Jill Ellis was the 2022 University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign Commencement speaker. Ellis, who won back-to-back FIFA Women’s World Cups as coach of the U.S. Women’s National Team, got her start as the first women’s soccer coach at Illinois in 1997. Below is a copy of her commencement speech, delivered on Saturday, May 14, 2022.
OK, if you can indulge me for a moment, I gotta be a coach and huddle this crew up.
Jill Ellis changes into an orange Illinois hat
Alright… Let's give this a shot …
That's better… now I feel at home!
Thank you so much for that warm welcome. I am honored to be back in Champaign-Urbana and incredibly grateful for this opportunity to join you in celebrating your very special day!
Thank you Chancellor Jones, President Killeen and the entire board of trustees for hanging in there with me since 2020... and allowing me this tremendous honor.
Let me also congratulate the other honorary degree recipients and their families. It is an absolute privilege to share this moment with you. You are truly MVPs and game changers—thank you for rich contributions to humankind.
Now to the all-stars, the classes of 2020, 2021 and 2022…you made it!
I mean, you did it… late nights, exams, research papers, a global pandemic… you are extraordinary and we salute your achievement AND your resilience.
CONGRATULATIONS!! Please give yourselves a hand.
And, as much as we know today is about you, let's pause for a second and appreciate those who rode shotgun with you to get here… your family, your friends and the incredible faculty and staff at the University of Illinois. Let's give it up for them.
Sometimes life brings us full circle and shows us how much we have grown. As we celebrate Title IX's 50th anniversary this year, it feels right that I return to where my career kicked off.
You see... 25 years ago, this university took a chance on me when it added a women's soccer program and named me its first head coach.
I am forever grateful for that shot.
I cut my teeth here, I learned valuable lessons, failed often, made great friends and unequivocally built a foundation I leaned on for the rest of my professional life.
Indeed, what you have experienced and accomplished here these past few years will truly be a gift that will keep on giving.
I came to Chambana with less than five months to pull together a team to compete in the Big 10. Immediately I went internal, and tapped into the remarkable student body that, to this day, powers the U of I. I had to find some players! So we held tryouts, put them through their paces, and picked a group of exceptional young women.
None of them were recruited athletes.
None of them were high school All-Americans.
They came to Illinois to become anthropologists, computer scientists, teachers, engineers….not soccer players.
But those early players embraced a commitment to get up every morning and go a little further than the day before.
They kept working, kept supporting each other and proudly took the field in the blue and orange.
We lost more matches than we won that first year, but that same Fighting Illini spirit that I see in your faces today was in those soccer pioneers.
And yes... the reward of beating Northwestern for our first conference win felt pretty sweet!
Great teams, athletes and leaders share a common thread — a desire to be better tomorrow than they are today.
A desire not targeted on status, gold medals or wealth, but on improvement.
It took me some time to learn that my development as a person was the key to winning, not the other way around.
It was liberating to live, "one day better," and focus on growth over outcome. Failures and consequences became more manageable, risks easier to take and the possibilities more imaginable.
If I could share one simple message with you today to encourage you to unlock all the potential that sits within you, it is to make a commitment to live one day better.
Now… I'm assuming a lot of you, or maybe all of you, were on Green Street last night, so I'm going to give you the Cliffs Notes, or as my daughter likes to remind me, Spark Notes, on the three tools I practice to live one day better.
Number 1: Recalibrate Failure
"One day better" does not translate to an undefeated season, nor does it mean you get the dream internship or the promotion you were hoping for.
Instead it allows you take any failures and boil them down to what they really are: feedback and opportunity.
In 2015, the U.S. Women's Soccer Team won the World Cup—crowned best in the world. We were flying high and brimming with confidence as we headed into the Olympics the very next year.
What followed was the lowest finish in our program's history as we crashed out in Rio in the quarterfinals.
It felt awful—losing stings to the core. And, in today's digital era, it is harder than ever as mistakes get magnified across social media as the size and noise of the criticism grows exponentially.
But there is no shame in failing… only if we fail to learn from it.
We took the feedback from that tough loss to Sweden in the Olympics and set a course to improve and vigorously pursue the opportunity that lay ahead of us… to prepare for the 2019 World Cup in France and repeat as World Champions.
We recruited new talent, evolved our tactical plan, played a very competitive schedule and pushed the players on the field and in the classroom to find another level.
Our reboot was not flawless, change is hard, and we lost some close fought games. But gradually… it came into focus.
Whatever you do, know that the critics will always be in the gallery. My advice… don't allow people who have no relevance to you, to have any power over you.
If your inner circle has feedback, be open to that growth.
But if the random Twitter handle has an opinion about you or your work, shut 'em out.
Ask any coach and they will say the games you lose are the ones that make you a better team.
I took our players to France six months before the world cup to play the host nation. We were in pre-season, but I wanted to test our players against one of the top teams in the world.
We got our butts kicked 3-1, but on the field after the game I said to our players, “We have just seen the best they got, and we are nowhere near a finished product.”
That game showed us areas in which we had to improve, and where we could be exposed by our opponent.
Six months later in front of 50,000 raucous French fans, we knocked them out of the World Cup in the quarterfinals.
That journey from the early exit in the Rio Olympics to the World Cup in France was the toughest period I had experienced as a coach.
We were pushed and stretched to our limits, but there is no doubt the failure and the growth we took after the Olympics was the catalyst to our success in the world cup.
In your lives, you will lose big, and…it will suck.
But when it happens, you have a choice. You can let it bury you, or you assess, recalibrate and let that failure propel you forward.
Second Tool: Choose Bold
Living one day better will not make you fearless… but it will make you fear less.
I will say it again: Living one day better will not make you fearless… but it will make you fear less.
When you recognize failure as opportunity, you let go of your fears. You understand that win OR lose….you will grow from the experience.
I remember calling my dad when I was deciding to become a head coach and take the position here at U of I.
I was anxious about walking away from my assistant coaching position at an ACC power (that I won't name) to take a new role at a non-existent program.
Essentially, it was a start-up.
I was like, “Dad I don’t know what to choose. This is stressful.”
I was seeking some nugget of wisdom from my father when he simply looked at me and said…
“Aren't you lucky ... you have choices.”
In that moment I realized that sitting in the grey area between A or B, or going left or right…was actually a privileged position to be in.
I got to choose, and that choice set the wheels in motion to become the head coach of the US Women's National Team.
After three decades on the sidelines (I started coaching at five in case you were doing the math) I came to another crossroads when I resigned as head coach of the U.S. Women's National Team.
I knew I was ready for a different challenge, but what I didn't realize was that next step would take me off the sidelines.
I was offered a position as the President of professional soccer team….which, by the way didn't yet exist.
I had a few coaching offers at the time, but as I sat at that juncture, I reminded myself, choose bold.
Coaching was in my wheelhouse. Creating million-dollar budgets, building a brand, securing sponsors definitely was not.
My decisions to become a first-time head coach and a club president were not the comfortable choices.
But what made them so intriguing was I didn't have all the answers.
Some of you sitting here have a plan, you know the next step. And for most of you, the unknown awaits... how exciting!
What you both have in your corner are the experiences and knowledge you have gleaned from this great institution.
In your lifetime, you will face countless moments of decision, sit in many crossroads.
I encourage you to choose adventure.
Being bold is trusting yourself, being yourself and challenging yourself.
Number 3. Seek out people better than you
The best decision I ever made as a leader was to surround myself with excellence.
I hired the best sports scientist in the world, I brought in coaches more experienced than me and then I gave them the support to let their talents shine.
My younger self took awhile to learn that when you surround yourself with people better than you, you are making an investment in yourself.
These past few years, you have been surrounded by professors, teammates, peers and friends who have pushed you to grow.
That is the joy and privilege of going to the University of Illinois.
Since your first days on campus, this community has demanded that you live one day better.
Not just that you master a new scientific model or learn to do your own laundry...
This institution asked you to expand your perspective…
to engage with the world around you…
to earn the role of citizen.
When you leave Illinois, you will have countless opportunities to meet new people.
You will build new relationships and join new communities.
Seek out people who are funnier, more strategic, more talented and more creative than you feel.
Seek out the idealists for their vision and the contrarians for their spark.
Surround yourself every day with friends, colleagues and competitors who spur you on.
Sometimes this work can be a real blow to the ego. But the worst that happens is you end up a little humbler.
The best that happens is that you end up as part of the most rewarding structure humans can build...
I was an English major in college, and for those of you graduating with a degree in English…
Don't worry… it’s all going to work out.
Poet Maya Angelou said, "Do the best you can until you know better. When you know better, do better."
From this day forward, knowing better and doing better must be an active choice.
In many ways this environment has ensured your growth.
You've had friends, classes and coaches push you every step of the way.
You've been forced to take risks and step outside your comfort zone.
You've had more than your fair share of challenges and you have weathered them all to end up where you are now, blossoming with potential.
You're about to leave this cocoon.
You will head into the world with all the blessings and responsibilities conferred upon you by this degree.
Whatever you aspire to… finishing a marathon or a book, starting a family or a company… the greatest accomplishments of your life won't happen in an instant.
They will grow out of every minute you choose to put in the work… running, writing, dreaming, loving.
That is my challenge to you...
Choose to live every day, one day better.
Earn your successes with each failure.
Let your risks teach you something unexpected.
Cherish the voices that demand more from you and use your voice to demand more from those around you.
It is your turn now.
Go forth and kick ass!