We felt very honored to have the opportunity to speak with former Olympic gold medalist & US Women's National team veteran Nicole Barnhart! She gave us her thoughts on the growing women's game in the United States and how it has evolved from it's infancy during her college years. Check out the whole interview below!
You grew up in the youth soccer scene in Pennsylvania and played soccer on the boys side when you were younger. Was this a decision you or was there a lack of opportunity on the women's side of the game at the time? How do you think that prepared you for your step up to college?
When I asked my parents to try out for soccer, I’m honestly not sure any of us really knew what we were getting into. I initially went to tryouts with the intention of just playing on our local rec team. Instead, I ended up being asked to play on the local boy’s travel team. As far as I’m aware, there was not a girl’s program at the time, and the club did not get one for several more years. However, I truly believe that playing on the boy’s team was perfect for me in many ways. I have an older brother, which made me very tough and competitive. I was also pretty tall for my age when growing up. Therefore, I believe that this was the best environment to challenge me at the time, but to also prepare me for my future soccer career. At the younger ages, I wouldn’t say there was much of a different between me and the guys; however, as we got older and they got faster and stronger, it made me adapt my game to be able to keep up. I still love any opportunities I get to train with guys, because the speed of the game forces you to really be sharp and on your toes.
Heading into your time at Stanford, was professional soccer an aspiration of yours? During your time in college, you saw the Women's United Soccer Association (WUSA) formed as well as fold. Did this deter your dreams of professional soccer at all?
After watching the ’99 WWC, I think I pretty much had decided that I was going to play professional soccer and be on the WNT. That was my dream from that point forward. I was fortunate enough to play in the ODP system as well as the YNTs, so I knew that going into college was going to be a big opportunity to continue to grow and develop as a player in order to hopefully make that dream come true. I loved watching the women play in WUSA, so I was very disappointed when my opportunity to watch my role models abruptly came to an end. It was also sad to know that when I graduated that following year there was not going to be a pro league for me to jump into. Luckily for me, I was in a position where I was involved with the WNT, so I still had opportunities to follow the game and continue playing in hopes of a new league forming, unlike many other players whose dreams were crushed and careers abruptly ended when they finished college and there was no league.
Let's talk a bit about your time post-college. You made your national team debut in 2004 but with the WUSA folding, how did you manage to stay sharp and fit in between National Team call-ups? Without a viable professional league, was the Women's Premier Soccer League the only option you had?
Luckily for me, I was still involved with the YNTs as well as the WNT around that time, so I was pretty busy with both of them. The WNT went into a residency program in both 2006 and 2007, so we were very occupied with organized trainings for large chunks of the year. After finishing playing/graduating from Stanford, I made the decision to stick around and be a volunteer coach with the team. Because of this, I had the opportunity to jump in to some of their trainings, train with coach on my own, and train with the guys team as well as some local MLS guys at times. I only played on a WPSL team sporadically.
How would you compare the NWSL currently to previous editions of women's professional soccer you've experienced in the United States? How do you hope to see it grow over the next 5-10 years?
Since I have only played in the WPS and NWSL, it is hard for me to speak on the WUSA. It is encouraging to see the NWSL in its 6th season and the addition of organizations like we have with the Utah Royals coming into the league pushing the expectations and standards, but I believe the league still has a lot of room to grow. Players in this league and past leagues have sacrificed so much to be ambassadors of the women’s game in hopes of creating something great for the future. Therefore, I would love to see this league continue to grow and be successful. Some of the keys to enabling that in my opinion are getting the same support as the men’s game in various facets and seeing the fans that come out and sell out the WNT games do the same for this league. Seeing all players in this league able to make a viable wage is a big hope for the growth of the NWSL and would help keep players in the game longer leading to a strengthened league and fan base, while continuing to push the growth of women’s soccer.
You've made 50+ appearances for the US Women's National Team in your career over the last decade. Talk a bit about your journey to the National Team. Did your standout career at Stanford catapult you into the national scene? How have you been able to maintain such a high level over such long career?
I guess you could say that I was one of those players who came through the “system”. I was part of the ODP program and from there gained exposure and invites to the YNTs. I was a member of the YNT’s for a very long time, so I was already on their radar going into Stanford. I do believe that having a successful college career helped to keep me in the system. Right after college, I was called in with the WNT and had a long career there. I believe that several things have enabled me to keep my career going so long: I don’t like people to tell me I can’t do something, I am willing to work harder than anyone else to get where I want, I constantly want to do whatever I can do become a better player. I like to think of myself as a student of the game and am constantly watching soccer in order learn and understand the game more. I think that constantly expanding my learning of the game makes me a smarter player and that has helped me tremendously the later I get in my career. In addition, I am lucky enough to have had and continue to have many great coaches and teammates that help me stay sharp and continue to push myself both in season and especially in the off season.
During your national team career, you played and competed with arguably two of the greatest goalkeepers to wear the USWNT jersey. What was it like competing with them in training? How do you think this helped your development throughout your career?
I believe that any time you can be in an environment where you are training with the best, you have the greatest opportunity to succeed. By constantly challenging yourself and pushing yourself, you are bound to improve as a player. I think for me, I always went in with the mindset that I was going to train like I was the number 1 goalkeeper because it constantly pushed me to be better, it pushed the players around me to train hard, and it prepared me for when I was called upon. I truly believe that training with the best has helped me tremendously in my career.
You've won multiple Olympic gold medals, various tournament championships as well as league championships, and you've been named the goalkeeper of the year in the NWSL. What do you think your greatest accomplishment as a goalkeeper is and why?
That’s a tough question. I’m not quite sure I can pick out just one, because I feel like each accomplishment means something different and special. I would probably just have to say one of my greatest accomplishments is my long career in the women’s game, and the impact it has allowed me to have on the game as both a player and coach.
Growing up, who did you look up to as a female goalkeeper? You've obviously become a role model and a goalkeeper many younger goalkeepers can aspire to be like; what advice would you give the younger generation?
Growing up, there were not too many female goalkeepers to really look up to. I, of course, loved watching Bri Scurry and wanted to grow up to play on the WNT like her. It was really special when I had the opportunity to later play on the WNT with her; my role model. My favorite goalkeeper on the men’s side is Peter Schmeichel, and I like to think I play a little like him. I think one of my favorite things about what the sport has done for me is that it’s given me the opportunity to be a role model for others, to interact with them and make an impact on them. This is something that I take very seriously, because I know what it is like to be there as youth, looking up to someone doing something that you want to eventually do. I want to be the best example and role model that I can for this reason. Goalkeeping is not an easy position. Sometimes you are out there on an island. I think young goalkeepers need to understand how difficult of a position it is to play, both mentally and physically. I always say that goalkeepers work the hardest of any soccer player, and young goalkeepers need to be prepared for this challenge. Goalkeeper is an ever-evolving position, and one needs to be able to constantly change and adapt to the modern game. There will always be something new to work on and improve and refine. There will be a lot of mistakes made along the way, but that can’t deter a young goalkeeper, because these are great learning opportunities. You can’t learn and grow without being put in situations where you must make live decisions. Focus on the little things, and don’t overlook technique, because these are the things that will allow you to grow down the road.
On the coaching side of things, you've worked both in the college game as an assistant at Stanford and in the youth game running Nicole Barnhart Goalkeeping. What are some of the challenges you face coming from a professional environment as a player to an amateur environment as a coach?
I think one of the biggest challenges for me now is the ability to find as much time as I would like to do the coaching while I am playing. Obviously, when I am in season that is my focus, but I love the opportunity to give back and teach the youth, the next generation of players. It is tough coming from the professional environment where I am training every day and can really focus on many different things, to training young goalkeepers only once a week. It is very rewarding to see improvements in players' abilities and confidence over time, even in the minimal training environment, but at the same time, it is challenging to see them so little and not be able to work on everything you would want to.
Tell us a bit more about Nicole Barnhart Goalkeeping? What was your vision when starting that and where do you want to take it in the future?
My vision with Nicole Barnhart Goalkeeping is that it is my opportunity to give back to the game and use all my experiences as both a coach and player to impact the next generations of players. I know what it is like to grow up without a lot of great goalkeeper specific training options, and even more importantly to not have that training consistently and often. Goalkeeping is a position that is often overlooked, however, it is a very technical position that necessitates very specific and specialized training consistently. I have learned how important a strong foundation of basic fundamentals and a focus on properly developing the technical aspects of the position can help grow any goalkeeper’s game and confidence. The game has given me so much and I am excited to take all my knowledge, experience, love and passion for the game and the position and pass that on to the next generation of players. My aim is to not create robots who methodically repeat things, but rather full players with an understanding of the game and position and the decisions that must be made. I would love to continue coaching when I am done playing and build this into an opportunity where I can work with goalkeepers on regular basis. I would love to potentially have my own facility where I can run this on my own time and in my own space and be able to impact as many goalkeepers in their development as I possibly can.
Last question, firefighter or hockey player...which are we most likely to see you try next in your career?
For some reason, as a kid, I always thought it would be really cool to be a hockey player, even though I had never skated. But I had loved to play floor/street hockey and thought it would be fun to skate around fast and check people. However, today, I would probably say firefighter, because I think it is such an underappreciated position where people risk their lives on a regular basis and are not recognized for it enough. I love the opportunity to do things for others without wanting anything in return, and I think this would be such a great, rewarding opportunity to be able to do so.