LeBolt: Ten lessons from the women of the World Cup

WendyLeBolt-HeaderI was schooled by the Girls of Summer 2015. Apparently, character development and life lessons aren’t just for kids anymore. Here are 10 nuggets I want to remember from the dazzling performances at the 2015 World Cup.

  1. Be the person who risks the own goal.

England central defender Laura Bassett toe-pokes the ball away from the charging Yuki Ogimi in the waning minutes of stoppage time, and it ricochets off the crossbar and into the England net for an own goal. Bassett sobs and pulls her jersey up around her face. In her devastation, she is comforted and supported by teammates, manager and the world at large. She’s been a stalwart team member. We all know the devastation of tragic defeat. If I don’t have the valor to risk everything in pursuit of victory, I’ll never know its sweetness, even if I win every match.

  1. Respect among competitors consists both of hugs and hard tackles.

Abby Wambach enters the World Cup final in the 79th minute and is greeted with a hug from her opponent, Homare Sawa. The two know each other well, and both recognize the significance of the moment. On nearly the next play, Sawa slide-tackles Abby from behind and is whistled for the foul. This, ironically, shows the highest level of respect. Respect recognizes greatness and then responds with its best. Nothing less will do.

      1. Leadership is given, not taken.

Abby subs in when the work of winning is all but done. Carli Lloyd, who has worn the captain’s band all match, wraps it around Wambach’s arm in an expression that says, “you’ve gotten the team here, you deserve this.”

There will be plenty of time for passing the baton, but this is a moment of more than ceremonial significance. Abby did not ask for the band; it was given. We acknowledge and defer to true leadership. It is not something that is demanded or wrested from us. It is offered and accepted.

          1. A slow start is forgiven when you finish well.

ChastainThe group stage was painful to watch, but U.S. Women’s National Team coach Jill Ellis and her players kept insisting that their best soccer lay ahead. As it turns out, they were right. They kept improving, and we tagged along with them as they did. Our iconic moments of finishing and celebration in ’99, erased from our memories all that came before. The 120 minutes of scoreless tie which preceded that penalty shoot out are blotted out by the shirt-ripping, bra-exposing elation. While we’d all like to fast forward to the winner’s podium, that’s not how it works. Slow but sure sometimes wins the race. Finishing strong provides amnesia when necessary.

          1. When you score your goal, thank a defender.

The iron-clad wall of defense, Krieger, Sauerbrunn, Johnston, Klingenberg (and Solo), oh my! The old adage “the best defense is a good offense” was turned on its ear. What a defensive display this back four put on while the attack took its time finding its footing. Defense may not win games, but it certainly can keep you in them. Unsung heroes, all of these ladies, and now household names. While we laud the Golden Boot and the Golden Glove, the workhorses of this team, end to end, side to side, up and down, quietly took their places on the winner’s podium. Perhaps a better phrasing would be: The best offense is nothing without the best defense.

          1. Sometimes, getting what you didn’t want is exactly what you need.

Jill-Ellis-closeupMegan Rapinoe and Lauren Holiday, with 2 yellow cards, and are suspended for the quarterfinal match against China. Looks like curtains, except…in come Morgan Brian and Kelley O’Hara to save the day. Well, look at that. Brian as defensive mid springs Lloyd to attacking mid and O’Hara is quite the spark plug to foil defenders down the final stretch! Isn’t it interesting how sometimes a “back to the wall” moment which demands a bit of flexibility, creativity and discovery shows us something we wouldn’t otherwise have seen? As Charles Darwin aptly states, “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one that is most responsive to change.”

          1. Pull the trigger and good things happen.

Oh, Carli. We women are cursed with the “get into just the right position, with the ball on the right foot, so we can shoot it just so” mentality. Thank you for the reminder that sometimes good things happen when we react with instinct and just pull the trigger.

True, you had nothing to lose, but what a wonderful “chip” from midfield it was. How many times have I hesitated, just to be sure, when bold, beautiful and going for broke would have been better! Thanks for the reminder that is now etched on my memory.

      1. Character is revealed by how players treat their teammates on the bench and how they respond when they are relegated there themselves.

OTTAWA, Canada - Friday June 26, 2015: The United States of America (USA) defeats The People's Republic of China (China PR) 1-0 in the Quarter-finals of the FIFA Women's World Cup Canada 2015 at Lansdowne Stadium.

I kept rooting for the players who didn’t get on the pitch. What about Engen, Harris and Naeher? and Buehler, Boxx and Rampone? And what does it feel like to be Wambach, relegated to the bench after starting for all these years?  Even stars, at some point, give way to the new generation, and, if they’re lucky, get to adopt a new role: mentor. They had prepared and trained their replacements to do what they had done, only better. That, really, is what we’re all meant to do. Mentor the next generation to be better than the last. HUGE admiration.

      1. You can lead from the bench, but it’ll rip your heart out. Be big enough to step aside when it’s time.

Abby Wambach’s honest account of how difficult it was to watch and not “be able to do anything” was both heart-wrenching and true. Every parent knows this moment. You want to do it for them, do it with them and stand behind them, but you’re prevented. And so it was, for Sub Abby. Not even a super-sub, but more of a ceremonial sub these days. To want it more than anything, but have to leave it up to the talent, capability and caliber of the younger guns, was perhaps the most telling thing of all. As the USA Today article so aptly put it, Abby’s greatest contribution was paving the way for the younger generation and then stepping aside. So few exhibit the wisdom and courtesy to defer to others when the time comes, to take on a new role, with additional responsibility but fewer injuries.

      1. The past is a place of reference, not residence: 16 years can be undone in 16 minutes.

Vancouver, Canada - Sunday, July 5, 2015: The USWNT defeat Japan 5-2 to win the 2015 FIFA Women's World Cup Final at BC Place.

This team could have focused on what they have not yet accomplished, whether they were as good as the 99ers, or whether the footballing world had passed them by. They could have wallowed in their lackluster ties, licked their wounds from recent friendlies, or staggered under the weight of expectation and the pressure of prediction. Instead, they used  the demoralizing defeat to Japan in WWC 2011 as a reference point and rally cry. It will not end this way! Reference, yes, but we’re a new team, with new responsibility and an opportunity to make our country proud. Second place was not an option. This was for all the marbles. “Wanting it” doesn’t make it happen, but fearing it won’t is a sorry place to land and a path that will never develop a champion. REDEMPTION is everything.

Thank you, Canada and the USWNT, for showing us what risk, respect, leadership, finishing, defending, confidence, character, depth, humility, and sweet redemption, look like on the world stage. Mission accomplished!

By | July 7, 2015 | 8 Comments | Tags: , , , ,


  1. sudeep das says:

    I’m pretty late to comment on your very pragmatic musings but, then, better be late than never. “The best offense is nothing without the best defense” reminded me about the 1982 Brazilian team that definitely was the best modern football team in history. With Zico, Socrates and Falcao controlling the midfield it was pure Samba football that enthralled the entire world and enraptured millions of neutrals like me. However their weak defense and a weaker goalkeeper put paid to all World Cup dreams in 1982 and 1986.
    By the way I would like to know more about your thoughts on Carli Lloyd and her string of performances in tough knockout games. I am from Calcutta, India – part of a cricket mad country that is equally crazy about football.

    • Wendy LeBolt says:

      Thanks for reading, Sudeep! We are just learning cricket here in the States.
      Yes, “best” is perhaps the most relative of terms. Beautiful to watch? Talented and skilled? Successful at scoring? Find a way to win? All could be considered “best.” While we may appear a very “offensive” nation to the world, the US seems to home-grow strong defense. Lloyd, the exception. I’d like to know her secret to finding a new level in the biggest games, too. Sounds like a good idea for a future post. Stay tuned.
      And good batting to you!

  2. D ll Fan says:

    Always enjoy your a thoughtful perspectives.

    From the USA today article. “But it could very well be that her greatest gift to her team will be the humility and foresight to step back at the right time. Regardless of the outcome of Sunday’s final, Abby Wambach’s greatest World Cup contribution on the field will ultimately be her decision to step off it.” Her decision?

    Is this the narrative? Wambach couldn’t get it done on the field but she was still the reason the team won the WWC? I’m really sorry I don’t have much empathy for Wambach’s feelings of being relegated to a ceremonial sub. I do feel for Leroux, Rodriguez and Press. The minutes that Abby played since WWC ’11 were minutes that these ( and others) hard working talented players did not have to develop their game. Hamm retired at 31 she could have held on for another WWC but she didn’t. Talk about a mentor.

    Just a quick note you didn’t say anything about Amy Rodriguez in # 6 she saved the day as much as O’Hara and Brian. The most obvious change in their playing style was their high pressing. A tactic that they could not employ with Wambach on the field. Rodriquez hustled her butt off. As Dicicco so aptly put it on the telecast it frees the team up when they can play their normal pressing style. They never looked back.

    The back story of USWNT 15 may never be told. They won hurray. For people who take life lessons seriously and who try to impart them to young people what do we take away from this team’s performance? The star player is more important than the team.

    When you win it’s easy to forget about the life lessons that really matter.

    • Wendy LeBolt says:

      Well observed and even better stated, D II fan. I hope the observations about Wambach came as a salute to her long term contributions. Personally, I kind of like the 23 SI cover photos in celebration of all 23 players. I hope that lesson looms while the star-status fades, though I am not holding my breath.

      Great athletes do seem to have a hard time announcing retirement. Thanks for pointing out Hamm’s circumstance – who certainly lived the “no I in team” on and off the field.

  3. YourMom says:

    “We women are cursed with the “get into just the right position, with the ball on the right foot, so we can shoot it just so” mentality. Thank you for the reminder that sometimes good things happen when we react with instinct and just pull the trigger.” This. So true. I had not yet seen the aerial clip of the goal…I never get tired of watching it.

  4. Kathie Diapoulis says:

    Wonderful article, Doc. Great observations!

  5. Boston Red says:

    Buehler wasn’t on this squad.

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