Pia Sundhage: U.S. women’s soccer’s other VIP


Pia Sundhage coached the U.S. women’s soccer team through their 2012 London Olympics run. (Martin Meissner/AP)

Alex Morgan. Abby Wambach. Hope Solo. They may be the stars of the U.S. women’s soccer team.

But any list of team VIPs also has to include coach Pia Sundhage. The former player for the Swedish national team, who has coached the U.S. women’s national team since 2007, has led her team not only to the Women’s World Cup finals but now a second Olympic gold medal.

With successes like those, one might imagine Sundhage to be your garden-variety high-intensity sideline stalker associated with so many team sports. Instead, Sundhage has been called “more laid-back than any coach I have ever had” by goalkeeper Hope Solo. Her approach to life is “glass half-full to the max,” midfielder Heather O’Reilly has said. She favors a “loose and relaxed environment,” in the words of one sportswriter, and has focused on helping her team learn to have fun again.


View Photo Gallery: Pro athletes on what motivates their best performance

Soccer is a game after all, isn’t it? Sundhage seems focused on making sure her players remember that. She breaks out into song in news conferences (with a pretty good voice, I might add). She plays the guitar for her players: Her first team meeting involved her rendition of Bob Dylan’s "The Times They Are A-Changin'."

Her coaching style is similarly low-key. Known for positive reinforcement, constructive criticism and her upbeat, unflappable demeanor, Sundhage is the polar opposite of your sideline-charging, red-faced coach shouting invectives at her players. While some may question the Twitter rant of goalkeeper Hope Solo, Sundhage took a laissez-faire approach. “We had a conversation: If you look at the women's national team, what do you want (people) to see? What do you want them to hear?” the Associated Press reported Sundhage as saying. “I don’t punish people,” she added.

Whether or not you think that’s the right approach, Sundhage knows how to bring her team together. After Solo criticized former head coach Greg Ryan for benching her in the 2007 World Cup semifinals, she was ostracized by her teammates. Sundhage knew how vital a good goalkeeper was to the team, and asked Solo’s teammates “not to forget but to forgive.” Before long, a group of women once known for being divided became known for a willingness to share credit and play like a team.

Finally, Sundhage is known for holding her team’s game to the highest of ethical standards. Players know she won’t tolerate the feigned injuries that are part of the game for some. And she was emphatic that she would never try not to win (as Japan’s coach did to avoid having his team travel) out of respect for the game: "Absolutely not. Never ever crossed my mind.”

Sundhage’s potent mix of high ethics, team-building prowess and a calm, fun approach to the game may be just as crucial to the U.S. team’s success as Hope Solo’s goalkeeping or Alex Morgan’s scoring. It might not work for every team. But it’s hard to argue with Sundhage’s success.

More from On Leadership:

Photos | Meet the U.S. soccer team

Rundown of the game between U.S. and Japan

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@post_lead | @jenamcgregor | @lily_cunningham

Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
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