“I don’t remember my very first game, but I do remember my first uniform and my first season as a footballer. Our team name was the ‘Get-Along Gang’ and we weren’t very good. We lost every game. I remember the last game of the season and my dad, our coach, told us if we scored a goal, he would buy us all ice cream. We scored our very first goal of the season in that match. We celebrated like we had won the World Cup. Even though it was an own goal, Dad was a champion and took us for ice cream. The passion for football and ice cream carried on for years to come.”
“It was the USA men’s national team I was talking about. There was very little, if any, marketing or knowledge of the women’s national team at that time. I didn’t know they even existed. Yet I was determined to play on that men’s team, and I believe my dad’s words that day guided me. He didn’t say anything about men versus women, he just said ‘get working’.
“I never idolised any heroes, but I respected many athletes who I thought I could learn something from to achieve my dream.
“On the USA women’s national team, one woman I hugely respected was Tracey Bates. At the time, she was the smallest player on the team, but had the heart of a lion and the character of a champion. I had the fortune of being coached by her in my middle school years, and I just connected to her competitiveness. It was okay for me to compete my hardest against her, because at the time everyone thought I played far too rough and was way too competitive. Girls got mocked for being like that, my mom and dad often sat in the crowd and had to listen to other parents talk about me being too competitive and a ‘dirty player’. I never intended to be dirty, I was just extremely determined! My time with Tracey taught me it was ‘normal’ to be that competitive if you wanted to play at the highest level. She allowed me to be my best in her presence and compete on the field as an equal with her – and that changed me forever.
“Joe Montana, Jerry Rice, and Roger Craig of the San Francisco 49ers were legends and their humble, unity as teammates was something I valued and respected. Those three men were a unit, they were extreme competitors, and through it all they treated the game and others with the utmost respect. They were true champions in my mind; they competed hard, were intellectuals and teammates – three qualities I took from them on my journey.
“Jackie Joyner-Kersee, the American heptathlete… I had her poster on my wall. She was by far the greatest athlete of all time in my mind, and she did it with humility, grace, and honour. She was a beacon of what it meant to be an American hero. She competed so hard, smiled, waved, looked so sincere and always like she loved what she did. She left it all on the track. I remember in my later years of playing, that if a person in the stands only got one moment to watch me play, I wanted to inspire them to live life with their heart on their sleeve, and I think I took a bit of that from watching Jackie Joyner-Kersee compete. She inspired me to inspire others!”
C: Why did you want to become a coach and when did you realise this was something you were interested in doing?
KL: “I started coaching at 13 years old. I wanted to give kids in my community an inspiring, fun place to develop their skills and play football. At that time, there weren’t a lot of professional coaches in my area, so there was no one to teach us the technical skills of the game. I was fortunate to be learning these skills through going to regional and national team camps. So I started my own camps, Kick’n’Kids Soccer Camps. I rented the fields, did my own marketing, and hired coaches I trusted to spread an inspiring message about pursuing your best in life. I wanted to share the knowledge I was gaining from outside and bring it to the kids inside my community, so they could pursue their dreams.
“From there, coaching was always a part of my life. In my Junior year at university, I took a semester off from studying to train for the Olympics but, weeks later, I was diagnosed with a foot fracture and had to spend the semester at home in Omaha, Nebraska. I coached a high school and club team that year, which elevated my passion to give back and develop the place and space for young athletes to pursue their best. Throughout my college and professional career, I coached on the side, through camps, individual sessions, and club sessions.
“When I retired from playing, I went straight into coaching and I remember having an epiphany. I always played sport to be the best, to win championships, to represent my country. Then I started coaching athletes that were not expected to play football at the highest levels or win championships, and I really had to contemplate what coaching truly was all about.
“I think that’s what lands me where I am today. Coaching is a tool to create the place and space for players, coaches and leaders of the game to pursue their best selves. I deeply believe in building champion cultures and developing people to achieve more than they ever believed was possible.
“I’ve been able to test my theory through the US college game, the US professional game, internationally, and from grassroots through to elite. I truly believe the culture of the women’s game is what will develop and transform it on the world stage.”
C: How would you describe your coaching philosophy? Who is your favourite football coach?
KL: “My coaching philosophy is embedded in getting the best out of individuals and transforming them into a team they would do anything for. I do not believe a system wins championships, I believe people do. I take the time to study and learn about my players psychologically, mentally, physically and emotionally, and then try to build systems of play around them. How can I put them in positions to be their best and to succeed together.
“I don’t believe in having a system and shoving people into that. To me, the game of football is an amoeba that can be manipulated and transformed to fit the personalities of the players. Within that mentality, I look to develop specific skills in each player that will allow them to achieve more for the betterment of the team. I don’t harp about weaknesses – we all have them – but rather what can I build within them to ensure that, when they step on to the pitch, they feel invincible and like superheroes. I mean, who can beat a team of superheroes!
“Of course, within all of this is developing team tactics that are simple and united. I always want my teams working as a unit, day in and day out, working, competing, fighting as a unit … One Unit, One Team, One Passion, One Heartbeat. Everyone has an important role in the team’s success; no matter how many minutes you get on game day, we need you.
“I am a passionate coach, and probably burn as many calories as the players during training. I work as hard as they do on training day, to be in the moment and coach the little details within the game while they are playing.
“I take a little bit from every coach I come into contact with. I love to watch coaches at work, and I really watch how their words and actions effect players. Coaches that I don’t know personally but appreciate from afar are Pep Guardiola (Manchester City) and Jürgen Klopp (Liverpool). I believe they are real and sincere and let their passion for the game and their players show. They seem to build a family and stand by this family through the good times and the bad.
“Tony DiCicco was the women’s national team coach in my time, and he was an unbelievable human being, coach, and leader of women. I say ‘leader of women’, because there is a knack for having women’s respect and being able to lead women to lead themselves. Tony was highly respected by all the players. On his staff was Lauren Gregg, one of the most passionate coaches I ever played for. She was intense, focused, and consumed with the little details of the game. As a strong woman, she was definitely a personality that shaped my coaching persona. She was intense, she would laugh, then she would be back on the case to drive home the details of the game. Along with Lauren, one of Tony’s great secrets to coaching women was Colleen Hacker. Colleen was our sports psychologist, a mental skills coach. Her unique insight into the psyche of elite competitors and her team-building mentality, taught me the value and importance of always focusing on the individual to build the team.
“I am also an Emma Hayes fan and think she has done great work at Chelsea Women. I had the honour of coaching against Emma in the US Women’s Professional Soccer (name of the top division in the USA from 2009-2012), and always enjoyed the tactical battles on the pitch. I have watched the journey of Asako Takakura of Japan, who has had an impeccable journey in developing the country’s youth and women’s national programmes. She is as nice and professional off the pitch as she is intense on it, and stands true to her own style of coaching – which is incredibly important in a coach’s journey. Asako is a consummate professional of the game.
“Sarina Wiegman’s success with the Netherlands national team has been inspiring. Pia Sundhage was a legend in the United States, both as a standout player for Sweden, and as a coach in the Women’s United Soccer Association and with the USA women’s national team. I was fortunate to play against Pia and start my professional coaching career when she was leading the USA team, so was able to learn from one of the best in the business.
“I can look back on my life and have deep admiration and respect for my middle-school track coach Leigh Officer, my high-school cross-country coaches Coach Mike Neeman and Coach Terence Thielen, my high-school basketball coach Mr Ritz, my college coaches Chris Petrucelli and Randy Waldrum, and two of the greatest football coaches I ever had – Ian Sawyers and Tom Sermanni (currently with the New Zealand women’s national team). All of these coaches were true to themselves, sincerely cared about their players, and were always willing to hear from a player on how we could make the team better. They challenged me, they inspired me, and they went beyond the day-to-day work of a coach to support my journey!”
That’s all for part one! Come back to our website tomorrow for the second part of the Q&A, where Kelly talks about her time in Afghanistan and her proudest moments as a coach.