Saturday, September 08, 2012

a different kind of coach, Swedish style

i'm breaking away from endurance sports for this post to comment on something that i think is relevant for sports in general. there was a news item last recently that sort of got lost in the media, but which was a relatively major event for anyone following soccer (futbol) or women's sports. Pia Sundhage, the coach of the US national women's team, left after 5 years to coach for Sweden.

you can't blame her. she's done just about everything any coach could have wanted to do for the US women's soccer: she turned around a program that was in disarray and mired in infighting following the debacle of the 2007 World Cup, changed a national style of play away from sheer physicality to meet a world whose quality in skill and fitness had become much more competitive, led the US to the World Cup finals in 2011 in a series of games for the ages, and brought the US to 2 gold medals despite a series of challenges that would have shaken most national teams. she now gets to be the national team coach of her home country, a dream job for any athlete.

it made bigger news in Sweden:
for those of you who don't know Swedish, she's essentially discussing her return to Sweden and the Swedish national team.  this is a big deal for Swedish soccer, since Pia Sundhage is a national hero and her coaching record is rife with success.  she's expected to do the same thing she's done in her previous coaching stints: raise teams which have been seen as underperforming.

the reason i'm bringing this up here is because of some things that have been said in Pia's praise in the wake of her return to Sweden. a good example was this piece from Julie Foudy on ESPNW (i've also posted the text of it at the end of this post):
to me, this raises some important points regarding coaching. Pia is proof that you don't have to be a raving, screaming, frothing, gesticulating maniac to be a good coach. it's possible to train, educate, and lead players with a completely different approach involving techniques that might seem different, quirky, or even bizarre. i think there's a number of things the rest of sports can learn from this:
  1. positivity and positive reinforcement works. the overall message out of Pia's tenure with the US women's national team is one of constantly building her players, not just in terms of fitness or skill but also chemistry and outlook. i think it paid dividends when things got rough and her team was called upon to adapt and overcome. this isn't to say that people are not held accountable, but that rather that everyone understand that the idea is to become--and more importantly, believe--that they are growing better.
  2. there's a place for humor, affability, rapport, respect, and composure alongside all the qualities that we typically associate with competitive sports. again, this is a reflection of a positive outlook. while it may seem pollyanne-ish, panglossian, or naive, and while it can certainly go that way, maintaining a positive outlook is important to the extent that it keeps people engaged in constructive ways with their mission. it's better than being destructive.
  3. life is an adventure. it's not always easy. things are not always wonderful. events don't always go the way we want. but that's motivation to keep working and to keep going, since just as there are lows there also highs, and you only get to the highs if you keep moving forward. as a result, it's important to keep everything in perspective and not dwell too long on the negative (sound familiar?) but instead build towards the positive.
i want to note that much of this is something i consider typical of Scandinavian society. i'm not going to say that all Scandinavians are like this, or like Pia (trust me, they're not, she is rather...unusual), but many of these qualities are ones that i remember as a child being constantly stressed as desirable and appropriate characteristics in society. and i see them being reinforced in archetypes labeled as "good" by people and media every time i return to Sweden. perhaps this leads to a culture that the rest of the world deems weird or quirky. but if you look at Pia, you can see the results that it generates, and i don't think anyone would turn that down.

on a final note, i'm not going to say that everyone go out and mimic Pia and play a guitar and sing songs for the team. i will say, however, that this is another area that shows just how good a coach Pia is. she managed to get her players to buy in, even while doing things that i think most athletes, particularly American athletes, jaded and cynical as they are, would find cheesy, corny, even silly.

again, this shows that there are skills involved in coaching that most people don't understand, and that too often we turn to the stereotype of a screaming red-faced lunatic because we're lazy, ignorant, don't know any better, or don't know we deserve better. as a result, it's just too easy to engage in destructive coaching. i think that Pia's tenure as a US coach is a reminder that it's worthwhile to develop the skills of positive coaching, and not just for the national pride, or the team, or the players, but also society.

Pia's Calm Through the Storms Redefined the US Team
September 4, 2012
Julie Foudy 

To better understand Pia Sundhage's five years with the U.S. women's soccer team, let's rewind to 2007 and revisit the state of the program at that time.

The U.S. team had been blown out of the 2007 Women's World Cup semifinals in a 4-0 loss against Marta and Brazil. Hope Solo, who was curiously benched for that game, had just been kicked off the team for blasting her coach, Greg Ryan, and U.S. goalkeeper Briana Scurry after the loss.

The team was playing unattractive soccer and the program seemed to be on a sharp decline only three years after it had won gold at the 2004 Athens Olympics. The team was in chaos; there is no other way to put it.

Cue the music...and the singing...

... in walks Pia Sundhage, with her guitar in hand, who busts out Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are a Changin'" tune for the team (no joke ... you cannot make this stuff up). Pia, a former Swedish star player known for her free spirit and tendency to break into song, was hired to coach the U.S. women's team at a time when things surely need some changin'.

When Pia came to the team in November 2007, she either didn't notice the mess or, more appropriately, didn't care. In typical Pia fashion, she brought life back to a team that desperately needed laughter. She was the perfect hire because she didn't just preach enjoy the game, she lived it. And through her joy, players found oxygen.

If you look at her record alone during her tenure as head coach -- two Olympic gold medals, one Women's World Cup final appearance and only six losses overall -- you would be incredibly impressed. But that doesn't tell the whole story; it doesn't even tell the most impressive part of the story. In my opinion, these actually were Pia's defining moments:

• Her first task was to bring Solo back into the family. No easy task given the history of this team and what had transpired. But Pia asked the team to move on and said it needed Solo as a goalkeeper to win, and the team bought in. Whether or not you like Hope's vocal style, you can't say she hasn't been an effective, world-class goalkeeper over these past five years under Pia's direction.

• Just before the 2008 Olympic Games, Pia's first major tournament with the U.S. team, the Americans played in a final "sendoff game" against Brazil before heading to Beijing. In the 31st minute, their biggest star and leading scorer, Abby Wambach, broke her leg ... in the final game before the Olympics. Most coaches would show just a hint of stress upon losing their leading scorer on a team that was having a difficult time scoring. But Pia did not panic. In fact, she was as calm as can be, telling the team it would be fine and adversity brought growth.

• In its opening game of those 2008 Olympics (with everyone reminding the team it was without Wambach), the U.S. gave up two goals against Norway in the first five minutes and lost 2-0. Now, let me remind you, this is after the mess of 2007, after losing Abby and the team living continuously with the pressure of comparisons to our old team of the 1990s and 2000s. Again, no panic from Pia. An opening loss was not a problem, she told the team. She preached about enjoying each game and promised there would be plenty of time left in the tournament to show the world how good the U.S. team was. The Americans went on to beat Brazil (yes, the same Brazil they had lost to the previous year) in the final to win the gold medal.

• Fast forward to the Women's World Cup qualifying tournament in October 2010. The U.S. lost to Mexico in the semifinals and was forced into an extra playoff round of home-and-home games against Italy to qualify. The U.S. had never missed a Women's World Cup; if the Americans didn't qualify, Sundhage's tenure would have been a very short one.

When asked about the way her U.S. team would have to qualify, Pia said then: "OK, we need to take a different road to the World Cup and look at it in a positive way. The glass is half full. It's been a bumpy road, but we need to enjoy it and it will take us all the way to Germany."

First, the U.S. first pulled out a 1-0 win in the first game against Italy, thanks to a goal in the 94 minute from young star Alex Morgan. Then, in what would become a common dramatic theme with this U.S. team, the Americans posted a heart-stopping 1-0 victory in the second game in Chicago to become the last team to qualify for the 2011 Women's World Cup. Pia smiled and promised the experience would make the team stronger.

• At the 2011 Women's World Cup, the U.S. lost 2-1 against Sweden in its final group game, which set up the early powerhouse U.S.-Brazil quarterfinal matchup. Playing a goal and a player down, the U.S. equalized on Wambach's incredible goal in the 122nd minute to force penalty kicks (the U.S. won 5-3 in PKs). Pia said she never doubted her team. Of course she didn't; neither did her players.

• In the Women's World Cup final, the U.S. gave up two leads against Japan, the second coming in the 115th minute, and lost the game on penalty kicks. As gut-wrenching as that loss was, Pia was gracious, smiling and congratulating Japan for its tenacity and style of play.

• I didn't think I would see another U.S. women's game rival the excitement of the Brazil-U.S. Women's World Cup quarterfinal, but it happened just one year later in a semifinal matchup against Canada at the 2012 Olympics. My goodness. The U.S. also had to come back in this match ... not once, not twice, but three times. Morgan scored the game-winner in the 123rd minute (of course) to put the Americans into the Olympic final.

These key moments help put Pia's "way" into perspective. As leaders of teams, corporations, families, countries, whatever it may be, we all strive to be calm, confident, positive leaders who try to inspire others into action. It's easy to do when times are good, but what about in moments of adversity, when there is loss, a setback and/or extreme pressure? How does a leader react? What does a leader do? Because those moments define outcomes. They are the reason a team presses on or a company bounces back. A leader's reaction to adversity says everything to me.

And here is what I know after watching Pia for five years. I know I would want Pia by my side in the trenches. I would want Pia smiling and singing as the rest of the world panics. I would want Pia telling me, "Yes, the road is bumpy, but that is what makes the road so special," when I started to doubt something in life. I would want Pia dancing from the sideline, smiling even when the team was down two goals. I would take a Pia every day in my life to remind me to smile, embrace the moment and enjoy the journey. Dang, we all need a Pia in life.

Sure, there are areas within the team she could have addressed more thoroughly; there are players she could have brought along earlier, but no one can ever question Pia's immense impact on the team's success. Every single U.S. player I spoke to after the 2012 Olympic gold-medal match told me the most special attribute about this group of players was that it didn't panic, that they love the adversity and welcome the challenge, that they enjoyed the adventure. Yes, those were the players talking, but that is Pia Sundhage to the core. She set that tone, she set their way, and the U.S. team is better because of her.

As Pia announced her departure to a sold-out Rochester crowd before the U.S.-Costa Rica friendly on Sept. 1, it seemed perfectly fitting that she busted out another Dylan song, saying "If not for you, I wouldn't be where I am ... " That may be the case, but I am certain the U.S. women's team would not be where it is today without Pia's grace and contagious energy.

Thank you for five great years, Pia. Sweden is lucky to have you back at home. I can't wait to hear what song you bust out for them in that first meeting ... and I cannot deny that I am begging for some ABBA.

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