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’Reillydescribed 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?