The tao of USWNT coach Emma Hayes, who ‘picks winning over everything else’

by Admin
The tao of USWNT coach Emma Hayes, who ‘picks winning over everything else’

Twenty-two years later, the details are fuzzy; but to Emma Hayes, the dilemma was clear. In the summer of 2002, at age 25, she was a rookie coach with an underperforming star — a star who doubled as her boss.

In fact, Kim Wyant was the reason Hayes had her job. Wyant, coaching on an adjacent field in 2001, had overheard the charismatic Brit commanding a practice. She recruited Hayes to join the Long Island Lady Riders, a “female-first” amateur club; 90% of the gig, Wyant says, covered local camps and clinics, plus community engagement. The other 10% — three nighttime training sessions and one match per week — would be as head coach of the Lady Riders women’s team.

Wyant, 37, who led the club’s “camps and clinics” division by day, had been deputizing in the head coach role by night. But she wanted to return to playing goalkeeper, which she’d previously done for the U.S. women’s national team.

So up stepped Hayes, to helm a motley crew of current and former college players, some several years her senior. Some would come to training from 9-to-5 jobs; others were borderline kids. Hayes, admittedly “clueless” but unfazed, led them to the top of the USL W-League’s Eastern Division. And somewhere along the way, she confronted the dilemma, which she recounted years later in a video interview entitled “How to drop your star player.”

“My goalkeeper, and my boss, was not playing very well,” Hayes said.

So she benched her. Wyant resisted. Hayes held firm.

Wyant, after what she remembers as respectful dialogue, accepted the decision — then eventually won back her starting spot.

And this, they both agree, was an early chapter in what Wyant calls “a wonderful story.”

“Emma,” Wyant says, “can truly say she’s seen [women’s soccer] from the ground up, at the bare-knuckles minimum to what we’re experiencing today.”

Hayes climbed the sport’s ladder, all the way to the top of England’s WSL, and now to the USWNT. She inspired a movement at Chelsea; she built a semi-pro team into a trophy-winning machine. Now, she’s tasked with restoring a fallen superpower. Her first game was a 4-0 win over South Korea; her second is Tuesday.

And perhaps, as she guides the U.S. toward the Olympics and beyond, she’ll draw upon the lessons learned throughout her “bottom-up” journey.

“If you want to be in this business, you have to make tough decisions,” Hayes said of her takeaway from the 2002 episode.

And sometimes — not all the time — you have to “pick winning over everything else.”

Emma Hayes was born and raised in central London, and enchanted, like so many British kids, by football. She’d play with her two sisters, Rebecca and Victoria. She’d play in cages, or on family vacations at the beach. She’d play with boys at primary school. She jumped to a local club, then rose through Arsenal’s academy. She’d play wherever she could — until she couldn’t.

Around age 17, after damaging her ankle on a ski trip, she had to stop.

For months, perhaps years, she was “devastated, heartbroken,” her sisters wrote. She went off to college in Liverpool, studying Europe and Spanish and sociology. She later went after a master’s degree in intelligence and international affairs. Her intention, she has said, was to work in counter intelligence; to become a spy. “I wanted to work for the United Nations,” she added on a recent podcast. “I wanted to become a peacekeeper.”

But football always pulled at her. So did her dad, Sid, who loved the sport. “He attended football all over the world, often as a ticket tout — but he would watch all the games too,” Emma recalled. And as his daughter explored coaching, he phoned her from the United States, during either the 1996 Olympics or the 1999 Women’s World Cup. “Emma,” he said, after describing the crowds and the buzz, “you’ve got to move to America. This is where it’s at.”

In 2001, she did. She came first to work at Major League Soccer camps. She eventually hopped all over Greater New York, coaching, learning, and earning to stay afloat. Wyant found her instructing a group of young boys in Stony Brook. Hayes took charge of the Lady Riders’ W-League team in 2002, in addition to her other responsibilities at the club. And then, according to Hayes, after reaching the conference final and being named coach of the year in her very first season, she got “fired.”

“It was a really tough thing to go through at that age,” Hayes said in the Coaches’ Voice video years ago. “And it really affected me.” (Wyant declined to comment on the reasons for or nature of Hayes’ departure.)

“But it equally,” Hayes said, “was the start of a journey that has taken me to where I am now.”

There were “huge learnings, and huge mess-ups all at once,” she’d later tell the “Game Changers” podcast. “And without them, I don’t know where I’d be.”

She landed, in 2003, at Iona College. It took her nine months, she said in a recent interview, to get paid. “I took the job with no salary at first in exchange for Iona helping me with my work papers,” Hayes told ESPN. She still remembers “fighting to stay in the country on different visas,” and “wondering: ‘Am I gonna get enough to pay rent?’ … ‘What am I gonna do next?’”

After three more years of grinding — of sleeping on couches while on recruiting trips, and reshaping a cellar-dweller into an above-average NCAA team — Hayes moved back to London. From there, after a couple years at Arsenal coaching academy girls and assisting the women’s team, she returned to the U.S. to lead the nascent Chicago Red Stars. She was charged with “building a franchise from scratch” — and with blending a combustible mix of well-known players (including Carli Lloyd, Megan Rapinoe, Cristiane, Lindsay Tarpley and Karen Carney) with recent college grads on salaries in the region of $10,000.

And Hayes struggled. They finished sixth out of seven in Women’s Professional Soccer’s inaugural season. As they sputtered to another sixth-place finish in Year 2, Hayes got sacked. And for weeks, she said, she cried.

She stayed connected to soccer in advisory roles, but moved back home to work for the family business. In or around 2011, she helped her dad’s company, Covent Garden FX, a currency exchange, venture into the digital age. She’d get the occasional call about a coaching job; but she took some time away, to let her latest setback stew.

It was during the 2012 London Olympics, after sitting with Dad at Wembley for the women’s soccer gold-medal final, that she decided to dive back in. Five days later, she was the new manager at Chelsea Ladies.

And it was there, over 12 storybook years, that she applied the wisdom derived from her failures in Chicago. It was there, at Chelsea, that she “built everything,” as former player Katie Chapman said. And it was there that she refined the approach and methods that will now shape the USWNT.

United States women's national head coach Emma Hayes directs her players during the second half of an international friendly soccer match against South Korea, Saturday, June 1, 2024, in Dick's Sporting Goods Park in Commerce City, Colo. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Emma Hayes directs her U.S. players during the second half of her debut game against South Korea. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

It was mid-September, 2019, when downcast Chelsea players trudged into a meeting room. They had slumped to third place in the WSL several months earlier; they’d ended the 2018-19 season trophyless. Now, they’d opened a new campaign with a sluggish 1-0 win, then a disappointing draw at Brighton. Their manager fumed, and gathered them to deliver a message.

“Some of you ain’t been good enough!” Hayes roared, her eyes boring into theirs. “We expect more. You should expect more. So many of you were s***. Felt like déjà vu from last year.”

“This is f***ing Chelsea,” she continued moments later. “We demand a lot from this environment. … I have to say to you: get better, or I’ll get someone else in.”

She can speak like that, though, and challenge her players, because she also tries to care for them on a deeply personal level. She prioritizes their health. She gives them roses or sends them cards. She once canceled a training session to discuss and teach them about Brexit, because some were worried. She cracks jokes, and opens her heart, and offers a shoulder on which to cry or lean. “She’s quite the character,” Chelsea and USWNT forward Catarina Macario said — and also “very supportive.”

Inevitably, her triumphs and faults have been and will be picked apart tactically. She is, after all, a soccer coach with a wealth of experience and a “framework,” a “methodology,” and “principles” that underpin how her teams play. But U.S. Soccer is not paying $1.6 million annually for a style or system. It is paying for a flexible coach and, perhaps above all, for a human who manages players as fellow humans. Hayes, for example, has become friendly with South Carolina women’s basketball coach Dawn Staley — in part because “it’s the same job,” Hayes said. “It’s a different sport, but Dawn’s experiences of managing her athletes to be something beyond an athlete really resonated with me.”

And, by all accounts, although she can be cutthroat and authoritative, Hayes is not an autocrat. She wrote and recorded an audiobook, entitled “Kill The Unicorn,” in part to debunk the myth of the all-powerful leader who’s “able to solve any problem.”

“The reality is that the most effective modern institutions — and the best sports teams — have a multi-disciplinary, multi-functional approach,” she said. She engages specialists in a variety of fields so that she, as head coach, has “the capability to assess my players on a number of levels. I need to be aware of the physiological, biomechanical, psychological, medical and nutritional issues that can limit their impact.”

And she solicits player input. “I value everyone’s opinions,” she said at a roundtable with reporters last week. As matches approach, she’ll even ask players: “Is there anything I’ve missed? Is there anything else that needs clarifying?” Once there isn’t, in theory, the players feel accountable for whatever happens over 90 minutes.

Sometimes, her psychological ploys can be unconventional. Ahead of a Champions League semifinal, she showed players a video of a UFC fighter repeating to herself, “I’m the best.” She has brought in Holocaust survivors to meet with players. She has spoken about geese. She has referenced the Tate Modern museum’s ‘Babel’ tower. After she shoved Arsenal coach Jonas Eidevall in March, in response to the controversy that followed, she recited the last four lines of a Robert Frost poem.

And she loves a good motto or slogan. “No cutting corners” is one. Another, on the need to constantly evolve, which perhaps speaks to her challenge with the USWNT, is: “What got us here won’t get us there.”

COMMERCE CITY, COLORADO - JUNE 01: United States head coach Emma Hayes  shakes hands with Trinity Rodman #22 during the second half against the Korea Republic at Dick's Sporting Goods Park on June 01, 2024 in Commerce City, Colorado. (Photo by Brad Smith/ISI Photos/USSF/Getty Images)COMMERCE CITY, COLORADO - JUNE 01: United States head coach Emma Hayes  shakes hands with Trinity Rodman #22 during the second half against the Korea Republic at Dick's Sporting Goods Park on June 01, 2024 in Commerce City, Colorado. (Photo by Brad Smith/ISI Photos/USSF/Getty Images)

Emma Hayes shakes hands with Trinity Rodman during the second half of the USWNT’s 4-0 win over South Korea. (Photo by Brad Smith/ISI Photos/USSF/Getty Images) (Brad Smith/ISI Photos/USSF via Getty Images)

Hayes felt torn about leaving Chelsea. And in many ways, when U.S. Soccer came calling in September, it was “the wrong time, on a personal level,” she says, for this dream job to come about. Her father, Sid, 82, was in the final stages of a losing battle with lung cancer. When U.S. sporting director Matt Crocker called to arrange an interview, Hayes told him: “My head is in the wrong place.”

“My dad was dying,” Hayes explains in a forthcoming book, “and I couldn’t be anywhere else but by his side.”

A month later, though, and a couple weeks after Sid died, she recalled some of his final words.

“If you get the chance, girl, you’re gonna go,” Dad told daughter from his deathbed, referring to the USWNT opportunity. “You’ll take it, won’t ya.”

So Hayes jetted to New York in early October. In her suite at a “posh” hotel overlooking Fifth Avenue, Hayes writes in the book, U.S. Soccer welcomed her with a “lovely message” and a “gift box crammed with treats.” The following morning, she chugged through a grueling interview process that, at one point, during an exploration of her personal journey, “had me in intermittent fits of tears, since the death of my dad was still so raw.”

Later that month, U.S. Soccer executives met with her again in London. They’d already offered her the job. Now they offered their vision and a record-smashing salary.

Hayes still felt conflicted. She felt committed to Chelsea. She didn’t want to disrupt her 5-year-old son, Harry, midway through his school year. And most of all, she says, she couldn’t leave her “heartbroken” mom.

But she also felt valued, and energized. And she knew that the USWNT might never come calling again. So she chose to take the leap, after U.S. Soccer agreed to defer her start date.

From November through May, after accepting the job, she worked almost exclusively “in the background.” But she did fly to South Florida in late November, and, for the first time, convened her entire player pool at the team hotel. She invited some players who’d been excluded from her first roster to join virtually. “Not a single person was absent,” Hayes writes in her book.

She began with a “hype video.” It featured Tracy Chapman’s “Talkin’ Bout a Revolution.” And then a new slogan: “New Identity. New History. New Heights.”

She asked the players to help define that “new identity.” She spoke to them about qualities she values, and about culture. She also challenged them. And, she writes in her book, to convey that their mission was bigger than themselves, she “confronted them with the wise words of Oglala Lakota Chief Henry Standing Bear” — though the quote appears to actually come from a fictional character in a 2010s TV show who goes by the same name:

“The first warrior looked out at the land that was his home. He saw the hills and the stars, and he was happy. For giving him his home, the first warrior told the Great Spirit that he would fight and win many battles in his honor. But the Great Spirit said, ‘No, do not fight for me. Fight for your tribe, fight for the family born to you, fight for the sisters you find. Fight for them, for they are your home.’”

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