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Q&A: Peninsula SC Director of Coaching Val Henderson

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 with Peninsula SC Director of Coaching Val Henderson. A former U.S. Youth international goalkeeper, Henderson played four years at UCLA before embarking on a professional career that took her to the LA Sol, Philadelphia Independence, and Atlanta Beat of the WPS and KIF Orebro in Sweden. Since retiring from the game, Henderson has worked in coaching at San Jose State and San Francisco State. The Orinda native and Lamorinda SC alum is a member of NorCal Premier Soccer’s Women’s Committee and holds a USSF A License.

NorCal: What was the youth soccer scene like for you growing up in Northern California as compared to now?

Henderson: I think one of the biggest differences was specializing early. I didn’t get into soccer until I was 12 or 13. I played baseball, basketball,  and flag football. I was on the swim team, just all sorts of different sports. I think during that time it was a lot more common to play tons of sports and not specialize.

NorCal: Do you think playing all these different sports helped you with your soccer?

Henderson: Of course it’s easy for me to say that because that was my experience. Playing all those sports certainly must have helped my overall athleticism. I’m an advocate for playing different sports, seeing all the different things that you’re interested in. I would credit some of my success. I think when you can play other sports, you figure out what you truly love and it helps you fall more deeply in love with your particular sport once you choose it.

NorCal: When did you know that you wanted to pursue soccer over the other sports?

Henderson: I think one of the turning points was in high school. I had to choose soccer or basketball because they were the same season so I had to choose which one I liked more. I still loved both sports, but I had better friends in soccer and had started getting looks from the youth national teams and had been invited to travel with soccer. There were just more exciting things going on in soccer for me.

NorCal: When did you know that you had the chance to make it at the professional level in soccer?

Henderson: A professional? Never. There wasn’t a serious professional league when I was growing up. When I was in college I always thought that it would be so cool to play in another country because there were professional or semi professional leagues in other countries at the time, but nothing in the US. There was a player who was a senior when I was a freshman who played in Sweden and I thought that was really cool so I always thought that I would take my game abroad if I was going to play after college. But then the timing worked out really well because the WPS launched my senior year, just after I had graduated, so I was able to do a semester abroad in Spain and then come right back for the draft. Playing pro in Sweden several years later closed that loop for me of getting to play abroad.

NorCal: What was it like playing in the WPS?

Henderson: My WPS experience was awesome. For LA Sol we played where the Galaxy played so the facilities were fantastic and you really felt like a pro. You could drive right into the stadium at the Home Depot Center (now Dignity Health Sports Center) and a staff member would take your keys and park your car. We would walk by the gym and see David Beckham in there lifting. It was just like, “wow, we’re doing this. We’re being paid to play.” The schedule also felt much less rigorous than when I’d been playing for UCLA. There were no classes, no papers, no Jill Ellis to report to. We had two hours of practice, a meeting, and then maybe a little bit of film and then we were at the beach in LA trying to figure out how to stay out of trouble and keep our legs fresh before the next practice or game. I think that tells you why Paul Riley in Philly had us doing double days throughout the whole season! No room for any big ideas.

NorCal: How was playing professionally different than playing in college?

Henderson: I remember thinking going in that the jump in level from UCLA to the pros wouldn’t be that severe. UCLA had been such a high-caliber level and we were competing for national titles, I didn’t think the professional league could be that much more difficult. But playing in the pros was a whole different game. There were seven teams in the whole country and only the most elite players. It felt like we were playing against Abby Wambach every weekend. Every single team had several Olympians from around the world. It was a huge step up in the level of play. I was a little 22-year-old and there were 32-year-old veterans in the league so you feel like the baby surrounded by women. After a game in the pros, we often went out to a restaurant and hung out with the opponent too. We were arch enemies on the field, but they we were all adults and socialized off the field. I thought that was really cool. I had seen that in Europe, I think some of the professional men’s and women’s clubs do the same out there.

NorCal: How did you end up in Sweden and what was that like?

Henderson: One of my teammates in Philly was Swedish and she helped connect me with a team in Sweden. I sent

Val Henderson

some film from my WPS games and they sent over a contract. Playing in Sweden was a really cool experience. I lived in a town with a castle and rode a bicycle to practice. It was all about being in another country and experiencing the culture and learning to speak a little bit of Swedish and bond with some of the other international players. But the training and competition was very different. The WPS had been so intense- every player was so fit, so aggressive, so competitive. In Sweden there was more walk through, more talking, a slower pace at sessions- it was definitely less intense, but there were some new tactical challenges introduced. It was also very different because some of the players in Sweden were students or some of them weren’t being paid very well at all versus the league in the US where everyone playing was a full-time professional.

NorCal: How did you get involved with coaching? Was this something you always looked towards during your playing career?

Henderson: I was stalling to see if the league was going to re-launch (after WPS folded) and I applied to coach at San Jose State. I got the job there and coached for a season and essentially was not ready to be a coach. Every single weekend, no matter how great I had done during the week, I didn’t get to play and I was never going to get to play because I was a coach. After that experience I ended up wanting to get as far away from soccer as I could for a bit just to re-establish my identity and my voice outside of the game. So I moved to Chile and taught English and backpacked and traveled around and worked for the US Embassy over there with some sports empowerment programs. When I came back I taught high school English for a year and got my teaching credential. I was trying to get away from soccer, but then my friend Tracy Hamm called me up and asked me to coach with her at San Francisco State and I just couldn’t turn that down. Getting to coach with her really brought my love for the game back and my love for coaching and I developed myself as a coach there and started my licensing and then stepped back fully into the club soccer scene.

NorCal: Are you still working with the NorCal women’s committee?

Henderson: Yes, though the past year things have been different because I had a baby and then there was the pandemic, but I helped run one of our Latina outreach clinics at San Jose State and have done some different women’s socials and panels and have been on calls to help advocate for women to gain leadership. I’ve been dormant in the past six months or so with my new baby, but prior to that I did a lot.

NorCal: You’re one of the few female Directors of Coaching in Northern California. How do we get more women involved in leadership positions like yours?

Henderson: We need to give young women opportunities and mentor them, which is really the long and the short of it. We need to give them chances just like you would give any coach chances — don’t expect a coach to come onto the scene and immediately be a great coach. When you’re a player you have this tremendous understanding of the game, understanding of what it’s like to be a player, you have so much good experience, but you have no experience in coaching except for maybe your leadership on the field. When I first started coaching, I had this great playing resume, but I didn’t have much experience as a coach. I needed time to grow through experience. It’s just basically investing in the development of women so I think that’s where the Women’s Committee is trying to go, looking on how to get more licensing, looking to get more mentorship. For me, as a director, when I go into the regional meetings or do things like that, there are starting to be more women sprinkled in, but it’s so few in the leadership positions. I think when you have women in leadership roles it helps, because women try to hire women, but I also think that if you have a male in a leadership role who is willing to take the time to have conversations over something and to mentor a young female coach or even an older female coach, that goes a long way. I oversee female and male coaches and I treat everybody the same, which is with respect. You want to hear from each coach and figure out what their needs are and then you want to help fill their needs and push for their goals. People talk a lot about the “boys club” and I think what keeps women out sometimes is that they look at the club and then think that they won’t be respected, versus if there were more women, they might feel more comfortable or if people went the extra mile in reaching out and just said that it would be a safe space and that if there were any questions to ask, then that would make it a great place for any coach, male or female, to work. But there has to be some extra leg work. If I post an open job, sometimes I’ll get 40 responses from male coaches and zero from women. It’s definitely easier to find a male coach than it is a female coach, so you have do the extra hunting and networking with college coaches and girls playing club. For the younger players, put it in their minds when they’re players and you create a pathway. I think a big part of it is just giving women confidence. Okay, you might not know what you’re doing yet, but neither does anybody else when they start. I think, and this is just a generalization, but maybe women have a higher propensity to doubt themselves and somehow the male coach might not even have experience playing or in the game and he feels confident enough to push through and that’s really a quality that we have to develop in women.

NorCal: There are studies about that, how if there’s a job posting that a man isn’t fully qualified for, he’ll still usually apply for it, but if a woman isn’t, they usually won’t.

Henderson: Ya that’s the article I read- if a man has two or three of the characteristics you’re supposed to have, he’ll apply, but if a woman is missing a single one, she won’t apply. I tell my players that all the time because aside from soccer, this is a life skill. You fake it till you make it and then you get in front of somebody and you learn. People aren’t expected to have all the skills that they need before they’ve ever done the job. You have to grow on the job.

NorCal: Is there anything else that you’d like to add?

Henderson: In general, to comment on women’s professional soccer then versus now, I’m just thrilled that there is a stable women’s professional league where even women I’ve played with are continuing to train their butts off and have fantastic careers. The quality of soccer is building, it’s just really exciting to see it continue to grow. You can watch male players and you can watch female players and both can be exciting. Also- for mom’s in coaching: I’m just starting to navigate this road, but it can be done. You can be a great coach and a great mom- you can be there for your teams and for your own kids. I’m excited for this next journey of coaching in motherhood, and like with everything else, I’m going to learn as I go!