Since 2007, Gina Lewandowski has been a professional soccer player. From her time in Frauen Bundesliga on FFC Frankfurt and Bayern Munich to her three seasons with the NWSL’s NJ/NY Gotham FC, the 36-year-old defender from Bethlehem, PA has certainly made her mark on women’s soccer.
But now, Lewandowski is looking towards the future. On February 12, Lewandowski along with 24 current and former NWSL players finished up a free ‘B’ license coaching course sponsored by U.S. Soccer, the NWSL, and the NWSL Players Association.
Player to Coaching pipeline
Since 2018, U.S. Soccer and the NWSL have partnered on offering two ‘C’ license courses for players, but this was the first all-woman ‘B’ license course made available.
“For me, one of my passions has always been being able to give back to the younger players and give back to the game because of all that it has given me throughout the years,” Lewandowski told AllForXI. “I’ve always wanted to share my knowledge and experience and give back to the next generation.”
Having spent over 10 years playing professionally in Germany, Lewandowski was able to learn different aspects of the game and glean a unique perspective. “It was very interesting for me to learn the difference between European and U.S. soccer, and dive into the technical aspects of the game,” she explained.
During her time with Bayern Munich, one of the incentives to stay for an extra season was an offer to take the UEFA B license course. Lewandowski accepted the opportunity and took the course in 2018 - which was conducted entirely in German.
“It was a great opportunity to get my feet wet, understand the game a little more, and see if coaching was something for me,” she said.
When the NWSL offered the chance to take the ‘B’ license through U.S. Soccer, Lewandowski jumped at the chance. Because of her years of playing professionally and having the UEFA ‘B’ license, she was able to skip the U.S. Soccer ‘C’ license and go straight to the ‘B’ course.
Pumped to finally have this! Proud & grateful to work & grow alongside all these amazing women. Thank you @ussoccer @nwsl & @nwsl_players for this amazing opportunity. Also to @Karlathwavefc & @HeatherDyche for their guidance & support pic.twitter.com/CCuLQ8U7vs— Gina Lewandowski (@gll088) February 16, 2022
“I’m glad I got the chance to do the B license in the U.S. because it’s so much different than the UEFA one,” she explained. “The platforms and coaching methodologies they use are different, and it was interesting for me to learn both sides.”
Investing in the present
Going into the 2022 season, five of the twelve NWSL teams are coached by a woman. This is a marked improvement from the beginning of the 2021 season where only one team had a woman coach. Even with this improvement, there is still a ways to go in getting former players into leadership roles in women’s soccer.
“Overall, there’s a lack of women in coaching positions and leadership roles,” Lewandowski said. “Having U.S. Soccer and the NWSL investing in the coaching education for current and former players is so valuable to get us into the game so we can coach at any level once our careers are over. We need more women in leadership roles to show the value of women in soccer and in society so that girls, and even young boys, can have strong women leaders to look up to,” she said.
The ‘B’ license course was specifically tailored for the players, allowing them to do virtual sessions during the season, and switch to in-person once their schedules freed up. “We got to go at our own pace, do some live seminars, and get out into the field on our own schedule,” Lewandowski said.
The ability to do the course around her schedule as a player was crucial for Lewandowski as she looks to give back to the sport that gave her so much.
Sympathy in the curriculum
Led by U.S. Soccer National Coaching Instructor Heather Dyche and U.S. Soccer Coach Educator Karla Thompson, the group of 24 candidates worked through the 20-week program, learning from both the curriculum and each other.
“We were all pretty much in the same boat - either currently playing or just fresh out of playing,” Lewandowski said. “We could relate to each other, throw ideas around, and sympathize with each other.”
In fact, the past year in the NWSL has been a difficult one where the league saw several accusations of abuse perpetrated by male coaches on female players. The allegations led to the resignations or firings of the coaches.
Having a group of current and former players from across the league who understood the unique challenges faced by their peers turned out to be an unexpected silver lining to a tough year.
“This past year, there were a lot of different challenges that clubs were facing, so having this coaching course at the same time posed a bit of a challenge at times,” Lewandowski explained. “But we could understand each other as we worked through the program together.”
A changing perspective
In addition to the virtual and in-person sessions, players taking the course had to connect with a local team in the area where they lived to complete their assignments. Lewandowski linked up with Montclair High School’s girls’ team where she did training sessions and coached games as much as her schedule would allow.
The entire experience helped Lewandowski better understand how much work goes into coaching.
“That understanding started when I was in Germany getting the UEFA ‘B’ license,” she explained. “I gained a lot more respect and understanding for coaching and how much work goes into it.”
As Lewandowski explained, coaches don’t just show up and put a two hour training session together. They work day and night to prepare.
“I’d say it’s a lot more work that goes into it that you can see, and I think for me, I’ve been able to appreciate coaches and respect their time, energy, and passion,” she said.
Since obtaining her two coaching licenses, she sees her training in a different way. “When I see a drill, I’m more interested in learning the purpose behind it, and maybe keeping it to use for myself when I coach!” Lewandowski joked. “But what I’ve learned through coaching education I’ve tried to translate onto the field as a player and use what I can from that different perspective.”
As for her future, Lewandowski is focused on her upcoming fourth season with NJ/NY Gotham FC. Taking the coaching course has given her some insight into what coaching can be like, and she is absolutely open to the idea of coaching in some capacity in the future.
“I think for me right now, I’m getting the basics down, earning the licenses, understanding how to create training sessions and lead a team,” Lewandowski explained. “Gaining experience on the field as a coach is the number one goal for the next year.”
To gain that experience, Lewandowski is looking at all opportunities - potentially even with the WPSL’s Gotham Reserves team. “If I can get more involved, whether it’s with the reserves team or a local club, that’s something I want to do, if possible,” she said.
For Gotham and the future
As Lewandowski enters her fourth season as a center back for Gotham FC, she looks forward to contributing to the continued rise of the club in any way she can. Since she joined the organization, the team has gone from the bottom of the table to a playoff contender, and she attributes this to the shared mentality of the team of raising the standards.
“Everyone who has come to the club, from top to bottom, shares that mentality and vision - on and off the field,” she said. “We’ve created an identity. We’re trying to reach the tri-state area and show who we are.”
In 2019, Lewandowski decided to return to the NWSL to be closer to her home in Pennsylvania, where she does individual coaching during the off-season.
Something unique about Gotham FC is that their General Manager Yael Averbuch West and assistant coach Beverly Yanez, are former NWSL players. Lewandowski believes that seeing former players in these leadership positions is extremely valuable for current players as it enables them to see what roles they can aspire to once their playing career has ended.
“They’ve been here, done it, and relate to us. They know what it’s like,” Lewandowski said. “Yael sees both sides, and she’s realistic. She’s done so much for us and has pushed the club in the right direction.”
In fact, having the NWSL provide the opportunity for Lewandowski and her peers to take coaching license courses helps the players set themselves up to take these leadership positions in the future and help grow the league.
As for Gotham, Lewandowski is hoping for another strong season. Right now the club is focused on setting the foundation in preseason, focusing on their goals and values, and integrating the new players into the team. “We’re trying to build on what we had last year into something even better,” she said.
While she focuses on preseason with the club, Lewandowski is staying committed to getting more coaching experience when she can to build upon what she learned in the ‘B’ license course.
“I’m excited for the future and happy I got to do the course,” Lewandowski said. “It was a long and challenging year, but the opportunity to work with my fellow players and do it all together has been a great experience.”