Jill Ellis took part in the inaugural FIFA Coach Mentorship Programme
She started her own mentorship programme to support female coaches in the USA
"When you gain from something you just think that others should gain from this"
Former USA women's national team coach Jill Ellis could be sitting back and taking it easy, resting on her laurels, content with two FIFA Women's World Cup™ trophies. But her work is just getting started.
Last month US Soccer announced the Jill Ellis Scholarship Fund and the SheChampions Mentorship Programme. The announcement goes far beyond a press release and a feel-good story; it's about structural and enduring change.
The genesis for the idea stretches back to the fall of 2018 when Ellis took part in the inaugural FIFA Coach Mentorship Programme at FIFA's headquarters in Zurich.
"That experience made me pause and go, ‘Ok, we talk a lot about helping and the challenges we have in terms of the numbers of female coaches and the ratio of female coaches and female coaches leaving the game, but what can we be actionable about and intentional about?’" she told FIFA.com in an exclusive interview. "It’s not necessarily about solving it, but we want to improve the situation."
After the scholarship fund was established Ellis and her team interviewed 4,000 female coaches in the USA to understand the myriad of challenges they face and to understand the scope of their situation. The research and feedback made two things crystal clear: there's a lack of community and support for women's coaches and there are financial and personal barriers for many women.
"There were financial potential barriers in that women have to fund the coaching licensing themselves, maybe paying for childcare and other things. On a personal level, I borrowed money from my parents to take my first coaching licenses. Can we shine a light on women in coaching so that it becomes, not just a viable profession, but a more visible profession? If you see people doing it the chances are you can aspire to do it."
The scholarship established with U.S. Soccer addresses the financial component where 50 per cent of the coaches’ costs for licensing will be covered. But for Ellis, establishing and building a community of female coaches in the country was even more important. "That’s when I went back to the experience I had with the FIFA mentorship programme and it was one of the most valuable and rewarding experiences that I’ve been a part of. Overall what I loved was the seriousness with which FIFA took it."
The mentorship program at U.S. Soccer is being led by U.S. Soccer coaching educator Karla Thompson, who reached out to 40 of the most significant coaches, men and women, who have been influential in developing and advocating for women’s soccer in the US to be the first mentors. The list includes Ellis, U-20 USWNT head coach Laura Harvey and legendary UNC head coach Anson Dorrance.
“Mentorship is extremely important," Thompson told FIFA.com. "I’ve been researching how to increase female coaches for the last six or seven years. When you’re in a male-dominated environment, that’s crucial especially when you’re talking about women in leadership roles.
"As you see across the world, when men are coaching at an elite level or in leadership positions and aren’t quite successful and get replaced, they don’t go away, they rebound and find another position similar or better and that’s because of the support system they have underneath them. You don’t see the same thing happen for women. Women in elite positions who aren’t successful, you never see them again because they don’t have that support system."
Neither Ellis or Thompson had many female coaching mentors they could lean on when they were starting out.
“I had several mentors but unfortunately for me none of them were female," said Thompson. "I was lucky enough to have some male advocates who supported me in different areas and were able to help me along and push me out of my comfort zone and into areas that propelled me to where I am today. I had no one as a role model to say, ‘Hey I want to be in that position’. A lot of people around my age were probably what you would call 'sputtering our feet' because we didn’t really know what we could be."
Thompson's biggest hope for this initiative is to give exposure to women who have been breaking ground and for them to become role models to the next generation coming through. "It’s not about the Xs and Os and how many games they’ve won, it’s about putting women in a position to succeed and having those allies with you. There are a lot of women out there doing a lot of good things for other women.
"The other goal is to create that community where women can feel safe and like they’re not the only woman in the room or on a Zoom call. We want to increase women in club and college environments and in pro environments. That’s vital right now."
As Ellis went through the experience at FIFA she realised that mentorship is something that is critically important in every domain of life.
"We certainly learn a lot going along on our own journeys, but to know that there is someone that we can ask advice from, bounce ideas off of and someone you can be vulnerable with is so important. At times you can’t be vulnerable with your staff because they rely on you. But I’m someone you can pick up the phone and you can be completely honest and open with and you know you’re not going to get judged."
The longer Ellis was in the USWNT head coaching job the more she realised the importance of being a role model and using her platform to make a difference.
"We have to have women in high profile positions so that there is something for someone to see, but equally as important is that we get coaches cutting their teeth and getting their experiences in the youth game. We have to look at it in every realm and platform in terms of how can we make a difference."
"I believe differences make us a stronger," said Ellis. "That same idea and understanding applies when you’re building an organisation. I look through a lens that’s different than someone else who has different experiences. Having leaders with different perspectives and views, it makes everything a much richer, stronger experience. If we can have more diversity in higher positions and in executive positions then we become much deeper."
As Ellis came to the end of one chapter of her coaching career with the USWNT she had a moment to pause and reflect.
"As I reflected, I thought, ‘Wow, this has been such an incredible journey and an amazing experience’, you want other people to have the opportunity to experience those things. I was the first person in my family to go to college. That experience made me want it for my daughter.
"When you gain from something you just think that others should gain from this. There was a bit of soul searching as to think about what was challenging on my journey and we’re still 25 years on having the same challenges, so what can we do to mitigate or dilute some of those challenges to make this a more viable opportunity for more women?”
The scholarship fund in her name and the SheChampions mentorship program is the start of the solution and there is bound to be many more Jill Ellises in the future, leading both men and women at the very top of the game.