Coach Erin McNulty discusses the transition from her successful goalkeeping career. She led two different universities the the NCAA finals, competed for the Canadian National Team and played professionally in the United States and Norway. Now she leads the goalkeeping program at the Vancouver Whitecaps’ academy, teaching aspiring players technique & tactics, but also the importance of determination and effort.
Tony Nicalo: [00:00:00] Hello and welcome to the Beautiful Game, a series exploring personal improvement and resiliency through interviews with soccer coaches from around the world. Beautiful Game is brought to you by Weasels FC, a brand for the tenacious, quick witted, and occasionally underestimated. I am your host, Tony Nicalo.
Join me as we learn to live, work, and play better with more confidence, resilience, and success.
I’m here with Erin McNulty, former national player and Canadian national team member. She was a two time NCAA finalist. She just completed her National B license and is now leading the goalkeeping program at the Whitecaps Elite Academy and is also a goalkeeper coach with Cliff Avenue and Field Art.
So happy to have her here today to talk to us about player development and continuous improvement and resiliency. Welcome, Erin.
Erin McNulty: [00:01:02] Thanks for having me.
Tony Nicalo: [00:01:03] So with such a long and successful playing career, what was the transition like from being a player to being a coach?
Erin McNulty: [00:01:11] Well, I think it was a little bit difficult at first, just because you’re in such a routine and the professional season, it’s just you kind of get in the habit of, okay, season’s done. Am I staying? What’s my next move? And I think for the last year when I was playing, I knew that I was going to eventually transition out. I didn’t know it would be into coaching right away. And actually, when I first finished, I was coaching, you know, maybe two or three hours a week. And I was so really enjoying it.
It was nice to be on the field with all the kids and to be sharing something that I’m passionate about. And it kind of just led to more and more time on the field. And I’m into some of the new roles that I’m in.
Tony Nicalo: [00:01:47] What was the hardest thing mentally? When you first started coaching, did you want to sort of play a lot in the games with the people you were coaching or…
Erin McNulty: [00:01:56] Yeah, for sure.
I think there’s definitely a void when you go from being a professional athlete and in the national team program to all of a sudden having to switch out of that. And, you know, I went in and got a normal job and like all those things. So I think it definitely was a big transition. I definitely like to hop in with the kids and play and touch the ball, but yeah mentally it’s definitely a big transition out of there.
Tony Nicalo: [00:02:19] Let’s talk a little bit about your playing career. You grew up in Winnipeg, and then you were, you were just 15 when you started playing with the Canadian youth national teams.
Erin McNulty: [00:02:30] Yeah.
Tony Nicalo: [00:02:31] What were the differences between the players who were on the youth national teams with you, and then the sort of regular kids who you had trained with in in Winnipeg?
Erin McNulty: [00:02:43] Yeah, I’d say definitely a higher level of consistency, so being able to be like a technically and tactically and then also mentally and physically. It’s like being one step above and being there consistently versus, you know, sometimes you see bursts of things from players, but definitely consistency.
And then I’d say mentality. So being able to go and work on your own, you know, if a coach says you need to be better at something, they’re not going to wait for a training session to work on that. They’re going to go and take it upon themselves and you know, go kick a ball against the wall or work on their fitness and things like that.
Tony Nicalo: [00:03:16] So a bit of self motivation.
Erin McNulty: [00:03:18] Yeah, for sure.
Tony Nicalo: [00:03:19] and then is there something that you did personally to sort of develop those skills and, and consistency ahead of other players that you played with before that?
Erin McNulty: [00:03:30] Yeah, I think like growing up Winnipeg definitely wasn’t a hotbed for soccer. And I was really lucky, you know, my parents really supported me and I remember dragging my dad out to the gym at six in the morning because I was a really scrawny kid.
So like working, like some strength exercises, some fitness. I was always dragging him out to the field to work on my kicking and things like this. And I really took it upon myself to push myself an extra, you know, 10 15 minutes after training and coming out on days when we didn’t have training.
And then just preparing for an opportunity and when the opportunity came, I was ready. So it was good.
Tony Nicalo: [00:04:04] That determination led you to a scholarship to play at Florida State. There you were a starter as a freshman and made it all the way to the NCAA finals, but then you sat out your sophomore year. After that run to the NCAA finals. Why did you do that? And what was that like?
Erin McNulty: [00:04:27] So with the under 20 national team if we wanted to be part of the world cup year, we had to sit out from our college season and we actually all moved over to Vancouver. So we were in a residency camp kind of with the Whitecaps and the National Team.
So I played for their W-League team in the summer, and then right after that we went into a residency camp all the way through the college season. And then the World Cup, I believe was in November.
Tony Nicalo: [00:04:49] Was that hard going from, you know, you as a freshmen, you win the starting job, you lead the team all the way to the NCAA finals almost win a national championship. And then instead of your sophomore year being able to come back and have a go at it again you’re back with different teams, and even academically, was it challenging? You were a Dean’s list student, so did you take that year off academically as well, or were you studying remotely?
Erin McNulty: [00:05:18] Yeah. So that year I studied remotely, so I took I think like four courses in the fall. I just did them whenever I had time. And then in terms of being difficult sitting out, it was definitely a hard decision for me at first because I enjoyed it so much. The coaches were great.
I had a lot of really close friends on the team and some of those girls, it was going to be their last season, so I kind of went back and forth. But in the end I decided that I wanted to be at the national team. We also had a really good team. We beat the United States in qualifying, and I felt like we had a really good chance in the World Cup.
Tony Nicalo: [00:05:50] you were on that team that won the qualifying, the CONCACAF qualifying tournament, and then you played in that U20 World Cup, and you played with the National Team for a few years after that as well. And while you were playing professionally later, what was it like going from being sort of the starter on the team who was having success, and then later you weren’t getting as many minutes, but you stayed with the team anyway?
Erin McNulty: [00:06:21] With the national team?
Tony Nicalo: [00:06:21] Yeah.
Erin McNulty: [00:06:22] So I guess the transition from the twenties into the full team, it was a little bit difficult. We had a whole different coaching staff come in and they came in from Italy, so it was kind of a different mentality.
I was definitely one of the younger players in the team, and I guess they weren’t totally supportive of players staying in the States either. They wanted a lot of the players to come back to Canada, so I found that very difficult, basically facing a choice of what I wanted to pursue. And education is obviously important to me.
and I had a school that was paying for my education, so it wasn’t really an option for me at that point. But yeah, I mean, difficult always getting used to different roles, but when I’m in a third or a second goalkeeper position, I was able to learn from some of the older players and different coaches as well.
So there’s always kind of a balance there.
Tony Nicalo: [00:07:08] You talk about the importance of education to you and after you graduated from Florida State. You then went to Penn State to pursue your master’s in higher education and after having made it to the national championship game and your freshman year at Florida state, and then you’re at Penn state. One of the older players, probably as a, as a grad student. And you made it back to the NCAA finals again. How was it different from the, from the first time you made it there?
Erin McNulty: [00:07:40] When I came into Penn State, I think we might’ve been ranked like low thirties. So it was it’s definitely a challenge coming in and trying to rally players that were already there and new freshmen and trying to help players believe that we could do it.
And I knew from my experience as a freshman player and at Florida State that it was possible. And actually, so the first year I was there, we lost in the sweet 16 and I was granted a six year. So that was the year we ended up making it all the way and we just, we had a special team that year. You could kind of tell from the beginning, just all the work that people put in before the preseason. A lot of accountability and kind of all the pieces just came together at the right time.
Tony Nicalo: [00:08:17] And then from there you went and played professionally. You had success there with the Sounders. You won conference awards, and you were thought of as one of the top keepers in the W-league. But instead of staying there, you then took the opportunity to move to Norway’s top league. I know that prior to that you had traveled a lot with youth teams. What was it like adapting culturally and what were the huge differences between the league that you were in, where you were one of the top goalkeepers to the new league?
Erin McNulty: [00:08:46] It was a little bit difficult because at the end of the Sounder season, it was kind of the midway point for the Norwegian season.
So I joined, I think they were the top team or the second team at that point, and they had a really good goalkeeper. She was the goalkeeper for Iceland, so I knew kind of coming in, I was going to have my work cut out for me. But my first half season there was a great experience. There were other Americans on the team. So it was nice to have a little bit of familiarity. Everyone was really nice, so it was kind of easy to adapt. And you know when you’re going to training and still playing soccer, there’s that familiarity there as well. But yeah, it was a great experience for me.
Tony Nicalo: [00:09:21] You went from one of the top keepers in the W-league to made the transfer to Norway. You knew it was going to be hard. And then you weren’t getting playing time at that first club that you moved to, and then you either you move to Lillestrom either on loan or another transfer, and then did you finally start getting minutes and what was that period of time from being people think that you’re one of the top keepers in the league that you’re playing in to now I’m not getting minutes? How did you have that resiliency during a difficult transition?
Erin McNulty: [00:09:54] You know, on the first team I was at, I think our coach used to say, we have two number one goalkeepers. And for me, I had less game experience and if things are working, like that’s just the way it is for goalkeepers when you’re in a professional environment.
But for me it’s just the same thing that, you know, through college and even before college and the youth national team, like I just try to focus on getting as much as I can out of the training and getting better every single day. And then when an opportunity came to go to a team that was ranked above at the halfway point and that season, it seemed like a good choice at that point.
Tony Nicalo: [00:10:24] As part of your transition, there’s a video that is still available about when you were introduced as a player at Penn State and you were asked what you were going to do with your higher education degree that you were studying for. And even then, which is probably seven years ago now, you sort of knew what it was that you wanted to do.
You said you were going to coach and maybe start a business and you ended up starting at least one if not two businesses with your private goalkeeping Academy and then also with another national team player. You started the mentor lab to help coach other players on that process of going from being an elite youth player to university and professional career. How has playing and coaching made it easier to start that business?
Erin McNulty: [00:11:12] You know, I think there’s a lot of details around recruiting and the opportunities that are available, especially for young girls. And I think there’s a misconception, at least for a lot of Canadian families, that the opportunities are only there for the best players and the ones that are in the national team.
And seeing all the opportunities that there are. And my teammate, Emily, comes from a small city on the Island as well. And just knowing that these opportunities are available, and trying to help educate people on what they can do to take advantage of them is something really important. Soccer opened up a lot of avenues for me. I’ve met a lot of great people. It’s done a lot for me. So I’m hoping to be able to give something back and help people understand what actually is out there.
Tony Nicalo: [00:11:52] As part of your coaching journey, you’ve just completed your national B license . But you still have another job in sales and marketing with a technology startup, and we’re actually here in their offices today, Unbounce, Unbounce dot ca. Are there lessons that you’re able to apply from your playing and coaching career to your work in technology or vice versa? Are there things that you able to adapt from the startup world to help players be more productive or play better?
Erin McNulty: [00:12:25] There’s definitely a lot of transferable skills from being a student athlete and a professional athlete over into the workplace. Like just being able to work in a team or being able to stick to deadlines, being really accountable and all of those things.
And then I think , likewise going the other way. We do a lot of leadership training here. You know, I had to start in an environment where I wasn’t really familiar with everything going on and trying to navigate that and you know, that can relate back. But yeah, I definitely like working in a team, leadership skills, all of those things.
Tony Nicalo: [00:12:55] And then you’ve recently been named the goalkeeping coach for the Vancouver Whitecaps. They’re elite Academy program, but you’re still coaching local club as well. What differences do you see in the players that are selected and at the elite level, these for the white caps compared to the local club team players?
Are they, are they the same differences that were there when you made that transition from club player to youth national team player? Or are there new differences that have have developed in the last decade or so?
Erin McNulty: [00:13:28] I mean specifically for the goalkeepers, I think. The game has come a long way and it’s developed.
And I think first and foremost a player needs to be a good athlete, a good soccer player, and then a good goalkeeper. So definitely having goalkeepers that are able to play with their feet. And I said all the time, it’s like I want goalkeepers that can do the basic things right all the time or most of the time. And then we can work on the big diving saves. I’d rather be working with kids who are really technically sound and help them get to that point before we work on other things. And I want them to be able to understand, you know, why we’re training, what we’re training, how they’re able to make diving saves, not just tossing a ball at them and letting them go.
And I think sometimes at the youth level, we don’t break down the techniques enough and it’s just like, okay, here you go. Like figure out how to do it. So I think definitely that. And then again, like mentality. Commitment, like the kids in the Rex program here, we’re training, you know, four to five times a week.
They’re playing against boys and they have a strength program. So there’s some differences there as well.
Tony Nicalo: [00:14:25] You must sometimes with all of the new law changes, even the changes, this summer on goal kicks, as a goalkeeper when you were at Penn State who were getting assists, like Ederson and Allison, the Brazilian goalkeepers, do these days playing with your feet, you must sometimes think, Oh, maybe I should start playing again.
Erin McNulty: [00:14:42] Yeah. You know, there’s definitely some moments that when I think of , I get a little smile again, and I’m like, Oh, maybe I’ll join a women’s team or this and that. But I think I definitely get the fulfillment from coaching and being on the field that way. Just being able to share my experiences with, with the kids. I’m coaching.
Tony Nicalo: [00:14:56] Those skills that you had as a player, the technical ability, the tactical ability, the mental ability, how do you teach those to the players that you coach?
Erin McNulty: [00:15:07] I think some stuff can’t be taught. I think definitely like coming in with with a good attitude.
Like you can tell you can kind of tell kids and help them improve things. But there’s definitely things that I think come naturally for some kids. And then in terms of the mental side, for sure, for goalkeeping, it’s a big thing. If you make a mistake or you let a goal, and it can be really hard to recover from that in a game.
So I’m very much, you know, think about it for a couple seconds, forget about it and think more about it after the game. And I’m definitely big on in training, giving a hundred percent every day, trying to get a little bit better every day. And then when it comes to the game, just let yourself play. You’ve done all the hard work and you’ve done all you can do. So definitely the mental side.
Tony Nicalo: [00:15:47] The mental side and preparation and just having that mentality that you can get a little bit better every day. As a former goalkeeper, myself and a member of the keeper union, not at your level, but that comfort with pressure being, you know, one of the players on the field, maybe the only player on the field who can’t make a mistake because if you’re a striker and you miss 15 shots, but score one you’re still a hero, but if you make 15 saves and have a howler and let one in, it’s the opposite for a goalkeeper. So that ability to deal with pressure. It’s easy to say to a young goalkeeper you think about your mistake for two seconds, think about what you could’ve done differently and then let it go.
It’s easy to say, but sort of, it’s something that’s hard to do. what are the differences between players that take that on board and cope with the pressure and players who don’t really get over the last goal that they gave up?
Erin McNulty: [00:16:45] You know, I think it kind of comes back to why you’re playing and where you see yourself going from there.
for me, I remember being a youth player, I always had a bigger goal and a bigger picture in mind. So I, it was easy for me to be like, okay, I’ll think about that later. I got a job to do now. And knowing that every mistake is a learning opportunity as well. But it definitely takes practice in games.
You feel like all the eyes are on you if you make a mistake, and it’s true, a striker can put 15 balls beside the goal and score one and they’re the hero and it goes the opposite way. And it’s tough for a goalkeeper, but you gotta enjoy what you do so it comes back to that as well.
Tony Nicalo: [00:17:20] Over your playing career. I think you definitely displayed a great deal of resiliency and determination and had that greater goal and path in mind for yourself. Was there a particular coach that taught you resiliency or, or other mental skills?
Erin McNulty: [00:17:38] I think I probably take a little bit from every coach I had. I think it was in 2011 I had a really bad knee injury when I was playing here for the Whitecaps. It caused me to have two surgeries, and I remember just being really stressed about it as I was getting ready to go to Penn State, and I remember him saying , you have one day to sulk about it, and then it’s onwards and upwards. Like you got to figure out how you’re going to get from point A to B. So definitely Hubert Busby. He was actually the assistant with the Jamaican National Team in the World Cup. And then definitely my college coaches. And of course national team, goalkeeper, coaches, and I think just taking pieces from everyone.
Tony Nicalo: [00:18:12] Out of all those coaches that you’ve had or a coach that you have never worked with, but is there a coach that you’d like to talk to about player development and continuous improvement , that you would like to learn from in your own coaching journey, and if there is, what would you ask them?
Erin McNulty: [00:18:28] Yeah, I think there’s definitely some in the Whitecaps, Mike Norris, Reagan Hall. He was actually a previous coach of mine in the twenties and then I think, down in Portland, there’s the former German national team goalkeeper on the women’s side, Nadine Angerer. And all of them deal with different sets of players.
I would like to know how they break things down for goalkeepers, how they work on the mental side of games and also dealing with talking to goalkeepers who are your number one goalkeeper and keeping the number two and the number three motivated as well. And I’m sure I could learn a lot from all of them.
Tony Nicalo: [00:19:00] Any final tips, not just for soccer players, but just people about a lesson that you’ve learned from your career as an athlete or as a coach that makes you more productive or capable or resilient in your, just in your daily life?
Erin McNulty: [00:19:17] Mm hmm. Coming back to soccer and the workplace and just generally, just never trying to stop improving and just always trying to be a little bit better. Learn from people and stay humble.
Tony Nicalo: [00:19:29] Great. Thanks, Erin.
Erin McNulty: [00:19:30] Yeah, you’re welcome.
Tony Nicalo: [00:19:32] Thank you for joining us today on the Beautiful Game. We hope you also have some new ideas and inspiration to live, work, and play better. Please subscribe to get future episodes and you can join the conversation with your host, Tony Nicalo on Twitter @weaselsFC.