Jill Ellis Wants a Little More Company on the Sideline
Yes, Jill Ellis thinks about coaching again. Yes, the former United States women’s soccer coach said, she has had offers. Yes, she would take the right one if it came along.
But at the moment, Ellis said Tuesday, her priority is making sure other women get the same opportunities she has had.
“I never had a female head coach,” said Ellis, who was an all-American forward in college. “But more than that, when I was coaching at U.C.L.A., which really wasn’t that long ago, 98 percent of the recruits I had talked to had never played for a female coach.”
On Tuesday, Ellis and U.S. Soccer announced the details of a new initiative that, she hopes, will use a series of annual scholarships and an organized system of mentor-coach relationships to begin to address a persistent gender gap in top-flight coaching.
The program, which Ellis has worked to build out and solicit donations for over the past year, will provide money directly to promising coaching candidates who might otherwise be locked out of licensing programs that can cost thousands of dollars. But it will also assign them mentors who can offer advice and help them build out their professional networks. About three dozen women will be sponsored in the first year.
The project was born around the time Ellis announced that she would step down as United States coach only weeks after leading the team to its second straight Women’s World Cup title. At the time, U.S. Soccer announced that it was creating a scholarship in Ellis’s name to support women interesting in getting into high-level coaching. But that, she said, did not feel like enough.
“I was so sick and tired of getting asked where all the female coaches were,” Ellis said.
Setting aside the funds was wonderful, Ellis told U.S. Soccer. “But I went to them,” she said, “and asked, ‘What are we actually doing with this money?’”
The new program will mirror one run by FIFA, world soccer’s governing body, that Ellis took part in while she was coaching the United States. In it, she was paired with Mónica Vergara, who coached Mexico’s under-17 national team at the time and now leads her country’s under-20 program. “That was so gratifying and rewarding,” Ellis said.
She described FIFA’s program and U.S. Soccer’s new one as important ways for women, especially coaches at the top of the game, like her, to walk the walk of supporting a new generation. “We sit on top,” she said, “and we have a responsibility here.”
Ellis knows the hurdles female coaches face: the ballooning costs of a coaching education, for one — the courses to obtain a pro license, the top level in the United States, now cost about $10,000, and the next step down is about half that — but there are also child care and family responsibilities, which regularly fall harder on women. For those reasons, many women say, their progress as coaches has lagged behind the waves of growth and investment in the women’s game over all.
The daughter of a soccer coach and the sister of another, Ellis, 54, has dedicated her professional life to teaching the game, working at five colleges and with various youth national teams before taking charge of the United States women in 2014. But even as she rose, she could not help but notice how the crowd of women around her thinned.
Even as money pours into the women’s game at the international and club levels, she said, women are feeling the squeeze. At last year’s Women’s World Cup, 15 of the 24 teams were coached by men. In the National Women’s Soccer League, the top league in the United States, perhaps the most advanced women’s soccer nation in the world, only one of the nine teams has a woman as its head coach.
If 100 percent of men’s jobs go to men, and then other men move into women’s sports, Ellis said, “now we’re competing for 50 percent of the jobs.”
“It’s concerning,” she added. “You see these numbers, and it’s frustrating, disappointing. And then you dig into why. That’s part of the motivation here.”
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