Discussion No. 1 - Ieva Kibirkštis
For our first interview Ieva Kibirkštis, Women's Head Coach of Hittarps IK, speaks to Football And The City about how she fell in love with football as a child in Canada, how she got into coaching & how she ended up managing in Sweden.
It is a wonderful story about how football can change lives, empower people and take you to many different corners of the earth.
by J.S. Leatherbarrow
What made you fall in love with football as a kid growing up in Canada?
Football, or soccer as we called it, was fun! I was pretty shy when I was younger, so it allowed me to make friends instantly. Also, we had coaches who just wanted us to have fun. I’ll take that supportive and positive environment any day over a coach who screams at their players just to boost their own ego.
I’m a firm believer that football should be fun at all levels: grassroots to professional.
It is through fun that the love for the game grows.
How did you make the leap from it being something you enjoyed to something where you thought "I'm pretty good at this - I could make a career out of it?"
It all started in high school, around the age of 13, with a coach who saw potential in me – he really BELIEVED in me! He helped me believe that maybe, just maybe, I could actually make it as a footballer!
I continued to have coaches afterwards that were supportive and believed in me, and it is because of them that I am where I am today!
I firmly believe that there is nothing more important than a supportive environment, than having someone who really believes in you, and that is why I make that a priority in my coaching today.
Could you tell us the story about why you made the change from playing to coaching?
It’s a long one, but to keep it short, I started coaching when I was around 16 years old in the summers at various football camps in Montreal, Canada, as it seemed much more fun and flexible than working as a cashier or waitress, and I would not have to worry about it interfering with my already very full football schedule.
I then slowly started also helping coach youth teams in the area, once or twice a week and getting my base level Canadian coaching certifications.
During my time at university in the USA, I was often injured and was lacking any kind of support from my coach. I had to find another way to enjoy football again, and that’s when I started taking coaching more seriously. I coached local teams on all our days off from playing and training, and began taking higher-level coaching certifications over the summers.
Fast forward a few years to moving to Finland to get my Masters (M.Sc.) in Sport and Exercise Psychology with the intention of helping me as a coach, which was my backup plan, and eventually moving to Germany to take my last shot at a playing career. It was in Germany that I got a blow to the head at training and realized that after who knows (really) how many concussions and now having severe memory problems at 23, it was time to hang up the boots.
It was a rather easy transition because I had been setting up that “back up plan” since I was 16.
How did a Canadian footballer end up coaching a team in Sweden?
I was living in Germany, recovering from my concussion, and I did not have a full grasp of the language which made it difficult to find a coaching position. I was dating a guy living in Sweden (yes, we are still together: happy story!), and decided to give Sweden a shot by emailing every single professional and semi-professional team in the league, asking if they needed a youth coach (I should probably also mention that I have dual citizenship: Canadian and Lithuanian, so visas were not an issue). I eventually came in contact with Elisabet Gunnarsdottir at Kristianstads DFF, who is one of the very few female head coaches in the Damallsvenskan but has also now held her position for 10 years! She told me I was the first ever female coach to have ever contacted her for a coaching spot. We met, hit it off, and I worked for the youth teams there for three years, while also spending time with the professional team as a translator for a French-speaking player. I am very thankful that she helped me get my foot in the Swedish door!
Getting the job in Sweden opened the doors to getting my UEFA B license in Lithuania in 2016, which then lead to an offer in January 2017 from the Lithuanian Football Federation for me to take the head coaching position for the Women’s Under-17 national team leading into the WU17 EURO Championship that Lithuania was hosting in May 2018. It was the most fantastic experience! I learned so much from so many different people, from so many different countries and backgrounds!
It was then due to this experience that I got accepted into the UEFA A course in Sweden in 2018, and built contact with Hittarps IK, my current club, who believed I would be the right fit as the head coach for their newly promoted women’s team in 2019.
How are you finding life at Hittarps so far?
Hittarps IK is a great club. Not only is it big, with over 1500 kids, split right down the middle with 49% girls and 51% boys, but it’s motto is “as many as possible, as long as possible” which we define as wanting to keep as many people in the club, whether it’s as players, coaches, leaders, sponsors, for as long as possible. It’s one big family!
From the footballing side, it’s about trying to put the same amount of focus into helping develop those who want to reach the elite level as much as those who want to remain at the amateur level.
It’s a challenge, and it’s fantastic!
We are also kicking off our Mentorship Program for young female footballers next week. This is a project that intends to help young girls make the transition from player to coach, while also encouraging them to reach higher, both on and off the pitch, by learning leadership skills.
What are your main goals for the team?
Our main goal is to establish ourselves in the league (Division 1) and remain above the relegation line, given that we are newcomers. We are 5 games in, with a progressive improvement pattern regarding our performance. There is no lack of hope and belief in the team – we know that this is a league we belong in. We are more than good enough and are focused on the process.
My own little goal for the team is that we play the kind of football that the club is trying to develop within the youth system, that we become the example rather than the exception. One very simple example is that we try to build-up from the goalkeeper, and not have her just kick the ball long every time. If the women’s team does this (where the results matter), then it should help encourage the youth teams (where the results don’t matter) to do the same.
What is your preferred style of play - both aesthetically and tactically - and do those two things overlap?
They definitely overlap.
We of course want to play “attractive football”, which we define as keeping purposeful possession, creating space for themselves and each other, being effective in passing and dribbling, being creative in creating goal scoring opportunities, etc.
I also love having a team that is strong in transitions, that is quick to decide whether to counter-attack quickly or keep possession to create a better opportunity, but also quick in shutting down the opposition when we lose the ball – it’s all about hard work!
More than anything, I want to have the hardest working team on the pitch! Everyone loves a team that leaves their heart on the pitch!
What do you think needs to be done to improve opportunities for women and girls wanting to get into the game at the professional level?
It’s simple really: we need to openly support women!
It is interesting that if a girl says she wants to be a professional footballer, she is usually asked if she has a backup plan, but boys tend to be given a tap on the back. Yes, boys need a backup plan too, however we are also instilling doubt immediately into the minds of these girls!
We need to also openly support women who are already at a high level, both coaches and players!
I believe that clubs need to do a better job of supporting female coaches at their clubs, and create opportunities for players to make the transition into coaching. Coaches at all levels should be especially careful when addressing a female coach or player or referee, making sure that they are not saying anything negative because these women are automatically role models for these girls and one negative comment could be enough to discourage that player from ever wanting to take the next step.
In addition, it is absolutely fantastic to see the rise in the number of fans at women’s games these past months around the world, and there is no doubt that this upcoming Women’s World Cup is going to be HUGE! It is now the parents and coaches’ jobs to make these games accessible to as many girls as possible! And that when they are watching the games with their kids, that they openly support them with words such as “Wow! Look how hard she’s working!” and avoid any useless negative comments that would bring down these possible role models in the eyes of these girls.
GUN T0 THE HEAD - Christine Sinclair or Marta?
I’m going to say Marta, which is making me the worst Canadian ever. Sinclair is very good, no doubt, and it is fantastic that she is quickly catching up to Abby Wambach’s international goal-scoring record! But after having seen Marta play live a few times when she was at FC Rosengård, all I can say is that she is something special. She is a household name around the world and inspired so many girls to reach higher.
Words by J.S. Leatherbarrow. Photograph used by kind permission from Mathilda Ahlberg/Bildbyrån. Artwork by FATC staff. All rights reserved.