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Q & A: Pleasanton RAGE Director of Coaching Erin Sharpe

Note: NorCal Premier Soccer regularly sits down with an influential figure in the youth soccer landscape to pick their brain about a variety of different topics that are relevant in the current soccer environment in the United States. For this edition, we spoke to Pleasanton RAGE Director of Coaching Erin Sharpe. After a successful playing career at Santa Clara University where Sharpe won a NCAA title in 2001, Sharpe went onto play in Switzerland for a year before returning to the US, where she has coached at both the youth and collegiate levels. The Fresno native earned her USSF A License in 2017 and also currently serves as a coach in NorCal’s Player Development Program and is the Chair of NorCal’s Women’s Committee.

NorCal: From when you were growing up compared to now, how has youth development changed, especially on the women’s side of the game?

Sharpe: There’s a lot more structure and considerably more opportunities. I played for some great teams in Fresno, but there wasn’t really much of a club structure or club culture at that time. This existed for a few clubs around the country, the powerhouses, but other than that, it really was just teams that were seemingly operating independently. Today more clubs have a Director of Coaching and other program leaders that work to develop players throughout the club with a common methodology and curriculum.  We have more professional coaches who are invested in continuing education. And the interest in women’s soccer exploded with the US winning the Women’s World Cup in 1999, which lead to a dramatic increase in the number of girls that are playing the sport. So there is more access, more quality in playing opportunities and a lot more interest.

NorCal: What was it like playing in Switzerland?

Sharpe: I went the year after I graduated from college. I wanted an opportunity to live overseas and experience another culture. In truth, the level was not as high as the level in which I was playing at Santa Clara. And at that time, the college game was nowhere near as strong as it is these days in terms of parity. In those days, there were very few teams that had a realistic shot at winning a national championship, and I was blessed to play for a program that had incredibly talented players, many of whom played on US youth and senior national teams.  So for me to go over to Switzerland, the level was lower than what I had previously experienced, but it was still a good level. The former captain of the Swiss National team was on my team, so we certainly had talented players, but it was really more an opportunity for me to experience another soccer and overall culture. I would have loved to have stayed longer but financially it made more sense for me to come back to the states and get a higher paying job.

NorCal: Did you explore trying to play in the WUSA?

Sharpe: I really didn’t look at that seriously. The majority of my teammates ended up going that route, but I knew that if I had, the playing time wouldn’t have been there so it made more sense for me to go somewhere else. WUSA was an 8 team league and by far the best in the world when there were far fewer women’s leagues. The goalkeepers that saw action had considerable youth or full national team experience from federations around the world.  I was drawn to the idea of living in Europe and experiencing another culture while also being able to play.

NorCal: Would your decision have been any different if there was a more established league like we have now with the NWSL?

Sharpe: Well, there’s only one more team in the NWSL than there was in the WUSA 17 years ago.  Even though there’s more financial strength in the league today with the backing of the US and Canadian Federations, unfortunately there are only 9 teams in the entire NWSL. There would certainly be more opportunities for women to explore playing in this country if the league and salaries were bigger. But fortunately there are more opportunities to play at the highest level with the addition of and improvement of leagues overseas too.

NorCal: What does the pathway to professional soccer for a young, female player look like right now? Is that considered the goal, or do most up and coming athletes strive for the college game?

Sharpe: For more girls and young women, the goal is to play in college as there are so many more opportunities and programs. And the women’s collegiate system in this country is an exceptional level.  I do think that professional soccer is becoming more realistic for more women, but getting a college degree first is also important for most as there isn’t a guarantee of longevity or considerable money in the professional game. Our pathway also includes the WPSL and UWS, our second division leagues which are continuing to grow. But again, more opportunities are also becoming available in the growing international leagues and their increasing resources. There is definitely much more opportunity to play professionally or semi-professionally today than there was when I graduated from college. But, we still need to grow the size of our top division domestic league, as well as the opportunity to make a living wage as a professional player.  There are a lot of people committed to growing the league but we have a lot of financial hurdles we need to overcome.

NorCal: You’ve been to Europe several times to observe the development of the women’s game. With the recent rise of international programs that have challenged the United States like Spain and the Netherlands, do you think youth development here is still on the right path?

Sharpe: We always need to continue to improve, without question. But I do think we’re on the right path of continuing to grow our player base and develop and challenge our players in new ways that are continuously evolving. I think the bigger picture here shows the parity that exists in the game now due to the commitment that more of the world is finally making to girls’ and women’s soccer.  We were ahead of the curve compared to most of the rest of the world in terms of creating opportunities for our women and now they’re finally catching up. They’re pumping resources into the women’s game and therefore they’re closing the gap. We need to continue to evolve, and a big way that we need to do this is in the way of equal pay for our national team players. Given how far ahead we were in terms of creating opportunities through title IX for example, we are long overdue in doing the right thing in having our federation pay our senior team women what they deserve.  We are World Champions and should lead by example in this realm as well. Our Federation has an opportunity to effect a lot of change and influence the world of football through equitable compensation at the national team level. At the club level, some European programs have surpassed the NWSL in terms of what they are paying their women. This is a function of investments by their clubs that have huge financial strength from the men’s teams, and the fact that soccer is more ingrained in their culture to the point that for these power clubs, they draw more attendance to their women’s games than what we do in NWSL games. This is where we need to step up as a soccer community in this country and not only support our national team, but support the greater women’s game by attending and watching more NWSL matches as well.

NorCal: How are things going at Pleasanton RAGE?

Sharpe: Things have gone very well in my first 8 months with the club. Clearly we’re in uncharted waters right now with the COVID-19 situation, but I’m pleased with our development throughout the year, some new programming that we’ve added and our commitment to our mission. As an all-girls club, it’s very much about empowering young women and providing growth through service, leadership and soccer opportunities. We’re committed to developing the complete person by providing holistic growth opportunities for our players.

NorCal: Given our current COVID-19 situation, what are some things that you are doing right now to continue your youth player development?

Sharpe: We’ve set up a structure which allows us to interact with our players and assist with development in the technical, tactical, physical, and psychological areas to the best of our abilities. We’re using Google Classroom for the majority of this program and through it, we’re giving players assignments in those four areas on days that we would have had training or a game. We’re just trying to recreate that regular interaction that we would have otherwise had on the field. So we’ve given our players homework assignments to complete on these days, and our coaches are giving them feedback based on this. For example, we’ve given them fitness and technical assignments and they upload videos of themselves completing these challenges. Our coaches are able to then assess and give constructive feedback. The big thing for me is that in addition to team training, coaches everywhere have always asked players to commit time to the game on their own to help take their abilities to the next level. Specifically, we’ve always asked players to watch more soccer and spend more time developing a relationship with the ball on their own. So I see this as a real opportunity to commit more time to teaching them how to do that, and hopefully the time they spend with the ball will breed more creativity and a deeper love for the game. They’re going to get into the habit of spending more time with the ball, be it in their backyard, their driveway, sidewalk or other places they can maximize their touches in a tight space. In terms of watching more soccer, every weekend we have a match analysis assignment which is in lieu of the game that they would have otherwise played. It’s obviously guided and there are specific things that we ask them to look for, but we see this as an opportunity to really develop their soccer IQ given the added time they now have to watch high-level soccer. So far, we have been analyzing games from the SheBelieves Cup, which ended shortly before we started sheltering in place.

NorCal: What are you guys doing to keep your players in good spirits right now?

Sharpe: The interaction that we have with our players beyond soccer specific topics is the most important right now. Our coaches check-in with our players and set-up weekly team video conferencing calls to allow the girls to have face time with each other. This is about bonding and having fun on the call above all else. It’s so critical to help maintain the mental health of our players in these uncertain times.  But as I said earlier, we are also committed to developing the psychological aspects of the game at this time too. A big part of this is mental skills and leadership training. We had actually partnered with the Julie Foudy Leadership Academy before the COVID-19 crisis and we were going to kick that partnership off with a camp that we were going to host, and still hope to host in July.  However, we have now kicked that off earlier and had our first conference call with Julie and the club on Thursday. Julie put us through some great exercises to look at ways that we can flip our mindset to see positives in otherwise negative adjectives and phrases. We discussed qualities of leaders in adverse times and the opportunities that we now have to build deeper bonds with our friends, teammates and colleagues. We have more time to work on these connections and to a degree, slow down from the rat race that we are typically a part of.  This is a great time for us to lean on each other and come together to strengthen our communities.