Tom Sermanni, the new U.S. women's national team coach, is a 58-year-old native of Glasgow, Scotland, who has coached men (in the Japanese J-League and elsewhere) and women (in the WUSA pro league and on Australia's national team, leading the Matildas to three World Cups). And in his 24 years of coaching he has learned plenty about the similarities and differences in managing male and female athletes, as he explained during a half-hour phone conversation this week after taking the U.S. job.
"I don't have any different expectations in the actual coaching," Sermanni said. "When I walk on a soccer field, the coaching session I'll put on for a female team at the elite level wouldn't be any different from the session I'll put on for a male team. But you do have to manage female athletes differently. The communication aspect is probably the biggest single factor that is different.
"The big thing is female athletes will actually listen to what you say, almost to a fault at times trying to follow what you say. They'll remember a conversation you've had with them six, eight, 10 months ago, and they'll remember parts of a conversation when you then contradict yourself another nine months down the line. What I find with female athletes is I have to be really thoughtful in how you communicate with them and be as specific as possible. And also point out when you're coaching them as many potential options as possible."
"That need for feedback and communication is more significant in female athletes than in male athletes," Sermanni continued. "The average male athlete wouldn't care less if he didn't speak to you from Monday to Friday as long as he's in the team on Saturday. But if he's not in the team on Saturday, he's going to be extremely upset and want to come into your office and find out why he's not in the team."
In both his teleconference with national media and in our phone conversation afterward, Sermanni came across as a guy who thinks a lot about how he communicates, whether it's with individuals or with groups, tailoring his message and his delivery to the recipients. No two players are the same in Sermanni's world, and he feels like you have to reach them in different ways, always keeping in mind what is best for the team as a whole.
It goes without saying that there are some sizable personalities on the U.S. women's team. In fact, I'd argue that Hope Solo, Alex Morgan and Abby Wambach are probably bigger celebrities in America than any U.S. men's player at the moment. How Sermanni connects with them and others will be paramount, especially in light of the extensive behind-the-scenes management that's required on this highly successful team, according to the details of Solo's recent book.
Whether Sermanni is successful as the new leader of the most prominent women's sports team in the United States will depend on how he manages his players off the field and how he coaches the team on the field, which are two completely different things. From a management perspective, one of the phrases that came up from players who reacted positively to his hiring was that he would not be afraid to "crack the whip" with the team. But when I informed Sermanni and asked him what he thought that meant, he had an intriguing response.
"I'm really a big softie," he joked. "I wish I had one of those voices that took paint off the dressing room walls, but I don't. I'm not an in-your-face kind of coach. But I'm prepared to make decisions that I think need to be made. Hopefully, I've got a reputation of being honest with players. Part of being honest with players is actually giving them bad news as well as good news. The key thing for me is high standards. Once you walk onto a soccer field, your standard of practice has got to be high. I don't just talk about working hard and effort. I talk about the quality of how you go about your soccer. That's really important to me."
In his teleconference, Sermanni talked about having similar soccer goals to the ones his predecessor, Pia Sundhage, had: Namely, for the U.S. to start playing with more technical skill and "positive possession" while maintaining advantages in power, speed and athleticism. But he also said the U.S. gets a bit of a bad rap, that "this U.S. team is actually a good footballing team with gifted players."
I made sure to ask him in our one-on-one interview which players he was referring to. "[Megan] Rapinoe. [Tobin] Heath. Morgan. Wambach. [Carli] Lloyd. [Shannon] Boxx," he told me. "Good footballer, great passer. That's off the top of my head. I don't usually mention names, because there will be a player missed out there who's saying, 'He doesn't think I'm technically very good.' If I look at those six, those are all players that can really play. Those are six off the top of my head."
A few other things stood out from our phone talk:
• Sermanni plans to hire American assistants. "I have no intention of bringing in any coaches from overseas," he said. "It's important that U.S. coaches are involved with the U.S. national team." And as for U.S. Soccer choosing its second straight non-American head coach? "I can understand there being some dismay at that, if you like," he said. "I don't know which other coaches were in the frame for this position, and I know some outstanding coaches in this country. But the reality with soccer is that it's now a global game, and coaches come from all sorts of countries."
• Sermanni thinks female coaches should be given more opportunities. "If you speak to players, players generally don't care about gender. They just want whoever is hopefully the best person for the job," he said. "However, I do think in the women's game it's important moving forward that more female coaches are encouraged to coach at a higher level. The employer -- U.S. Soccer or any other federation -- has a degree of responsibility to help in the development of female coaches and to give females opportunity."
• Would Sermanni be comfortable building his attack around a 35-year-old Abby Wambach at World Cup 2015? "It depends how good the 35-year-old player is," he said. "It's not an age thing. Abby is in world football one of the most dominant players. If you'd ask any defenders who they don't want to play against, she'd probably be the No. 1 player on the list. ... Ultimately, I want to take the best team available to the next World Cup. So if Abby is 35, and she is as dominant as she is at present, she'll certainly be part of the plans going forward."
• Sermanni plans on basing himself in the Los Angeles area, where he can have an office at the Home Depot Center.
• No team in the history of soccer, men's or women's, has ever won a World Cup with a foreign coach. Sundhage came within three minutes of doing so at World Cup 2011, but the U.S. ended up losing to Japan on penalties. "I think it's just a curious bit of trivia, to be honest," said Sermanni, "but I would like to be the first!"
He'll get his chance when the next World Cup takes place in Canada in three years that will pass by faster than you'd think.