Michelle French is the type of coach who likes to create a bond with her players, both on the field and in their lives off of it.
As she stood and watched players train in April at the Olympic Training Center, the new U.S. Under-20 Women’s National Team coach felt a connection with the young females trying to impress the U.S. Soccer coaching staff. Twenty years earlier, she was one of those players.
French and other U.S. Women’s National Team coaches attended the US Youth Soccer Olympic Development Program Girls 1996 National Camp April 20-27 at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif. It was US Youth Soccer ODP that helped French grow and get recognized as a player, which started the path to her current role as coach of some of the nation’s top young players.
The US Youth Soccer ODP players had the chance to train with Under-18 Women’s National Team, and French said it showed there are still players yet to be identified who are learning and growing.
"As I shared with them, I said, ‘Thank goodness this is still an opportunity for you guys,’" French said. "Because I know it was really essential in how I was developed as a player. ODP was the biggest thing for me when I was playing, as far as having that opportunity."
To go from a talented young player to coach of the Under-20 team, French has spent time at just about every level of soccer as a player and coach.
French, now 36, began playing soccer after being introduced to the game by kicking a ball around with her older sister and a pair of boys in their Washington neighborhood. She entered US Youth Soccer ODP at the Under-12 level and played in it until she went to the University of Portland, where she was a four-year starter and first-team All-American.
Playing in the midfield, she captained the U.S. Under-21 Women’s National Team and later won an Olympic Silver Medal with the Women’s National Team at the Sydney Games in 2000. French also played on a few professional teams during the span of about 10 years.
French said her playing experiences give her something to look back on to relate to the kids she is coaching.
"Whether it’s something that happens on the field or off of it, being able to relate to them allows me to have better relationships with them," she said.
Those who have worked with her say French’s ability to stay positive while helping young players through those experiences is a big part of who she is as a coach.
"There’s always a smile on her face and she’s very optimistic," U.S. Women’s National Team head coach Tom Sermanni said. "She was a terrific player with a great understanding of the game and that has carried over well into her coaching."
Just as she played at every level of soccer, in her relatively young coaching career she’s already coached just about every level. Sermanni, who coached French for a year when she played for the San Jose CyberRays, said her experience coaching all different ages and levels is very important.
French began coaching right out of college, doing some work with clubs and at college camps. With each coaching opportunity, she picked up small tidbits of information and coaching strategy that have built up over time.
She returned to US Youth Soccer ODP in Washington for a couple years to work as an assistant coach, but she didn’t have the time to commit to be a head coach. Instead, a majority of her coaching experience developed while at Eastside FC in Preston, Wash., — where she guided her teams to a pair of US Youth Soccer Washington State Championships.
In her first season at Eastside in 2005, French co-coached a team with current Eastside Director of Coaching Tom Bialek. The two worked alongside each other at the club until French left for the U.S. Under-20 Women’s National Team position in February of this year. Bialek said French’s playing career gave her a good knowledge of the game as she began coaching, and her ability to communicate her message has grown as she’s continued guiding teams. That, along with her ability to create relationships with the players, is what he says makes her a successful coach.
"She’s very genuine. She cares about the kids she coaches. She cares about the people around her," Bialek said. "She has an excellent understanding of soccer and what it takes to be successful."
While French has a great grasp on the game of soccer, she faced a totally new challenge in October of 2008, when she was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The news of her cancer came as a shock to everyone at Eastside, and Bialek said it put the game of soccer into perspective and allowed the club to rally around French.
Despite the struggles that can come with cancer treatments, French maintained her positive personality and attacked the fight with an athlete’s attitude. She said everything she’d been through as an athlete, though in completely different situations, helped develop a mindset that allowed her to deal with the situation.
French said there were only a few days when she just wanted to sit on the couch. Overall, she was able to stay active, coach and do many of her normal activities. Her persona during that time made it easy for her players to rally around her as she made a full recovery.
"She cried the first time I talked to her. Then, from that point on, she never looked back," Bialek said. "She was just like, ‘I’m going to beat this.’ It was pretty amazing, really. She never felt sorry for herself."
She’s brought that very same outlook to the soccer field. Bialek said when it’s easy to look at what’s wrong with a situation, French will look at what’s right.
It’s that positivity, combined with her abundance of soccer experience and knowledge, that makes Sermanni feel confident in French leading the Under-20 team — which he said is a critical age when players make the last transition into senior soccer and see what it takes to be an international player.
And as she settles in as a full-time coach with U.S. Soccer, French hasn’t overlooked what helped get her to this point. As she stood with other high-quality national coaches watching the US Youth Soccer ODP players train, French could see there are still players who merit the same opportunities she had.
"For me to be able to train that national ODP team, it gave me a better opportunity to see that, ‘Listen, there are some kids that still haven’t been identified. There are still some kids that are learning and growing,’" French said. "I think it’s an incredible opportunity for them."
Though her players on the U.S. Under-20 team may be focused on preparing for an international or professional career, French said she hopes to bring the same philosophy to the squad that she employed with her youth teams.
Bialek may have put it best, saying with French at the helm, the Under-20 players "will truly be a team."
And even when they move on, French hopes her players will remember the lessons she teaches them and continue to build on the relationships they create.
"If, at the end of the day, they’re better players and people, I think I’ve done my job as a coach," French said. "Hopefully, they still want to call me at the end of the day when I’m done coaching them."