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Commencement remarks of women's national soccer coach Jill Ellis '88

  • Jill Ellis '88:
    Jill Ellis '88:  The head coach of the World Cup-winning U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team spoke at W&M's 2016 Commencement ceremony May 14.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
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The following is Jill Ellis' 2016 Commencement address at William & Mary. Ellis, an alumna of the university, is the head coach of the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team - Ed.

Thank you Mr. Chancellor, Mr. Rector, Mr. President, honorable faculty and distinguished guests for this truly remarkable honor. It is great to be back in the 'burg. 

First, let me congratulate the team behind the team: Family, friends and faculty. Let’s give you guys huge props and a big thank you for all your support of this enthusiastic and, for sure, now smarter, group of students. Graduates, let’s thank your support team.

Ok, now to the All-Stars. Congratulations to the graduating class of 2016! Today is a tremendous accomplishment. You have successfully navigated the rigors of academia at the college of knowledge, and in doing so you are now forever linked to one of oldest, and most prestigious, learning institutions in the world.

Well done.

{{youtube:medium|GOcAFXM45J4, Jill Ellis delivers the 2016 commencement speech.}}
When I was asked to be the Commencement speaker my first reaction was, "Really? C'mon. Me?" I chase balls around a field for a living. I mean, William & Mary has had Supreme Court justices, presidents, prime ministers, a queen, secretaries of state ... and now a soccer coach? 

So, needless to say, I was a little intimidated to stand here where so many notables have stood. But, then, my competitive nature took over, and I said, “You know, I have done something that those speakers have not; I graduated from the College of William & Mary."

I have Tribe Pride. I have walked Crim Dell, studied in Tucker, barfed in Dupont, crammed at Swem – on the third floor no less – chugged at Paul’s and chowed at the Cheese Shop. I am proudly one of you, and I am thrilled to be a part of your special day. So much so, we are gonna do a selfie now.

Let's get that posted now.

Ok, I confess, I don’t recall what my Commencement speaker spoke about at my graduation, so I refuse to be one of a long line of forgotten graduation-day messages. 

So I will start and finish with two words: Be bold! I really want these to stick, so let’s all say them again – together – on three. One, two, three: Be bold! There it is, your takeaway from a graduation speech. Two simple words that have served me, and will serve you, very well.

I’m an English major, so here is Webster’s definition of bold: “Of a person, action or idea showing an ability to take risks, be confident, be courageous.”

We haven't met, though I met some of you last night at Paul's, but I know you are confident, courageous and willing to take risks. I know this because of all the schools you could have chosen, you picked this one, a school that would push you, challenge you, question you. So I stand here, not with definitive pearls of wisdom, but as someone who has stood where you are today, on the launching pad of your next big adventure.

You have just completed a very structured, organized part of your life. You were told what was required of you, understood the rules, knew where to be and mastered what you needed to know to be able to sit here proudly in your cap and gown. 

You had a blueprint and you followed it. But after today you have no fixed map, no blueprint to follow. It is yours to build and chart. But I am here to reassure you that each of us has an internal compass. And the past four years here, without you realizing it, calibrated your compass. The tools you have learned and sharpened here will prepare you for the next chapter. It was here that I found my voice, built lasting friendships, realized that pressure actually brought out the best in me and when I sat where you sit today, on my graduation day, I acknowledged that hard work and struggle are the cornerstones of accomplishment. 

As I see it, there are two groups of you here today. Some of you have picked your next major destination, already set your GPS and plotted your course. Maybe it is grad school, maybe you have a job lined up – parents, let's hope so – or an internship, or maybe off to the Peace Corps, like Casey Douma. But for the other 95 percent of you – and, by the way, if you are an English major like myself this applies to all of you – you face the daunting question, “Holy crap, where do I go from here?

Well, there is no right or wrong approach to navigating your life. In fact, at various moments, you will as I did, explore both routes, the structured and the unstructured. The important part is that you embrace and enjoy the challenges and realize you do not travel alone. Just take a minute and think of how many people have been on this road with you to this point: Roommates, teammates, TAs, professors, coaches and family.

What I remember most from my time at William & Mary are indeed the people, the journeymen who traveled with me on my path. To my teammates who are here today, thank you: Dr. John Charles, who believed in the potential of a shy, English kid; my English professor, Nathaniel Eliot, who fostered my love of prose, and Coach John Daly, who until today, didn’t realize that the $5,000 scholarship he offered me my senior year was a third of my family’s yearly income, and that blessing allowed an immigrant family the funds to secure a green card.  

And lastly, my parents, who sat in these very bleachers and beamed with the same pride that I see on your families’ and your friends’ faces today.

For those of you already with a planned destination understand this: It is the wrong turns, road blocks and flat tires that will be the most valuable part of your journey, because those moments will change you. 

Once I was hired as the women's national team coach, my objective was very clear, my path very direct. Win the World Cup. There was no margin for error. A silver medal wouldn’t cut it. The team was historically very successful, and ranked number one in the world. But it had been 16 years since our country had won a World Cup. For us to become world champions, I felt we needed to try a different path, and so I put together a schedule that was challenging and unfamiliar. I wanted to stretch them by making them uncomfortable. I took them to Brazil in their offseason. We weren’t sharp. We were booed by 18,000 people, and we lost. I then took them to France after an intensive preseason fitness camp. We struggled. We were fatigued. We were booed by 12,000 fans – and we lost.

But it was in those losses that we learned how far we needed to come. We were humbled by the sting of defeat, and it motivated us. We learned tactically what we needed to improve, and we learned how to stick together and have each other’s backs. Unequivocally, without those failures we would not have been crowned world champions last summer. I told the players that the four weeks in Canada were going to be like a pressure cooker, but because we had dealt with hardships, been stretched to the point of breaking, we absorbed the pressure, filtered out the distractions and got it done.  

William & Mary helped prepare me for that stage, as it will you. I was asked all the time, "How did you deal with the pressure? The expectation of a nation?" Well, what I learned here is that pressure is an honorable component of something important. Pressure means it is valuable to you. If it has value it will bring out the best in you. So honor the responsibility. Throw your arms around it, and embrace the pressure. If these professors, your fellow students and this environment has made you uncomfortable at times, thank them for it. They have helped get you ready for the pressure cooker of life.

How I got to be the women's national team coach is a journey that should encourage the 95 percent of you who have yet to figure out your destination. Sometimes a career is a process of elimination. Sometimes it's someone you know opening a door for you. Sometimes it’s being pulled in a direction you are unsure of. The rationale might differ, but whatever you end up doing you have to trust yourself and be authentic. You will be selected because of what you bring to the table. Stay loyal to your individuality.

I never started out even wanting to be a coach. Back then it was not a solid career choice. Security and salary were lacking in female sports, and actually, there is still a lot of room for improvement in that regard. Retrospectively, I think passion steered me towards this journey. At every major juncture in my life I realized that I chose the route that appeared to be less comfortable, with higher risk.

I chose to be bold.

At 16, I was about to finish school in England and my parents made a decision to move to America. I had a choice, stay in the U.K. with my friends, and prepare to sit my O-level exams, or head to the U.S. to begin a new life. I dreamed of America. After some graduate work, at 23 I became a technical writer for a large corporation, had a mortgage, an Acura, and felt I was doing quite well for myself. Then I got a job offer to become an assistant soccer coach at the University of Maryland, for – wait for it – $6,000 a year. Well, my mother was absolutely frickin' horrified. My dad, a coach, was like, 'Go for it.” I took a leap of faith and followed passion over paycheck.

I enjoyed being an assistant coach, but I longed to lead. And later, after 12 successful years as the head coach of UCLA, I sought to change the view. I could have settled in and planned to retire at UCLA, but I was ready to gain a new perspective and left that security to join U.S. Soccer as the director of development.

Boldness is not rash, nor arrogant or without humility. Being bold is trusting yourself, being yourself and challenging yourself. When the biggest, most prestigious job in my profession opened, I would be lying to say that I leapt at it without hesitation. I assessed, sought advice and then when ready, trusted myself that everything I was to this point would be good enough.

When you reach your planned destination, here’s what’s going to happen. You will enjoy it briefly, and then you will be ready to move, to plot another course, seek another goal. Perhaps it is tackling another project, maybe writing a book, confronting an injustice, expanding your family. Whatever the next step may be, you are wired to seek beyond what is in front of you.

Although this institute is over 300 years old, the College of William & Mary demanded from each of us that we don’t live in the past and that we aspire to be current and relevant to the world. You leave here with an expanded mind and, I hope, a richer soul. I could touch on being a compassionate member of society, or of paying it forward, but because of what this school embodies, I believe you understand social responsibility and what it is to be a good citizen.

So, what’s next? I am moving on. When I met with my team in January of this year, I said to them, “Congratulations, you got to the summit of your sport last summer, but there is a reason why summits are small and the air is thin, because you cannot dwell on a summit. No one gets to Everest and hangs out for a week. You get up there, enjoy the view briefly, and move on.” For us, the challenge is to be the first team to win Olympic Gold on the back of having won a World Cup. It has never been done.

Today, you have summited, you have reached a major destination and we celebrate your achievement. Take a moment to pause and enjoy the view.  And when you are ready, move on.

And be bold.

Thank you, Class of 2016.