Ieva Kibirkštis interview on Women’s Soccer United
Ieva Kibirkštis: “I am the first female head coach for a national team in Lithuania – it is an absolute honour”.
This month coach Ieva Kibirkštis became one of the youngest people to ever coach a team at a UEFA U-17 Women’s Championship finals tournament – Having already made history as the youngest person to coach in Lithuania, and the first female Head Coach for the Lithuanian National Teams!
At just 27 years old (26 when she first took the role), Kibirkštis is the head coach of the Lithuania WU17 team who recently took part in the UEFA Women’s U-17 Championship finals, hosted in Lithuania.
Kibirkštis was born in Canada to Lithuanian parents, and played at the highest level as a striker/defender, representing her country at U17, U19 and senior level and as well as being a part of Mount St Mary’s University(USA) women’s soccer team where she earned a Bachelor’s in Psychology (and minor in sport management), and then completed a Master’s degree in Sports Psychology at the University of Jyväskylä (Finland). Ieva has also achieved a UEFA B License (currently completing UEFA A license in Sweden) and NSCAA Advanced National Diploma.
The Women’s U17 EURO competition concluded last week which saw Spain beating Germany in the final to become Champions. In an exclusive interview with Women’s Soccer United, Ieva Kibirkštis reflects on her experiences at WU17 EURO, what motivated her to become a coach and her ambitions for the future.
Women’s Soccer United: When did you realise you had a talent for coaching and what motivated you to pursue it as a career?
Ieva Kibirkštis: I began coaching as a way to make a little extra money when I was around 15-16 years old, and I was instantly hooked. I prioritised playing, while coaching on the side at the club-level and at camps.
My college career was littered with injuries, in which time I spent all my extra time and days “off” coaching at a local club and began completing my coaching certifications.
I decided to hang up my boots at 23 years old after getting what might have been my 4th big concussion and realising that my pursuit of a playing career was not bringing me joy. I shifted to working hard on pursuing a coaching career and it was the best decision I ever made—I absolutely love this job!
I’m very thankful that Kristianstads DFF (Sweden) took me in as a youth coach and a translator for the professional teamthree years ago. They helped me take my first steps in elite coaching in Europe and helped me see and experience top-level football.
Women’s Soccer United: You started your football career as a player (defender) and reached the highest level having represented Lithuania at Youth and Senior teams. How easy was it to make the transition from player to coach, how valuable were your previous experiences to make the move easier?
Ieva Kibirkštis: As a player for the Lithuanian national team, I wanted to help in any way I could to develop the women’s game in the country—at the time it was as a player, and this time it was as a coach.
My previous experiences helped, as I could reflect back on my time as a player and better lead my players into competition. I knew what it felt like to, for example, play against stronger European teams and deal with negative media—I had been in most of the same situations the players had already faced or would face during this tournament, and it helped me prepare the team to better overcome these obstacles.
Women’s Soccer United: At 27 years old, you are the youngest ever person to manage Lithuania WU17, how did the opportunity to coach the youth national team arise, and was taking the role an easy decision to make?
Ieva Kibirkštis:I completed my UEFA B license in Lithuania in 2016 and by the end of the year was offered a position as Technical Director of the project that was preparing the team for the WU17 EURO Championship we were hosting in May 2018. I began as Technical Director in January 2017 and in March 2017 I was handed the position as Head Coach of the team—it was a complete surprise and it took some time to wrap my head around it, but I couldn’t say no.
I had no previous experience as a head coach of a national team before and decided to take the opportunity head-on and learn along the way! I am very grateful that the Lithuanian FA took the risk and hired me, especially since I am the first female head coach for a national team in Lithuania—it is an absolute honour.
Women’s Soccer United: In your opinion, does being a young head coach have any advantages or disadvantages compared to your peers?
Ieva Kibirkštis: The benefits of being a young coach are that, due to the lack of experience at this level, I am driven to learn and improve and that the closeness in age between the players and I makes it easier to find common ground and build relationships. However, age may be irrelevant because older coaches can do the same thing—I firmly believe that the best coaches are eternal learners!
The disadvantages we had in being a young staff were that we had no previous experience to build this on and since there was no structure when we joined, we had to start completely from zero. We quickly turned this into our advantage because we got to experience creating a system from scratch and learn an incredible amount along the way—a lot of trial and error!
Women’s Soccer United: Let’s look back at the UEFA U-17 Women’s European Championship 2018, did you feel under any added pressure being the host country, or were you able to use this to your advantage?
Ieva Kibirkštis: There is of course a lot of pressure leading into a championship like this, and we had difficulty handling it in the first game against the Netherlands. However, we used it more to our advantage in the games against Finland and Germany—we used the crowd’s support as a means to get extra energy on the pitch.
Women’s Soccer United: How did you judge Lithuania’s performances at WU17 EUROs?
Ieva Kibirkštis: We got better from one game to the next. Against the Netherlands we were definitely stressed—as much as we tried to prepare for this game, experiencing it first-hand is a whole otherstory. Against Finland we played with more heart and stuck closer to the tactical plan, and the support we got during the game by our fans and peers was incredible. The first half against Germany was special as we were only down 0-1, and the girls gave their absolute all. We were down to 10 players half-way through the first half, which came to our disadvantage in the 2nd half.
We are at a stage in the development of women’s football in Lithuania where we need to be looking into development before we can focus on results. Going from playing against Baltic teams to then play against the best in Europe is a huge jump, and this championship allowed us to experience the level we are hoping to achieve in the next 5-10 years.
Women’s Soccer United: How well did you know your Group A opponents Germany, Finland and the Netherlands ahead of the tournament?
Ieva Kibirkštis: We played against Germany in the WU17 Preparatory Tournament in August 2017 and were excited to meet them again to see how much we had developed since then.
We watched and analysed game film from each team’s Elite Round games and created a game plan for each—we were primarily focused on our team’s performance, while the game plan included the weaknesses and strengths of the opponents and how it matched the strengthsof our team and which of our principles we would need to pay special attention to. It was all about finding solutions.
Women’s Soccer United: What are some of the lessons you have learned as a coach during the WU17 EUROs?
Ieva Kibirkštis: The amount I learned during the WU17 EURO about myself as a coach was incredible and fills up many pages in my coaching journal, but to keep it short I would say that the top three things I learned were: 1) how to cope with stressful situations and help others cope (players and staff), 2) that I need to focus even more about details in training, 3) this tournament supported our philosophy that finding the positives and solutions is always a better choice than dwelling on negatives and the past.
Women’s Soccer United: What’s next for Lithuania WU17 in terms of your main focus/aims?
Ieva Kibirkštis: The next challenge for Lithuania’s WU17 is Baltic Cup with games on July 1 & 2.
My future as the head coach of the team is still very unclear. I would love to keep developing this team over the next few years, however that is unfortunately not my decision to make.
Women’s Soccer United: How would you describe your coaching style?
Ieva Kibirkštis: My coaching style will vary according to the team I am working with, but in general I promote creating a positive environment where the players want to learn and improve. I also believe that seeing and getting to know the players as people first is critical. And finally, I believe in the importance of getting out of comfort zones and the value of giving full effort to succeed.
Women’s Soccer United: Finally, what personal aims have you set yourself for the future?
Ieva Kibirkštis: Even if my time in the Lithuanian FA comes to an end, my assistants and I have talked about still helping players in Lithuania to go study in University and play abroad after high school—we set a goal number and will work towards that on the side.
As for my own career, I have fluctuated quite a bit over the past few years on whether I want to work in youth development or work my way up to the professional level. After this experience, I have decided that I will work towards the latter andget into the senior women’s game. Whether that means that I work as an assistant for a women’s team or work in elite youth football and make my way up, I do not know yet. All I know is that I will continue to learn from as many people as possible and not allow myself to get comfortable.
Thank you Ieva for taking the time to answer our questions. We look forward to following your career and wish you all the best for your future endeavours.