October 05, 2023

Head Women’s Soccer Coach at UCLA, 2x NCAA National Champion

Dana Safa Bernardino

Margueritte Aozasa
1Huddle Podcast Episode #110

On this episode of the Bring It In podcast, 1Huddle’s CEO and Founder, Sam Caucci, sat down with Margueritte Aozasa, Head Coach of the UCLA Bruins Women’s Soccer Team.

Coach Marguerite has made history in the world of women’s soccer. In 2022, she became the first rookie head coach and the first woman of color to lead a team to victory in the NCAA Division One Women’s Soccer Championship. Her journey began in 2021 when she took on the role of the sixth head coach in UCLA women’s soccer history. In her debut year, she achieved remarkable success by securing the program’s second NCAA championship with a record-tying 22 wins. This impressive feat led to her and her staff being recognized as the United Soccer Coach’s National Staff of the Year, a remarkable accomplishment for a first-year head coach.


Audio available on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, and Spotify.

TOP 3 HIGHLIGHTS

Below are some of the insights Margueritte Aozasa shared during our chat, edited for length and clarity. You can find more Bring It In podcast episodes here.

  • “I think that open communication, that willingness to name anticipated challenges has been one of our greatest strengths.”
  • “Being thoughtful and intentional with communication is one way that we feel like we’re giving them the tools to be successful beyond our program.”
  • “I would hope that regardless of the field, people feel like what they’re doing is meaningful. People feel like what they’re doing is positive, something they can look forward to.”
FULL TRANSCRIPTION

Sam Caucci: Jump right in. I’m sure you’ve never been asked the question about your background. I think to maybe start us off, can you share a little bit about your coming up as a coach and from where you were to where you are today? 

Margueritte Aozasa: Yeah, so my pathway to college coaching was fairly atypical in that I didn’t have, being a collegiate head coach, like on my radar.

It wasn’t a goal I was working towards very intentionally. In fact, I was very much immersed in the youth game. And I absolutely loved it, loved the development side of that. I loved just guiding young players through really integral times in their life, as they kind of become older, young adults, if you will.

So I was doing my thing in Northern California, enjoying that. Had just finished college and maybe two years after I graduated, there was an opening at Stanford, as an assistant coach, and in the soccer world, having your first paid job at Stanford is totally out of this world. It doesn’t typically happen, but it was me kind of knowing the right people, having proven myself in the right ways. Up till then, and quite honestly, the head coach there, Paul Ratcliffe, he really took a chance on me. So he hired me when I was 24 years old, very young in the game, had just finished up playing. I ended up staying at Stanford for seven years.

Really kind of learned the ropes there. Got a lot of great experience. I felt incredibly empowered as a younger coach in that role. Then just about a year and a half ago, the UCLA head coaching job opened up. Once again, it wasn’t something I was seeking per se, but it was kind of one of those moments where the stars aligned. I had a lot of people behind me encouraging me to go for it, and here I am. Thankfully, my first year went quite well. And now we’re gonna keep on trying to repeat that basically for the rest of my career.

Sam: National Championship! National Championship! Your first year is not a bad place to start.

Yeah, totally. I guess what are you thinking about coming out of a national championship season? What are the things going through your mind as a coach, as a leader, as you try to kind of climb that mountain again?

Margueritte: Yeah. The biggest challenges we face so far is how to manage success. I think there’s so many conversations going on about how do we manage failure, how do we rebound, stuff like that. But we don’t talk as much about how to manage success, how to maintain success while also fostering flexibility and adaptability. One interesting thing about the college game is every year our team is incredibly different than the year before.

Even just by nature of personnel, there’s a lot of turnover because we have players graduating, we also have an entire incoming class. So that is something we really need to take to heart, is how do we both maintain the things that got us to where we were last year? The things that really bolstered our run towards a championship while also having the flexibility to change things along the way to accommodate the new group we have.

So it’s kind of a very interesting balancing act. But that’s kind of been our approach over the last six months is how do we identify what led us to success while also keeping our minds open to making changes where needed? 

Sam: You know, the turnover point you make is obviously real in your world. And it’s also a real problem today in a lot of industries. Like in restaurants for example, turnover is 130% year over year, which means from Jan one to Jan one, not just losing everybody, you’re losing, you know, 30 more people out of a hundred person staff.

You’re constantly like rebuilding your culture. You are retraining. I guess any insights that you could share for business leaders out there or folks thinking about how to kind of reload and develop quickly, any things that you’ve learned about that process?

Margueritte: Yeah, the first thing we do, and this is how we handle a lot of our challenges, is we try to face it head on and we often bring our group in together and ask them to name any concerns, hesitations, anxieties they may have going forward about the turnover and how our group has changed. I think when you get everybody in a room together and talk about some of those things that are causing them a little distress, then we can address it further.

So we do kind of a diagnostic of sorts. Then it’s a lot about empowering players. So, you know, maybe we lost a great vocal leader. Well, then we need to find somebody in our group today that can fill that role and help them to develop that. We feel as a staff that so many of the behaviors that we want to see from our players are in fact learned behaviors.

So even kind of these ambiguous things termed leadership or culture, all of those are made up of behaviors and so we try to be very intentional about teaching our players kind of how to lead, teaching them how to, for instance, in the vein of leadership, have hard conversations or hold someone accountable.

We try to basically just put everything out on the table and encourage our players to ask questions and encourage them to rehearse, maybe some of the harder situations they may find themselves in. So that with some supervision we can kind of guide them towards what we want. And I think that open communication, that willingness to name anticipated challenges has been one of our greatest strengths.

Sam: What’s it like working with athletes who, I mean are young women who you work with every day who are at one end of the talent spectrum in all of collegiate athletics? They have a tremendous amount of skill, capability, and ability when they show up. What is it like to work with that caliber of player?

I asked that from the frame of, you know, as a coach when you’re developing skill and what do you have to take into consideration when you’re working with players who see themselves as highly skilled and highly talented, or coming from the best teams? They’re probably coming from the best club teams and the best programs.

Margueritte: Yeah. On the plus side of working with this group of players, the level of intrinsic motivation is very high. So rarely do we have to kind of like demand more from our players. All of them, for the most part. They either came here to win a championship or they came here to be in an environment that’s going to develop them to play at a higher level, either with a national team or at a professional level.

So like rarely do we have to ask them to do more, you know, or like to bring their best effort, and that that’s a huge luxury. In our field of work, obviously, like just knowing that when we ask them to do something, it’s almost a given that they’re gonna do it to the best of their ability. On the negative side, we have to often arm them with skills to mitigate panic or to kind of counteract perfectionism. I think that’s something we really do not struggle with. But a lot of our players may experience anxiety, they may experience tension, just stuff like that when they face something, maybe that is difficult. So we talk a lot about things like emotional regulation. We talk a lot about things like conflict resolution, things like that, that inherently cause them more stress because maybe they haven’t faced as much adversity, especially in the realm of soccer.

Sam: As a millennial, it feels like, you know, we’re probably done complaining about our generation. Gen Z is, you know, the folks you’re working with.

I have a six-year-old daughter. My wife played college soccer, so my daughter is kicking balls all around the house now. She’s Gen Alpha coach. So, I throw out the generation stuff just to ask. There’s a lot of young people that come outta your program, and enter the workforce at some point. And they’re working for other coaches, you know, their next coach and multiple coaches beyond that are gonna guide them in their pathway and their careers. What advice do you have for workforce leaders who have to think about how they carry the torch for the athletes you coach to get the best of them every day when they show up to work?

Margueritte: Yeah, I think, one thing our staff has relied on is, this idea of communication and how we approach that. I think, gone are the days where we can present something to our team and basically tell them, we’re just gonna do that because I told you so. Like those days I think are long gone. So we try to explain to them quite often why we do certain things, why what we do is going to set them up for success.

Why what we do is going to help them achieve our shared goals. So for instance, our shared goal is to win a national championship. So almost everything we do, we make sure that we’re able to explain in a thoughtful way, like how what we’re doing today is setting us up to achieve our shared goal. I think that idea is very important and when used correctly can be super powerful.

I think the line you have to be careful of, like teetering over is this idea of explanation versus justification. Like as a leader, I don’t ever wanna be in a position where I feel I have to justify why I do something. I think inherently, the decisions are mine to make, but it is my responsibility to ensure that the people I’m leading know exactly why we’re doing things.

I found that our group appreciates insight into what we do and how it feels to do what we do. So, you know, we have to make some really difficult decisions in terms of who plays, in terms of our roster, things that very much affect their livelihood and very much affect their wellbeing. I think being very open with, the humanity of what we do and how it’s difficult and how we have to weigh so many things.

We have found that then our players have a much kind of greater appreciation for the care that we put into those decisions. And even if it is hard to hear, they’re a lot more receptive.

Sam: I love that explanation versus justification. 

Margueritte: Yeah, it’s a fine line. But yeah, that’s something we found like explanation is super powerful.

Justification I think is where you kind of have to be careful because then its justification lends itself much more towards, like we’re doing it my way. 

Sam: Yeah, sure. You know, I was able to listen to a bunch of podcasts and read some stuff since the championship that you were on and you look like you’re having a lot of fun now. Win a championship, you’re having a lot of fun. What’s the most fun part about your job as a coach?

Margueritte: There are so many parts I love about it. The part that I just gravitate towards is the development side. Both in the skills kind of on the field, but also off the field, that we are so privileged to work with a group of players just in terms of where they are in their life, right?It’s like 18 to 22-year-olds. You see like such incredible development and growth. In that time span and they come to us having just finished high school living with their parents. Like it’s such a massive transitional moment. 

That part is so gratifying. Like to watch our players walk across the stage for graduation or watch them sign a pro contract and then to remember like who they were four years ago as like an 18-year-old, just kind of really finding themselves. That part is I think, is super special and we just love it. Like we’ll have a player, for instance, who maybe they’re struggling in school in their first quarter, and then by the time they’re a sophomore, they’ve figured out like study strategies that work for them. And just taking ownership of their development in that way and to see that personal growth is, by far my favorite part.

Sam: That’s really cool.

Margueritte: Winning fun too.

Sam: Yeah. That helps.

On the development point, to bring this back even to the challenges in the workforce today. We’re in a world today where so many organizations are claiming that they can’t find skill quote “skilled workers”. They’re struggling with a quote, “labor shortage”. As you think about development I’d imagine that you’re not afraid of failure, when you coach your players and struggle and challenge and competition are all part of the equation, I guess, in trying to take an athlete and develop them to the next step or stage in their cycle. What would you pinpoint if you had to pinpoint one or a few things that are like absolutely necessary ingredients as a coach in order to help an athlete along the next stage in their development cycle? 

Margueritte: Yeah. Let’s see. The things that come to mind right away is like you have to equip them to take ownership of their own actions, behaviors, and development.

So we kind of see ourselves as like guiding them from not being super self-reliant to needing to be self-reliant by the time they leave us. We try not to always give them solutions. We try not to always give them answers, but more so support them in kind of coming to their own conclusions, support them in coming to their own, kind of coming into their own ability to achieve things.

So for instance, a player that’s struggling in school, you know, like we’re not going to require them to come into our office and check their homework and revise their essay or something like that. But we might encourage them to come in to then go over a weekly plan and then check in on them for that.

So like more, give them tools to be successful as opposed to just kind of giving them the success right there. I think that piece is really, really key. Like seeing ourselves, how we see ourselves in that journey is huge. Where it’s like we’re not here to just make it easier, but we are here to kind of lead you in the right direction.

Other parts in development, I think helping them. Like communication skills I think are hugely important. Regardless of what field you go into, you need to be able to relate to people. You need to be able to relate to your peers. You also need to relate to upper management. You also need to be able to relate to anyone who works like for your team.

And so we talk a lot about how communication can be used effectively, and I think sports is a great place to do that because not only are you required to communicate well, to be successful, but generally you’re required to communicate under stressful circumstances. Which I’m like, if you can communicate, like when we’re down a goal and you’re feeling super stressed, then you can hopefully communicate in a more like docile setting. Being thoughtful and intentional with communication is one way that we feel like we’re giving them, again, tools to be successful beyond our program. 

Sam: You brought up being down a goal. One of the things that someone on my team said, I had to ask you, who’s a big fan, said, what’s going through your head when you’re down two goals in a national championship as a coach? What goes through your mind and what do you think about it?

Margueritte: Yeah, like soccer’s such a crazy thing because, we don’t have timeouts, we don’t have ability to talk to our team, like when these things are happening. Also in our game, we went down two goals in the second half alone. So the last time I had spoken to them was at halftime and the score was zero-zero. So like, in a weird way, we didn’t have an opportunity to really intervene. What was really fascinating about the whole experience is what I found myself thinking was basically like, did we prepare them well enough?

To, in some weird way, handle this on their own. Cause we didn’t like, what am I going to say? From the sideline also, we were playing in front of 10,000 fans, mostly cheering against us. Like they couldn’t really hear much of what we were saying in those really critical last 15 minutes. So it really opened my eyes to the importance of preparation and the importance of empowerment.

To an extent the importance of trust. All I could do was trust that the players on the field knew what to do and had what it took to get it done. So there was that part of me where I was thinking, okay, what, what role do I really have in this? In some weird way, it was like an observer.

But it really just reminded me of how important it is to prepare well and to empower because it wouldn’t have served anyone. We needed players on the field that felt they could do that. I think that was huge to us scoring those two goals to get it back. The other thing, quite honestly was, I take my role as a role model very seriously, and I am a huge on modeling, I understand the importance of modeling.

And so when we were down to one with less than a minute left, there was a huge part of me that was thinking, okay, like how am I going to act? How am I going to behave, to set the tone to how we take this loss? Like if I’m going to get super upset and throw a chair or something like, then it’s going to give permission to everybody to do that.

But I needed to lose. I was thinking, okay, how am I going to lose gracefully and lose respectfully in this moment, this kind of very devastating moment. Thankfully things changed. Didn’t have to do that. 

Sam: Yeah, that’s, coach, appreciate your time. Last question, know, you’re in a really busy time of. We’re talking, a lot of the people listening are coming to work every day thinking about how they get the most out of their team, how they coach them and do it the right way.

What is your hope for the future of work? 

Margueritte: Hmm. I would hope that regardless of the field, people feel like what they’re doing is meaningful. People feel like what they’re doing is positive, something they can look forward to. I think the relationships between people play a huge role in that. And I think I say this because I’m in an incredible position, very fortunate position that I look forward to work every day.

And I know that that’s not people, every person’s experience, but the things that I look forward to are those moments during the day, for instance, the development, the personal growth that we are witness to that. Make what I do extremely positive and meaningful. So I will hope that we don’t lose that essence of work. I really believe the people make that. So even though things may be movin towards a more automated style. Can we maintain the value we have in relationships?

Sam: Coach, thank you for your time. Wishing you all the best, you know, back to back.

Margueritte: Yeah. Thank you. Here we go.


Topics Discussed: Future of Work, Coaching, Leadership, Mindset, Empowerment, Relationships, Development



Dana Safa Bernardino, Manager of Digital Marketing at 1Huddle

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