This Japanese woman is praised as “the best” by many top soccer athletes. Introducing Sheila Tatsunami, the athletic trainer for Seattle Sounders FC. She surpasses the limits of her “trainer” title, looking over all aspects of the soccer world.
Interview by Naoko Watanabe. Translated by Bruce Rutledge.
Photos by Naoko Watanabe / Photo Courtesy of Seattle Sounders FC
Sheila Tatsunami began playing soccer in elementary school and played at Indiana University while majoring in athletic training, sports biomechanics, and exercise physiology. After graduating, she was hired in 2009 as the head athletic trainer for the Austin Aztecs in the United Soccer League. Since then, she has worked all over as an athletic trainer, including stints with the US national team. She has been working with the Seattle Sounders since 2013. She is also working with the second-tier (USL Championship Division) Tacoma Defiance as head athletic trainer and is helping player development at the Sounders Academy.
Seattle Sounders FC www.soundersfc.com
Tacoma Defiance www.tacdefiance.com
Relationships built in the locker-room
“I’m backstage,” says Sheila. We landed this interview ahead of the September 21 National Women’s Soccer League in Tacoma, a game that no soccer fan would want to miss. What sort of work does an athletic trainer do? I trailed Sheila for half of her workday.
After she attends the early morning coaches meeting, she joins the players who are having a meal or relaxing before practice. The youngest player on the academy is 14. These athletes are selected from all over the world, but they still maintain youthful expressions. Some foreign players even live here by themselves away from their parents. She joins the players in the team cafeteria, watches them come and go from the locker room, and calls out to some, offering advice. She introduces the players to me: “The team leader last year on the American national team,” “A great player who jumped to the first team of the academy,” etc. It’s as if she is praising her own children. The distance between Sheila and the players is not far. I was surprised at how close they seemed.
“For them to give their best performance, I need to forge relationships where they can share what’s hurting or affecting them,” Sheila says. “We’re in trouble if they are too frightened to tell me things. The coach can’t go in the players’ locker room. But I am the person who is supposed to be in there to stay closer to them.”
Creating an environment for athletes to grow
Sheila’s goal is to get at least two players from the second team and the youth academy to go up a rank each year. She also aims to have top youth players to experience playing pro games before they become 17 and to participate in more than 100 pro games by age 21. The original focus of an athletic trainer is to mend players when they get hurt, but Sheila stresses care before a player gets injured. She educates them about how to take care of their health, supports the mental challenges, and creates the best possible environment for the athletes to grow. She also uses data analysis provided by the latest technology. She has players wear monitors with GPS that record movements and heartbeats as well as sleeping patterns and poor health habits both day and night, and inputs the data into a system. She gets information from all sorts of sources so that she doesn’t miss even the smallest changes.
“My style is to try to not make the players notice that I am managing them,” she says. If someone isn’t in his/her best shape, she’ll consult with the coach in a morning meeting and adjust the amount of practice. She won’t just blatantly tell them to skip practice, but instead, put them in a position where they will experience less contact against other players and use other methods to lessen their load. “My role is to let the players challenge themselves while supplying a safety net. When it comes to meals, I don’t tell them what to eat; instead I give them the knowledge and ability to make selections so that they’ll have the requisite energy. In the end, the player decides what and how much to eat.” She is ready to listen to player problems or worries any time, not just during office hours. She’s on call 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
From player to trainer
Sheila was once a soccer player. However, during her college career, she experienced a serious injury. She had chosen to study sports medicine at school, so she used her injured self as an object to study. Once she graduated, she continued to play semi-pro soccer, then in 2009 joined the Austin Aztecs as an athletic trainer. “I was lucky to be involved with a pro team from the start,” Sheila says. “Athletic trainers typically are burdened with lots of chores before they are hired by a pro team.”
After that, she was invited to work with several pro teams as a trainer including DC United Academy and Real Maryland FC. When I ask her which team made the biggest impression on her, she mentions the Western New York Flash, a female pro team. “The year after the women’s pro soccer league WPS fell apart, in 2012, I was hired as head trainer for the team,” she recalls. “Until that time, I was working with men’s teams, and I wanted to bring that same level of care to a woman’s team.” During that difficult time when it seemed like women’s professional soccer would no longer exist, they became focused on producing “fun soccer that a lot of people would watch.” The team pulled off a dramatic comeback win for the championship. “There was so much to say about the future of women’s soccer, but I felt that if we didn’t win, we couldn’t make our argument, so that victory took on a special meaning,” Sheila remembers.
Growing into a world-recognized team
Sheila’s next stop would be Seattle. “I began thinking that I wanted to return to the men’s league, but not to support pro players this time. Instead, I wanted to focus on developing youth players. In Japan and around the world, a lot of players turn pro right after graduating from high school. But at that time, in the US, the normal route was to turn pro after college. However, if you think about the career of a soccer player, that’s too late. I also decided to move to Seattle because I was interested in the newly established Sounders Academy,” she says.
When Sheila started working for the Sounders Academy, they were weak. But soon, they became very strong and are ranked as one of the world’s best academy teams. “Once we became one of the strongest teams in the US, we aggressively entered international competitions. We won a competition in England and played against a Japanese pro team. Before, we would ask to compete against various teams, but now we are getting invited. About two years ago, we were invited to a FIFA-sponsored tournament, a Premier League-sponsored tournament in England, and a large tournament in Mexico,” Sheila says.
While she was working for the Sounders, a new women’s professional league NWSL began in 2013. Sheila got invitations to work as head trainer with the Portland Thorns FC and the Reign FC (formerly Seattle Reign FC). She tasted victory with both teams. “It was true in New York too,” she says with a smile. “I’ve experienced championships with every women’s pro team I’ve worked with.” Other trainers in the industry know about Sheila Tatsunami, as do the American women’s national team and the national youth team. She is sought after. I asked if she will accompany the US national team to the Tokyo Olympics in 2020. “I can’t make that decision,” she says. “But if they select me, I would love to go!”
Japan-US exchanges through soccer
Sheila doesn’t really delineate between her work and private life, nor does she divide those duties. “I have no complaints about this life where I am steeped in soccer,” she says decisively. “In my case, I don’t see work as ‘work.’ It’s more like a hobby.”
When she was teaching kinesiology at university in Austin, there was talk of forming a soccer club. Sheila jumped in and helped with the fitness regimen and even the printing of the uniform logos. When they were short-staffed, she would be the athletic trainer and the equipment manager. “I would treat players, then in between treatments, do the laundry,” she says with a laugh.
She becomes insatiable when it comes to techniques for improving a player’s performance. “When you are working by yourself, you develop your own style. But I think I should keep learning from others. During the offseason, I study the latest techniques under doctors in Europe and Japan. I want my players to have access to the very best treatment and rehabilitation.” The coach she has worked with was a famous player in England, so she was able to study the latest techniques with the team doctor of the prestigious Manchester United.
Sheila’s current goals are to have a Japanese player advance to the Sounders and to have one of the academy’s Japanese players make it to the Japanese national team or a J-League (Japanese professional league) team. “If we can use soccer to bring Japan and Seattle closer, that would make me happy,” she says. “Soccer can bring people together. It is obvious just by looking at the Sounders supporters. As they cheer, they become one. Even when Japanese living here feel afraid about living in a different country, the actions of our Japanese players provide them with courage.”
Reign FC vs. Sky Blue FC
Enjoy the game played by Japan and US national team stars !
September 21, 7pm at Cheney Stadium
2502 S. Tyler St., Tacoma, WA 98405 | Ticket Prices $18/$30 | www.reignfc.com
Nahomi Kawasumi transferred to Sky Blue FC from Reign this season, but she’s coming back “home” for a game in Seattle. “We want the stadium packed for the September 21 game, in part for Kawasumi. There’s also Rumi Utsugi on the Reign, and the American national team stars Carli Lloyd and Megan Rapinoe. It will be a game worth watching,” Sheila says.