I advocate for men who have been paying their dues in the women's game. I want there to be good and competent people coaching our women athletes -- they deserve it, but I think women have not been given as fair a shake as I think they should be.

I don't think those hiring are going to far enough lengths to get the best female candidates. Why are we hiring a Division II coach who's a male for a Division I program vs. someone who's spent six or seven years as an assistant or associate head coach at a Division I school. I don't understand that.

The #MeToo movement has shed light on how hostile a work environment can be for women. What's your experience been in soccer?

In my professional workplace environment that has never been my experience, and that is not to disregard anybody else's experience, or to say that hasn't happened or doesn't happen. It does.

But in my professional experience in my college/university environment I've never felt that way.

Soccer is a male-dominated sport and I have been in sport-specific soccer social and coaching education situations where being a female I experienced, witnessed or heard about being dismissed and/or disrespected with words and actions. Some subtle and some not so much.

Kathy Carter is considered among the frontrunners for the position of U.S. Soccer Federation President. If she wins, U.S. Soccer would be one of only three of the 211 national associations with a female president (in addition to Sierra Leone and Turks & Caicos) …

I think it's most important that it's the most qualified person who is going to attend to the things that need to be attended to, whether that's to continue to do things that are good or changing some things that have to be addressed. It's above my expertise to comment on what those are.

So I'd say the No. 1 importance is that our U.S. Soccer president has to represent everybody. And they have to be bold to fix what has been identified as areas to improve and also carry on the great traditions that we have.

If it happens to be that a woman is the best candidate, then by all means she better darn well be elected and her gender must play no part in that decision.

It's the same with the United Soccer Coaches Board of Directors. It's very important that it's a diverse group of people representing the membership. You need representation in the leadership positions. I think United Soccer Coaches has really done a wonderful job of creating that in the last 12 or so years.

I think the female representation has been very good -- and youth, college, professional representation has been good. Though there are other areas of diversity, people of color both black and Latino, that needs to be addressed in leadership positions, and representation enhanced.

It would be great to see U.S. Soccer take the lead, with this election, if she's the most deserving, fantastic. If not, the issues of girls and women playing as well as underserved populations need to be at the forefront of what U.S. Soccer is doing, and a platform for the next president, as well as of course, making sure our national teams are successful. I actually think the long view is those two are connected.

What's your opinion on U.S. Soccer launching the girls Development Academy, which created competition with the ECNL for the nation's top girls talent?

As a college coach, we're just going to go where the players are. We just want to see kids being coached well and put in great training and playing environments. And that's the best thing for college coaches to have access to, and to see these kids continue to be in great environments so when we get them, they are as fully developed as they possibly can be, through a terrific development system, while also staying passionate and joyful about playing!

If the DA is going to be part of continuing to support that development system, then great. Would we all like everybody to work together in mutually beneficial tiered system that's perfect? Yes. But that's not the nature of the beast here in youth soccer. So I commend U.S. Soccer for trying to replicate what's been done on the boys side, but maybe learn from the boys side, and try and find a way to create the best development opportunity for the need of our girls and women.

I do have a problem with the high school restriction. That is definitely something that philosophically I don't agree with, but that doesn't mean I'm against the DA. I'm also not against the ECNL.

It would be nice if everybody got along and worked together and figure out how we're going to put the kids in the right place, year after year so that they are in the best system/structure that's right for them at that moment in time, and allow these kids to continue to play high school soccer if they wish without penalty or exclusion from a certain level of developmental opportunity.

How different are the kids now, the so-called Generation Z, compared to your early years of coaching?

That's the question of the year. They might be a little more thin-skinned. But, you know, everything changes and evolves. Maybe it's challenging us to be better educators, to have rationale always. To be rational always. To use our words and be more mindful of ego and feelings and emotions, and previous experience -- all the stuff someone brings that you can't see behind the curtain.

You can always look at things the other way, too. People talk about kids being harder to coach. And there is an element to that in that everything one does as a coach is much more public, dissected and immediately judged. You wonder, has it gone to the point where you really can't critique or coach them, that they are too vulnerable or fragile because of other issues in their lives or lack of coping skills.

But I haven't experienced it to a point where the majority of the kids are not able to take feedback. I just think you have to be a little bit more sensitive and empathetic, because either their experiences have been more difficult or maybe they don't have all the tools that some of the kids did before because they haven't had to do things for themselves enough or solve their own problems at an early age.

That's not their fault! Why are kids the way they are? We made them, right? So why is everybody complaining about kids being hard to coach?

What advice do you have for young players who want to become high-level college players?

Work on your game. Commit to your training. Take feedback and try to apply it. Watch games at a higher level. Take care of your body. Learn how sleep, nutrition, mental training can all enhance and support your becoming the best you can be. Surround yourself with good friends and supporters. Be smart and make responsible choices socially. Have fun.

Advice for parents who hope their soccer-playing children get college soccer scholarships?

Let the kid take the lead. There are a lot of different collegiate playing opportunities that do not involve a athletic scholarship. Being in a position to earn a scholarship takes a huge amount of commitment and sacrifice and understanding that it also means a big part of your college experience will be meeting the demands of trying to become the best player possible while balancing academics.

Your college life will look a lot different then other students. Your child will be choosing to commit to something that will be pretty consuming and will be a challenge.

Is there anything you would like youth coaches to improve upon to prepare players for college soccer?

Focus on applied technique. All the foundations of touch, ball-striking, solving pressure, defending, heading, bringing a ball down, etc and get your youth players to go to games and watch on TV for homework!

When you were honored with the United Soccer Coaches' 2017 Long-Term Service, who came to your mind of having been particularly influential on your career in soccer?

The men (dads) who started youth soccer programming in Needham, Massachusetts, where I grew up were the reason I had the opportunity to play soccer: Joe McDermott, Vern White, Adam Caputo were my first coaches and they were awesome!

Carol Bamberry at Needham High School got the girls program started and I played for her. She broke down some barriers to make that happen.

And my college coach, Kalekeni Banda, was a big influence in me. The college AD's I have worked for, Steve Bamford at Plymouth State and Mike Lynch, Averill Haines and Drew Marrochello at Boston University have been instrumental in my career. My biggest supporters in the NSCAA -- now United Soccer Coaches -- Doug Williamson, Jeff Vennell and Peter Gooding have really helped me along the way.

3 comments about "College coaching trailblazer Nancy Feldman on women in soccer, Generation Z, and ECNL vs. DA".
  1. Dan Woog, January 26, 2018 at 12:37 p.m.

    Nancy is the best! Congrats to her -- and thanks for all the lives she has impacted. 

  2. Bob Ashpole, January 26, 2018 at 3:42 p.m.

    Mike, your article avoided cultural prejudice and I give you and the Coach Feldman a lot of credit for that. Typically people ask why there aren't more women coaching women's teams without realizing the inherent cultural prejudice in their question. There is a cultural bias against women coaching men and officiating men's matches. Women coaching and officiating men's teams and matches is very rare. It is even very rare at the youth level.

    Apparently there are some invisible barriers at work.

    Great interview.

     

     

  3. Kevin Sims, January 27, 2018 at 9:07 p.m.

    Proud of you, Nancy. Appreciate your honesty and expertise always!

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