Legendary Women's Soccer Coach Shares Wit and Wisdom at William Blair Event

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Megan Mawicke and Jill Ellis


William Blair’s Inspiring Women event featured Jill Ellis, former head of the U.S. women’s soccer team, and moderated by CBS Chicago sportscaster Megan Mawicke.


Jill Ellis, who led the U.S. women's soccer team to record achievements including two consecutive World Cup victories, shared her experience and wisdom at a packed venue on March 4 in Chicago as featured speaker at William Blair's Inspiring Women event.

In a conversation moderated by CBS Chicago sportscaster Megan Mawicke, Ellis shared stories and lessons from her coaching and leadership of a team that, among other things, has overshadowed the U.S. men's team in achievement and acclaim.

Renowned for getting the most out of her players, Ellis said she had a simple formula for encouraging the women on her team: "Make them all feel valued."

A good leader, like a good coach, treats every individual fairly, Ellis said, but in the way best suited to bring out one's talents and performance for the good of the team. A coach must be seen as even-handed in discipline, encouragement, praise, and criticism.

On the team there are superstars like Megan Rapinoe or Alex Morgan along with stellar support players. But she said language is important. She never referred to non-starters as substitutes or benchwarmers, common terms used in the sport for the back-up players. She always addressed them as "game changers" and made clear to the team what that meant.

"They are the people who come in and impact the outcome of a match," she adds. "It also sends a message to the starters that these are valuable people."

To win the World Cup "it's going to take 23" players, she told them.

Ellis, who began playing soccer in her teens, retired as U.S. coach in October 2019 after the team won its second World Cup. Now living in Florida, she is writing a memoir about her time building and managing one of the most successful women's sports teams in history.

Lessons in Sports & Life

Asked how she put teams together, Ellis said you need talented people and must embrace mentoring and cooperation as essential tools for team building.

"Diversity in your team is critical. I think clarity in expectation and role is critical."

"I had 23 women who all believed they should start and only 11 start," Ellis says. "My players weren't all best friends, but there was a mutual respect and appreciation for what they could bring to the table."

She said she assigned young players to sit with veteran players as a vehicle for their growth—to hear their stories, the high and low points of their careers. Younger team members "see players on the top" but don't know how they got there.

"Be Bold"

Ellis said one of the biggest lessons from her experience is how important defeats can be. The lesson came through strongest after her team stumbled to retain their Olympic title in 2016.

After winning the World Cup in 2015, the team had hopes of going on to win the 2016 Olympics back-to-back, something that no team had ever achieved. Instead, the U.S. women's team lost in the quarterfinals against Sweden.

"That failure in 2016 was the catalyst to our success in 2019," Ellis said.

What she saw in that Sweden loss was that there was suddenly a new blueprint out there for others on how to beat the U.S. national team.

So Ellis took bold steps to re-shape the team. It meant re-evaluating stars, repositioning players, adding team members, analyzing the team's strengths and weaknesses. The process took some time. She came under strong criticism from those close to the team, the media, and the fans.

"You have to believe what's inside you is good enough," Ellis said. "If you're the same leader today you were two years ago, you've failed. You can listen to input from others. But you make a decision that you can live with if it goes wrong."

Her coaching message is that you can celebrate your victories but you can't rest on your laurels. When you do that in the race of success you find your competitors are working harder than you.

About Inspiring Women

William Blair's Inspiring Women event, now in its 16th year, attracts women entrepreneurs, investors, philanthropists, and civic leaders to gather and discuss some of the most important issues facing the world. The goal is to inspire change. More than 300 attended this year's event.

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