“Studying gave me a lot of tools that I could transfer directly to my career as a football player, both on the pitch and in the dressing room; a dual career for athletes is very important,” says Shay Sade, student of the Master in Sport Management at Johan Cruyff Institute Amsterdam and co-founder of FIRSTEAM USA
Leave your comfort zone. That’s what it’s about if you want to prosper in life. It is a habit that Shay Sade, student of the Master in Sport Management at Johan Cruyff Institute Amsterdam, incorporated to progress as a football player in Israel, where she comes from, to combine a dual career as a football player and a university student in the United States. And she has continued her studies in Amsterdam, now that her days as an active athlete are over and she is aiming for new challenges.
No one had to convince her that continuous education was more than just a choice, it was an extraordinary opportunity. Shay took that opportunity and left her country to broaden her horizons. In 2012, she enjoyed her own American dream: pursuing her career as a professional football player while continuing to study. To this day, it’s still clear to her that this decision changed her life.
“Studying gave me many tools, that I could use instantaneously in team sports,” she says about her experiences. “I could take many skills from the classroom to the sports field and the dressing room. For example, when I served as a team captain, it was important to use my communication skills that I had learned in class.”
Off the field, Shay felt the importance of an education too, in her job as a project manager at the Israeli Culture and Sport Ministry office: “As a football player, you want to move forward, you want to act quickly. At the minister’s office, I didn’t take decisions for the 90 minutes of a football game, but for a whole season or even years ahead. You have to think about the consequences and there’s much more involved. I definitely realized how difficult it is to manage the sports industry.”
“At the minister’s office, I didn’t take decisions for the 90 minutes of a football game, but for a whole season or even years ahead. You have to think about the consequences and there’s much more involved. I definitely realized how difficult it is to manage the sports industry”
Their passion for sport might drive athletes, but there is a lot more at stake when it comes to managing the sports industry, or even when you take over leadership of your own career. Shay is an experienced expert who has dedicated her life to sport. She is co-founder of FIRSTEAM USA, a company that helps athletes combine football with studying in the US. In this interview, she talks about the importance of an education for football players, the position of women’s football, and her own experiences in the football world.
You started playing with a boys’ team. With what mentality did you, as a young girl, start playing football?
Definitely a strong mentality. I started playing football when I was six, and I played with boys’ teams until the age of 14, because in Israel only at 14 were you able to transfer to a women’s team. Back then, there were no youth teams, like under-19 teams, and so on.
When I was a child, I didn’t think about it much, but when I grew older, I realized that you need a strong mentality and a strong belief in your dream. I think this is what helped me to keep going with my football career. It was unique, with many ups and downs, but I had to stay strong, and follow the right path and keep believing in my dream. I always considered myself a footballer when I was young, and when I grew older. That helped me to get through the obstacles back then.
You succeeded at different clubs and as a member of Israel’s national team. How do you think women’s football has changed in recent years?
I would split my answer in two: in Israel and in the rest of the world. In Israel, we are still behind. It is a lot to do with the culture. In Israel, they don’t stimulate girls to play football. It has got better since I was young though. Now there are teams for girls. But it’s still not really accepted in Israeli culture. In the rest of the world, I am thinking of western Europe or the US, it’s different. It’s more common for girls to play and over the last years, a lot of clubs have discovered that it gives them a lot of opportunities —both financial and social— to open up women’s teams. So, it’s all got better, the exposure is huge, but I think we are still missing something. There is still a long way to go.
How do you remember your American experience as a player? Did you discover a new world there?
An amazing world! Every time when I think about my American experience I smile. It was amazing. I loved it. I think it had a lot to do with the fact that it was okay to be a woman football player. It was very acceptable. I felt the community and the university were supporting me. There was not an issue about my gender. And I loved that, I loved America, the opportunities, the facilities in the university, and of course, the combination of studying and playing. It was very unique. I think it was a huge step in my life.
“I loved America, the opportunities, the facilities in the university, and of course, the combination of studying and playing. It was very unique. I think it was a huge step in my life”
Men’s football is much bigger in Europe than in the US, but it seems the opposite in women’s football. How do you explain that?
I think the main reason is because in the US, American football, and baseball or basketball, are more popular there for men. A lot of the men choose those sports over soccer. And then, what happened is that a lot of women do play soccer. If I am not mistaken, their national women’s football team achieved huge success back in the 1990s. That gave them a lot of exposure. I think that is the main reason, that there are other sports that are strong in America. I mean, I had a lot of male friends that didn’t even play soccer.
You’ve said it already, but American sport and American culture in general seem to be much more aware of the importance of dual careers for athletes. Was this one of the reasons why you decided to start your company Firsteam USA?
Yes. I think the American college system is different. We don’t have it in Europe. In America they think about the next step, and they think how they can use their sport skills to achieve an education. It was the main reason why I started the company.
The combination of education and sport helped me, both on and off the field. It gave me a lot of tools in my life, and a lot of experience—a lot of bad experiences, unfortunately, but also good experiences as well. It gave me the opportunity to think about my life, not only in the present—playing football and getting an education—but for the future as well, and what I want to do after I retire. And it was a huge step for me, and something extra that I think that I got over players that went to play in Europe or didn’t decide to go to America.
“The combination of education and sport is super important; first because you are getting an opportunity for after your career, and second, because it helps you with the process of thinking, structure, organization. It gives you a tool that you can actually use in team sports, in the dressing room with your teammates and on the field”
How important is education for athletes?
I read a lot of research that the combination of education and sport helps them on and off the field. I think it is super important. First, like I said before, because you are getting an opportunity for after your career, when you retire. And second, just because it helps you with the process of thinking, structure, organization. It gives you a tool that you can actually use in team sports, maybe in the dressing room with your teammates and maybe on the field. I was captain of the team, so I had to have several skills, with a lot of communication for example, and that is something I could take from the classes and bring to the field.
You said that studying and sport helps you to organize yourself. Sport helped you to be a better student, or was it the opposite?
For me, it was sport that helped me to study better. Like, it was very much on the health side, the way I looked at it. When I had exercised and when I had practiced in the morning, and afterwards I had classes, I could definitely see the difference between a day like that and a day on which I didn’t work out, for example. It was like my body and brain could function better in school. That’s my opinion.
“For me, it was sport that helped me to study better; It was like my body and brain could function better in school”
But I also think that education can help build sport, because education can give a lot of tools to people. I mean, I have friends that have taken this opportunity to improve in so many aspects, some that are involved in businesses, others working with numbers, or others that took a university degree, and I saw their development before they started college and after. It was really huge.
You combined your career as a professional football player with a job as a project manager at the Culture and Sport Ministry office. It was a big change, wasn’t it?
Very much. Fifty percent of my time, I spent sitting behind a desk. That was hard for me, the sitting, doing computer work. I like to move around, I like doing things, going to places, meeting new people. So, sitting behind a desk was very new for me and hard to get used to.
And another aspect was the fact that I was able to see what goes on behind the scenes from a government position. That was different too because my thoughts, my complaints, everything I saw from a players’ perspective. Suddenly I was sitting behind a table making decisions. I had to help my boss, or the other staff members, to make decisions. I had not to worry as a player, but as a staff member that is organizing sport. That was really different, but I think it was good, because it gives you another point of view. But it was a big change for me.
Some people think that sport can be managed with passion. You said that it was hard for you to work as a manager and speak to other managers about certain things. Did you realize how difficult it is to manage the sports industry when you worked at the minister’s office? Do you think people need training to get into the industry?
Definitely. It was really hard. I didn’t realize it would be that hard. There were a lot of decisions to make. And today I do it in my own business. A lot of decisions that as a player you sometimes make with passion, like you said. You want to go, you do it quickly, you don’t think about the consequences sometimes. And as a manager, you have to look at the bigger picture. You don’t have only the 90 minutes of a football game now. You have a whole season or a year ahead, so it’s really difficult. I didn’t realize that before.
“As a player you sometimes make decisions with passion, maybe you don’t think about the consequences; as a manager, you have to look at the bigger picture. It’s really difficult. I didn’t realize that before”
Can you explain how you got that job, and whether that experience made the transition to the sports industry easier?
In Israel, women’s football is semi-pro, so you have to work in addition to playing football. And I was always looking for another job. I started as a personal trainer, and then I decided I would like to have more experience in the sports industry. I got in touch with a former Olympic medal winner, Yael Arad, who is also from Israel, and I told her my story, and what my strengths were, and the fact that I was looking for a job, and she recommended me to the person who would become my boss. He was looking for a former – or current athlete-oriented position. And that’s how I got the job. I think it helped me, to start my career in the sports industry. I had to combine my playing time and my working time. So, that was hard, but it was good that I did it, because it gave me a smoother start for my new career after my football career.
Tell us about your role and goals with FIRSTEAM USA.
We are a consulting company that helps student-athletes obtain a sport scholarship at the universities in the US. I am a co-founder of the company, and I am mainly responsible for the financial side and the connection with the coaches in the US.
I am well-connected all around the US with people on a lot of different levels and I know many, many coaches. So, I travel back and forth to the US, and now to Amsterdam, and I create a lot of connections, I promote our company at conferences, in universities … I was responsible for building the career path for every player, and my partner is responsible for executing it and marketing it. The goal is to be a global company, not just in the Israeli market, because I think this process is amazing for every athlete around the world. So, the goal is to be a global company and show people that you can use your sport skills. Because we are not all going to be a Ronaldo or a Messi. You have to use your sport skills in different aspects, and getting an education. I think, is very important in life, and almost everyone is doing it, so why not us with our sport skills.
“You have to use your sport skills in different aspects, and getting an education. I think, is very important in life, and almost everyone is doing it, so why not us with our sport skills”
How is the Master in Sport Management helping you in your current job?
I think it’s in the name, it is combined, it is sport and management. For me it is sport, because my business works in the sports industry, and it’s management, because I manage myself, I manage my partner, my players and the company itself. So, I use the models that we learn, and there are a lot of tools that I get from the master’s program. Sometimes in marketing, and sometimes in leadership and making the right decision, and sometimes it is about the strategic path that I would want to take. There is a lot of stuff that I can apply in my business actually.
And how did you end up in Amsterdam?
For several reasons. For the Dutch culture in the football area, and for the city of Amsterdam and the English language. In Amsterdam, it is easy to get along with English, and I saw the program is in English, so that was very helpful for me. Amsterdam is an amazing city and I always wanted to get another experience after the US, get another experience of studying abroad. I highly value education and especially learning from other cultures, and the Dutch culture in the football world is unique. And I read about the program, and it showed that it is really practical, and that is what I was looking for, to be more practical and to get information that I can use day-to-day in my business.
“The program is really practical, and that is what I was looking for, to be more practical and to get information that I can use day-to-day in my business”
What are your hopes and expectations for the future?
First, of course, like everybody, to be happy and healthy. But I think mostly to develop my business, and develop myself through this, and to get more exposure in the international world with my company and create more connections around the world.
“I would love to be someone that can help develop women’s football in Israel and also be an ambassador of women’s football in the whole world, to help young players and offer advice from my experience”
When you finish the Master in Sport Management would you like to go back and work in Israel or would you like to be based in Amsterdam, or another city in Europe?
I haven’t decided about my future yet. I would love to be someone that can help develop women’s football in Israel, which will be a long journey, but it is something that I would love to do. I would also love to be an ambassador of women’s football in the whole world, to help young players and offer advice from my experience. It is a long road, and I would love to get the opportunity. I just have to keep working hard for that.