Friday 27 January 2023, 03:00

When Pia met Tracey: an enriching encounter

  • Pia Sundhage visited Tracey Kevins for five days in Los Angeles

  • Both are part of the second edition of FIFA’s Women's Coach Mentorship Programme

  • The programme has changed my life," Kevins exclaimed

In May last year, when English-born US U-20 women's national team head coach Tracey Kevins – who has been working stateside since 2017 - found out who would be her mentor during the second edition of FIFA’s Coaching Mentorship Programme, she memorably confessed: "I was going to be ecstatic with whoever I was assigned to, but secretly, I was hoping it would be Pia.”

Understandably so. Pia Sundhage, a two-time Olympic champion with the USA and now Brazil's senior national team coach, is one of the most experienced coaches on the planet. She was also a mentor in the first edition of the programme that FIFA launched in 2018 as part of its strategy for the development of women's football.

Tracey Kevins, coach of USA, speaks with Lauren Flynn

Nearly 10 months after that confession and several online meetings later, Kevins hosted Sundhage in person in Los Angeles during a micro-training camp for her U-20 team. There, from 20 to 24 January, apprentice and mentor shared five enriching days.

"Having the opportunity to reflect at the end of each day, to ask questions about certain activities or things you do, it's been exciting. I didn't want it to end (laughs). Even after the camp we were able to dive more into tactical issues or watch videos, sharing experiences and learning, it's been amazing," Kevins said this week. "I wasn't around when Pia was in charge here (at US Soccer), but everyone praises her openness and transparency, and how much she wants to give back to women's football coaches. But until you're on the other side and experience it, you don't fully understand it. It's not easy to put into words how impactful this experience has been for me. I have done many courses, but nothing like this.

"Coming back here, where I arrived in 2008, has been a luxury. I think I'm the lucky one," Sundhage said. "Not just the opportunity to come back to Los Angeles and meet American players again, but to see Tracey coaching. She's brilliant, and I even get a chance to question myself. I've learned from her.

"Openness is one of the keys to the programme," said the 62-year-old Swede, who has been Brazil's coach since mid-2019. "It's about opening doors and sharing ideas, but it's up to you to decide whether you go in or not. When I see Tracey coaching her U20s, it's a teaching moment. I reflect on how I do things; I ask myself questions that lead me to the next question. Following her closely is phenomenal.”

FIFA's programme aims to develop and empower a new generation of female coaches based on the personalised support of a mentor, but what qualities are key to enhancing the skills of the mentees?

"I don't dare to generalise, everyone has their own particularities," said Sundhage. "In my case, it's because of three things. First, I know my strengths and weaknesses. So, I try to do more of what I do well, and my coaching staff is key to that, as I would be useless on my own. Secondly, having the courage to say "yes", to accept opportunities. And thirdly, the importance of listening. Before, I spoke, and the players listened. Now it's the other way around, I listen to what they have to tell me. That has been crucial.”

Head Coach, Tracey Kevins of USA line up for the anthem prior to the FIFA U-20 Women's World Cup Costa Rica 2022 group D match

The role of a coach as an educator or trainer has also been a topic of conversation between the two. "Football is not a game of the coaches, but of the players. That's why the first question we ask them is 'what do you think about this, what do you see?' The important thing we bring to the table is to improve their decision-making, and instead of coming to the national team with an obligation to prove themselves, that they can improve themselves," Kevins explained.

Kevins was part of a historic milestone at the FIFA U-20 Women's World Cup Costa Rica 2022: for the first time at a FIFA tournament, there were more female coaches than male coaches (9 out of 16 participating countries).

"In my early days there were hardly any female coaches, but that is finally changing," Sundhage said. "I used to say it was a waste of knowledge that so many great players and women didn't continue to contribute to the development of women's football. Today, as it is growing so fast, the opportunities are there. And there are great role models, like Tracey.”

Brazil Women's national team Head Coach Pia Sundhage during the Coach Mentorship Programme Workshop

Kevins agreed with her mentor. "The key is to keep giving opportunities, and how to empower each other. As women, we learned to think that maybe there isn't room for everyone at the top, but there is. And the proof is the new generation of female coaches around the world. "This week, at a lunch, we noticed that at the table we were two head coaches, but also the assistants and the goalkeeper coach were women. I feel that this week has been beneficial for all of them, because they have also been able to talk to Pia and ask her questions.” As the end of their five-day get-together drew to a close, we asked Tracey to sum up the experience. "Having Pia here, who has seen and done everything in women's football, and is even participating in this programme for the second time in a World Cup year, has been very powerful. I thank her and FIFA, because the programme has changed my life.”