Industry Insights

Youth Sports Leadership Development Lessons from the Women’s 1999 World Cup Champions

By Melissa Wickes
August 9, 2023
4 min

The lessons kids learn in youth sports are unmeasurable—from teamwork and sportsmanship to hard work and building confidence. As a leader in youth sports, you know your job is an important one and that the lessons you and your coaches teach your players will stick with them for life. Continuing our celebration of National Girls and Women in Sports Month, our team at LeagueApps had the pleasure of talking to Carla Overbeck and Julie Foudy—who were captain and co-captain of the Women’s National Soccer Team when they won the World Cup in 1999—to gather some youth sports leadership development lessons and insight that your organization can apply to better your teams.

The Leadership Style

When asked to describe their leadership style when they were captaining the Women’s National Soccer Team, Carla described it as “inclusive.” 

“We wanted to make sure that everyone felt wanted, needed, and had a hand in our success,” says Carla. 

When a leader creates a team where everyone has a chance to lead rather than a “top down” mentality, players will feel more motivated to take initiative. As Carla puts it, you don’t have to wear the armband to be a leader.

“Leadership comes in so many shapes and sizes,” says Julie. “It’s personal and not positional—you can lead by caring enough about something or someone to raise your hand and take that step. Sports is the greatest vehicle to teach that.”

Cultivating an inclusive environment and making everyone on the team feel important are key parts of keeping everyone motivated. Your team can create this kind of atmosphere in many different ways—Carla and Julie often hosted dinner parties and game nights for their team. They also made it a point to make their team a “place you wanted to be” and “a culture that felt like family,” both on and off the field. Life can get complicated and people deal with a lot of things. By treating the team with respect, especially when the going gets tough, you’ll see your teammates’ best performance. A big part of this culture that Carla and Julie were able to build for their team also included joy and enjoying the time they were together. 

“Team chemistry is a verb, not a noun.” said Julie. “It’s work. It was not a coincidence.”

The Common Denominators of Successful Teams

“If you look across the board at all teams that won [championships], grit was a common denominator,” says Julie. “They had a willingness to grind and compete and fight and scrap and get through it.”

Grit is a crucial part of any successful athlete. However, putting everything out on the field in every practice you play is easier said than done. That’s why it’s important to have team chemistry that allows each player to have someone next to them who can pick them up on those days they can’t bring it all on their own. When every member of the team cares about one another—and gets to know their teammates on personal levels—it’s easier to make one another better. Players (and coaches) need to take the time to peel back those personal layers of their teammates—to find out what it takes to get them to perform their best. Think about it this way (spoiler alert!): when was Roy Kent able to unleash his true potential on Ted Lasso’s soccer team? When Ted was able to get through to him on a personal level, off the field. 

Julie reminds us, when your teammates know you care about them and that you’re always being real with them, it makes those harder discussions easier to have because they know you’re coming from a good place. Ask them, “how can we help get everything out of you?”

How Can We Improve Youth Sports Today?

Youth sports look a lot different today than they did when Julie and Carla were playing and they are well aware that there are many changes that need to be made for the sake of this generation. On the one hand, the resources multiply by the day—there are so many coaches, opportunities, layers, and levels of youth sports. However, many kids are unable to play multiple sports because of the commitment just one requires these days. We’re making kids choose one sport at such a young age, rather than allowing them to be exposed to the benefits of playing many. Also, Carla and Julie’s team worked so hard to pave a path for girls and women to play but, in many ways, the change they advocated for hasn’t yet been reached.

Additionally, particularly in families with two working parents, getting kids to and from all of the practices, tournaments, clinics, games, etc. that are necessary to be a “successful” youth athlete is nearly impossible, and lower income children miss out on the chance to play. Increasing opportunities for these children is crucial.

One way LeagueApps works to increase access to youth sports in underserved communities is through FundPlay. This initiative is part of the reason Julie decided to invest in LeagueApps in the first place. 

“The thing that I always loved about LeagueApps from the beginning is not just that you’re here to service the sports industry, it’s you’re here to help the sports industry. And I really believe that,” says Julie. “…I think the power of going into a community like the South Bronx and saying, ‘hey we’re here for you’ goes a long way. But it’s just one step. So I think we need to keep telling the story of how hard it is for kids and how we want to be a catalyst to try and change that.”