Communicating in English wasn't always easy. But U.S. women's national team head coach Pia Sundhage says it taught her how to listen.
"I remember my first words to this team five years ago," said Sundhage, who will coach her final game Wednesday night, a friendly against Australia in Commerce City, Colo., before returning home to coach the Swedish national team. She doesn't remember exactly what she said, but, she recalled, "I remember it was hard."
Often during that first year, Sundhage would ask her players to repeat something they said to her, but to choose different words to convey the same message. "I'd say, 'Say that again,' and they would rephrase their thoughts," Sundhage said. Doing so forced the player to think more deeply about what she wanted to say, and to simplify and solidify her thoughts. The process helped Sundhage with her English, but it also provided her with a daily lesson in deeper listening.
"With Pia, we always had open communication," said U.S. team captain Christine Rampone. "In a meeting session, she always listened to everyone's viewpoint and not just to her own. She's made me look at the game in so many different ways, and because of her, I've loved the game even more."
Sundhage said this coaching tactic, while developed out of the necessity of a language barrier, is something she will take with her back to Sweden. "Even though I will understand every single word they say, I will do the same thing with the Swedish players," Sundhage said. "It's good for them to say the same thing with different words. That is one thing I've learned."
If I want to go for a challenge, I will probably, at the end of the day, stand in front of men. I don't know if they are prepared for a woman to be a coach. I know I'm prepared. But for now, I'm perfectly fine to be around successful women.” -- Pia Sundhage on considering the future challenge of coaching a men's soccer team
Pia's philosophy of open communication has extended past her players to her coaching staff, fans and the media. Although she often jokes of her struggles to express herself properly in her non-native tongue -- in April, she hired assistant coach Tony Gustafsson away from Sweden as much for his ability to communicate in Swedish as for his defensive mind -- Sundhage meets every interview with openness, candor, positivity and humor. Wanting to share her enthusiasm with her team and its fans, Sundhage often chooses to sing her thoughts because she says she's better able to express herself in song than in spoken English.
She began her first team meeting five years ago by crooning a few lines of Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are A-Changin.'" Last week, she announced she was stepping down to the tune of another Dylan song, this time, "If Not for You." She says she hasn't chosen a song for her final performance Wednesday night. Instead, it will be impromptu and from the heart.
"It's bittersweet," Sundhage said. "I've been gone for so long and I want to go home. But I will miss this team. I am a much better coach than I was five years ago. These players have made me a better coach."
Her current players say she has done the same for them.
"She brought European-style soccer to the U.S.," said Alex Morgan, who made her first national team start under Sundhage's tutelage. "We always had that USA mentality where we wanna be the strongest, fittest, fastest. But she brought more technicality to our team and we appreciate her for that. She always brought out the best in us and taught us to have fun, to always think about the positives first. She instilled that in us, so I hope we continue it."
Shannon Boxx, who has been a member of the national team since 2003, said Sundhage continually helped her to renew her fire for the game. "As I've gotten older, she's said, 'You have to have passion to want to continue to play,' and she's given me the confidence to be who I am," Boxx said. "There was a time when she said, 'I'm going to give you a different role, so you can grow as a player,' and I did. Then she realized my strengths are being a defensive midfielder and let me go back to that [position] and succeed. The confidence she had in me to try different things helped me to grow as a player."
Now Sundhage, who won two Olympic gold medals with the U.S., wants to continue to grow as a coach, starting with the Swedish women's national team on Dec. 1. After that, she says she would consider an even greater challenge: coaching men. "If I go into a locker room where it's only women's soccer, I have the status," Sundhage said. "If I go into a locker room with men, I don't have the same status. I have to earn it. If I want to go for a challenge, I will probably, at the end of the day, stand in front of men. I don't know if they are prepared for a woman to be a coach. I know I'm prepared. But for now, I'm perfectly fine to be around successful women."
No matter where she goes, Sundhage said, she will carry the lessons she has learned from her former players with her. And those players say they wish her all the luck in the world. Well, to a point.
"I'm sad she's going to coach another team," said forward Abby Wambach, whom Sundhage has often called a special player and role model. "She's a fantastic coach. We hope she gets the best second-places from here on out."