In Pursuit of Success. Coaches of Portland: Tracy Nelson

Tracy Nelson, head coach of U13, U15 teams and Assistant Academy Director at the Portland Thorns Academy.
A masked Tracy Nelson coaches her players during a game. Tracy helps her players by giving them her full focus and attention when she is coaching. (Photos courtesy of Jason Bing, Portland Thorns Academy)

Sports teach many athletes the same unsophisticated lesson: success is winning. This isn’t wrong. Winning is usually an undeniable part of the triumph, but it’s not everything. There’s more to it; as much as success can be about the team it is at its core very individualistic. Every athlete has to reach their own definition that’s unique to their character and goals. No one else can truly say what it is or should look like to you. At the Portland Thorns Academy coach Tracy Nelson sees it as her undertaking to help her players understand and find this success on and off the field, in all its possible terms. “Just helping them reach their goals and dreams as an athlete, as a woman, as a soccer player, to me that’s a big part of the success,” Tracy said. Her desire to help others arises from her own passion for soccer. Tracy loves the game; it’s molded her into the strong, resilient, and ethical adult she has become, and she now hopes to pass on her knowledge and love of the game to her players.

Growing up in the small town of Everett, Washington, Tracy was captivated by athletics from a young age. “I was one of those athletes that played any sport I could get my hands on.” Through elementary and grade school, Tracy played multiple sports. It wasn’t until her freshman year of high school that she decided to focus her athletic talent on soccer. Tracy recalls the drive and enthusiasm she felt for the game of soccer during high school, saying, “I knew I wanted to go play in college, and go play at the highest level possible.” 

As a senior at Cascade High School, Tracy led her team in goals and was named to the all-WESCO team for the fourth year in a row. Tracy continued her athletic career at the University of Portland under the direction of the late coach Clive Charles. Clive Charles was a trailblazer; from being the first black player to captain a team in England’s first division to having one of the best coaching records in collegiate women’s soccer, he was a legendary figure in the game of soccer. “He definitely was a mentor and a role model for me as a player, and as I transitioned into coaching.” Tracy continued to thrive on the field during her time in college playing a crucial role in helping the team to a Final Four appearance and was named the Most Inspirational Player that year. After college graduation, Tracy felt she was far from done with her journey as a player, but the lack of a women’s professional league in the United States made opportunities hard to come by. So she did what anyone who loves their game enough would do and worked hard to find a place to play; “I reached out to other countries that had women’s programs to see if I could go play because I felt like I was at the top of my game.” Tracy first landed in Sweden playing for the club Umeå IK before relocating to England to play for Millwall FC in 1997.

 Women’s sports in Europe at the time were low priority and even neglected to a degree. “Being a woman footballer was definitely not looked upon highly over there,” Tracy remembered. Most of the resources were directed to the men’s teams and side of the game. Tracy described one specific instance that stood out: “When daylight dwindled we would be practicing on a field next to a lighted field, because the lighted fields were reserved for all of the men’s teams.”  Despite the adversity she encountered, Tracy’s love for the game persevered. “If I had a ball at my feet and a game to play then I was happy,” she said. During her time with Millwall FC, Tracy and her team won the Kent Cup Championship, League Cup and FA Cup. Tracy’s passion for the game of soccer soon took her back to the United States where she played for the Portland Rain and even won a championship with the U.S. Women’s amateur soccer team. 

After four years of professional soccer, Tracy decided to shift her passion for the game to coaching, but found it difficult to take a step back. “You don’t realize how much your sport becomes really a lot of your identity and what people associate you with until you’re not playing it anymore.” The shift was a huge mental challenge; she had to reinvent and reckon with aspects of her self-identity. “You feel like that’s your life, that’s all you’ve known, you’re the player, right? It really is a hard transition.” Nevertheless, Tracy’s resilience, determination, and passion for the game persisted when she entered the coaching field and is still highly apparent today after coaching for two decades. 

As a coach, Tracy has a hard time finding a singular definition for the word success. Despite her varying viewpoints, one idea continually appeared: Empowering her athletes to be better, stronger people on and off the field. Athletics shaped Tracy as a human being. She knows that as a coach she is in a position where she can have a great deal of impact on her players: “I want to try to be a positive influence for these young girls because I was in that place and if I didn’t have the coaches, and mentors, and teachers that I had, I would never been the player that I developed into.” She strives to supply them with the tools they need to become successful in their own right. One of the most powerful tools she believes she can offer is positivity.

“Personally, growing up, especially as a teenager I really struggled with self-esteem and confidence, so I really needed a lot of that positive feedback, and I think that is very common, maybe with kids in general, but especially with females.” Positivity served as a main reason Tracy made it as far as she did as a player. Now, coaching is a key aspect in encouraging athletes to build a strong character to help them develop as people who are prone to success in sport and life. Thorns Academy Director Mike Smith describes the power of positivity; “It’s really important for all coaches to maintain a positive attitude and tone when speaking to players. This is the way we build trust.” Trust is just one of the many beneficial products that can arise from framing things in a progressive light. Tracy aims to promote positivity in a tactically advantageous way where it is able to manifest itself in many different ways throughout her team. 

 The Thorns Academy is a very ambitious club that seeks the best Oregon players in their given age group. The teams of the Thorns Academy participate in the Elite Clubs National League, the most prestigious youth soccer league in the country. The stereotype for sports at this level is that mistakes are unacceptable. Many players measure their performances by the errors they make. For Tracy, a large part of positivity is showing her players that making mistakes are an unavoidable part of the game. “It’s all about how you communicate with your players…  they’re young and we have to continue to encourage them and teach them, and let them know it’s okay to make mistakes.” Mistakes are a natural part of soccer, and even the most elite athletes cannot escape them. Without mistakes, sport would be nothing. Tracy believes that players have to realize that fearing mistakes carries greater consequences than making them. Academy Director Mike Smith says, “By Tracy utilizing a balance of positivity and emphasizing the things that players need to get better at, we can build character and confidence in our young athletes.”

Centering positivity doesn’t mean that Tracy can’t critique players and help them make changes to parts of their game. “I think it is a lot about how we educate our players and make those corrections that are critical to either tearing them down or building them up.” How Tracy holds herself, the actions she takes, and the words she uses around her players is integral to growth. This is a concept Tracy knows all too well. “When a coach yelled at me, I would shut down. I would just mentally shut down, and then I lost my confidence, and then I didn’t want the ball anymore and I didn’t want to play, so I’m always very aware of that.” Tracy has felt the impact that tone and communication have during her time as an athlete; she knows how powerful the influence of a coach is. Now that she’s the one with ascendancy, she’s determined to make the most of the opportunity. 

Tracy is a coach, but she is also a mentor, role model and inspiration for the young women she instructs. Coaches have one of the most profound impacts on youth, in shaping the traits and values they carry into adulthood. Being a role model is not a responsibility Tracy takes lightly. “We do have the ability to really impact their lives positively, and sometimes unfortunately negatively depending on the coach, so we really have some big shoes to fill, we really have to take this job seriously in every way, shape, or form whether we’re teaching them on the field, whether we’re having conversations with them about other things. It’s a big job, it’s a big role.” Having coaches recognize the impact they have on players beyond the field is key in the academy. “They will be our leaders tomorrow,” remarks Mike Smith. 

Tracy recognizes that her behavior sets the standard. Maintaining presence in any given moment of coaching communicates to her players that she’s there to support their development. “I have to make sure no matter what I come fully ready to be engaged, focused and I am ready to give them my full attention every single time I have an interaction with them, because one day of not doing that can throw so many things off moving forward.” For Tracy, one key to creating individuals and teams that are conducive to growth is cultivating an environment and atmosphere where players are comfortable.

 One of the greatest gifts Tracy can give her athletes is a place to lighten the adversities of adolescent life. “Those are very very challenging times for girls for many many reasons… To be able to come to training and games, and to come to an environment where they know it’s safe and they can be themselves, where they’re not going to get belittled, they’re not going to get put down, people aren’t going to be mean to them, they’re not going to get bullied, they have a coach who is going to help reinforce positivity.  I find just in my experience with coaching that has had the most profound effect on probably 99% of all of my players.” This atmosphere is something that Tracy and the Thorns Academy aim to develop and nurture in every aspect of their lives. “We try and do activities and team building off the field… Having on the field chemistry as well as off the field chemistry is important.” All athletes and coaches participate in community service together, analyze game tape, and even go on outings as a team. Tracy recalls how in pre-COVID times, during travel games, the team would go to the movies, the mall, and even college visits. 

A huge goal of Thorns Academy is to create successful adults. It’s also about making sure their athletes enjoy themselves and create meaningful memories. “I want them to look back on their time as me as their coach and I want that to be a very positive time in their life, that they not only became a better soccer player, but a better person, a better teammate, a better friend, and that that was a time where they had a lot of fun.” Many players from the Thorns Academy set goals to play in college or even make it to the professional stage, and Tracy wants to give them all the tools to not only accomplish their goals, but to enjoy the journey along the way.

 Talking to Tracy you would immediately see her modesty. Throughout our entire conversation, she did not mention any of her numerous coaching accolades, such as leading Clackamas Community College’s women’s program to three conference championships and winning Coach of the Year two of those three years. You gather at the end of the day that while the objective to most may be winning, for Tracy, there’s a bigger picture to see. Tracy knows the impact coaches have on their athletes. She knows that she has the opportunity to make real change in the lives of her players and help shape them into women who will succeed in sports and life by passing on her knowledge. Tracy doesn’t see this as an opportunity. She sees it as a duty, as a goal, and most strikingly, as a privilege. “If I can take the information I have learned and help other athletes reach their goals and dreams as a person, that’s what it’s all about. That’s why I’m here and that’s why I do it.”

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