Spotlight: Heather O’Reilly

heather o'reilly

Three Olympic golds, one World Cup and domestic honours galore...

USA star Heather O’Reilly won it all during her playing career, including the World Cup and Olympics. Now, after starting her coaching pathway during her season at Arsenal, she’s aiming to carry that success into a career in management

Three Olympic golds, one World Cup and domestic honours galore – Heather O’Reilly’s trophy haul is stellar. She started out in college football at the North Carolina Tar Heels, achieved legendary status with the USA national side and played for Arsenal in the WSL. During her spell in England, Heather started her coaching badges and now a glittering career has come full circle: she’s back in North Carolina, back in the Tar Heels locker room, but no longer a player – she’s assistant coach and dreaming big. Some things never change…

When did you start to think about coaching?

In the last three to four years of my career, when I entered my 30s. I’d always been advised to get my badges while playing. There are different badges in the US and when I had my experience at Arsenal I was exposed to Uefa badges and what you guys had going on at the PFA. My goal was to educate myself as much as possible – not just to prepare for the future but because people told me that it’s beneficial to yourself as a player to see the game through a different lens.

Why do your badges in England? 

I’m just one of those people who believes in continuing education and equipping myself with as much knowledge as I can. I wanted to at least look into doing both sets of badges and, to be honest, you do run into obstacles when you’re still playing. It’s difficult to share your energy and your bandwidth when you’re playing and pursuing coaching qualifications. Some things you need to do in person and I found, besides working with the PFA, that it wasn’t easy working around playing without having to miss training. First and foremost I was a footballer so I never wanted to sacrifice missing training sessions or games.

Did your formal coaching education start in the UK?

When I was with Kansas City FC, the season before I came to Arsenal, the women’s league in America started to give some access to some female-only courses that would suit the season. I did a very early introductory badge course with my team-mates. It was optional but more than half my team did it. That was probably my very first introduction into it. Of course, I wanted to pursue my Uefa B when I got to London.

Did coaching help you think about how you played?

Yeah, definitely. In the days of a conventional 4-4-2 I played as a striker. I spent the majority of my career as an outside midfielder. My last couple of games I played right back and defeated Megan Rapinoe and Sam Kerr, which I’m not shy to puff out my chest about! A lot of players are exposed to different vantage points through their career – they are the young player, then the old player; they are the goalscorer, then the provider. I had a comprehensive career in terms of age and positional play and roles on teams. I was a young superstar and as I got older there were young superstars coming through. Because of my comprehensive vantage points, earning my coaching badges, or pursuing them, I expanded my view on the game. It helped round me out.

What did you learn about yourself?

It made me reflect on some of my good and bad experiences with managers. Also that, as a player, you’re in a vortex of worrying about yourself – and you need to be because you need to have ultimate focus on your goals. Sometimes as a player you maybe lose sight of the whole picture of what makes a team and what managers have to consider, even for things like a training session. There are lots of reasons why managers make decisions and I’ve learned a lot about that. In the last couple of years I’ve stepped outside myself and realised there are bigger things at play and you can waste energy as a player thinking about those.

How can you use this knowledge?

Well, it caused me to evaluate who some really wonderful managers were. And I think you can learn a lot from people you think are good and you think are bad. I think it’s naïve to think you can’t learn from managers you don’t get along with – what not to do, maybe. I’ve evaluated who some of these people are that I really want to keep in my life and who can be mentors going forward.

Does it make you reassess how you were coached?

I think, first and foremost, I’ve learned it is not an easy job being a coach and you are going to disappoint people. These are people’s careers at your fingertips, their dreams and ambitions. At least on the women’s side, the pinnacle of everyone’s career is to play for your national team at a World Cup. Only 23 people get to do that every four years. I appreciate it’s a stressful, difficult job rather than think about what happened to me. I realised I was a 17-year-old kid who forced out some idols of mine. I can look back on that and say ‘wow, someone really took a chance on me’.

What lessons have you taken into your coaching?

It comes down to communication and respect. There are decisions to be made and people see the game slightly differently. As long as there is a level of respect, that’s key. We always joke as players about how people change when they become a coach. They get really weird and defensive or don’t communicate. I’m trying to leave notes for myself like ‘dear Heather, do not do this.’ You forget the humanity aspect of its sometimes and maybe that’s necessary as a coach a little bit. But you never need to lose respect for people pursuing their craft – I will try to always remember that.

Was it harder to settle in England while doing your badges?

The English influence in the US is huge. Ever since I was a kid I’ve had a lot of English coaches. There are a lot of cross-cultural experiences. It’s not like I was coming from Russia or China or something. It’s like David Beckham or Steven Gerrard coming over to play in the MLS. Not to put myself in that category…

…you have more medals than Steven Gerrard!

Maybe. Who’s counting?! I wanted to check out this new frontier that’s maybe not as developed in terms of the women’s side and help build the game. I see these huge brands and huge clubs and I’m like ‘oh my god’, the FA or Arsenal have such a huge chance to completely shift the paradigm of women’s football and sport if they wanted to. If they truly believed in it. The Premier League as well. It was exciting and something I wanted to be a part of.

Was it an ambition to play in England?

I always knew I wanted to play abroad. As a US national player it wasn’t frowned upon but it was always a bit risky to go overseas because the national team had a lot of training camps and games outside of Fifa dates. I never really had the guts to leave the US because it’s a little bit out of sight, out of mind. That’s why it was the perfect end-of-career thing to do. I wanted to share my experiences, grow the game and have some life experiences myself.

The US game is kind of kept in-house…

There is a reason we have four World Cups and Olympic gold medals. Our system is not perfect but from the 90s we built our college network. The NCAA academy system is essentially one big academy. For a long time we had a leg up on other countries because we had this huge network of academies. People are protective of their system and the US is trying to figure out how to evolve, because obviously Europe is.

What are your coaching goals?

I’m in a period of my life of evaluation. I stepped off the pitch officially in October. Some days I have really high ambitions when I feel like I want to be the first female manager in the Premier League. I have these dreams. Other days I feel I should take some time away from the pitch. I’m having a baby in three months. There are other things to consider. We’ll see where it goes. I can’t see myself not being involved in football. I think in my heart of hearts I am going to be a manager but I just need a little bit of time to step away from the game and see things from a different vantage.

And some time for the players you shared a locker room with to retire?

Yeah, it’s a bit too close for comfort when you’re coaching your peers. I don’t know how Lampard and those guys do it!

Find out more about coaching..

Over 70% of PFA members have claimed a desire to stay within football when their playing days are over. 

The PFA Charity’s coaching department is focused on preparing current and former players for a secondary career within the professional game, possibly coaching or management.

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