Having worked as a physical therapist for Sacramento Republic FC since the club's inaugural season, this year Katy Norton joined the club's technical staff as its full time Director of Performance. | Photo courtesy Sacramento Republic FC
Ten years into Sacramento Republic FC’s history, there are few people who can guide you through the club’s journey in the way Katy Norton can.
“I’ve been through all the ups and downs,” Norton said recently. “But I think the thing that remains constant is that this club is such a big part of the city and the people that are involved with the club and the fans. There’s just something special about this place.”
Norton served as the club’s physical therapist starting with its inaugural season in 2014. She remembers the highs of that campaign – and the USL Championship title that came with it – and the grind the club has endured in trying to replicate that success in the seasons since.
This year, she’s taken on a new role that’s put her even closer to the daily work that goes into building a competitive club. Appointed as Republic FC’s Director of Performance in January, Norton is now part of the club’s technical staff as she helps manage players each day alongside Head Coach Mark Briggs and his assistants to try and ensure peak performance when gameday arrives.
Norton is finding her way in the new role, which includes coordinating medical care and recovery options for players as well as monitoring daily outputs from training alongside the club’s Strength and Conditioning Coach Luke Rayfield. The value of what she can provide the club having joined Republic FC full time certainly cannot be underestimated.
“I think it speaks volumes to what is important to this club and that is the health and wellness of our players and our staff,” said Norton. “We have great partners in the Sacramento area for recovery options, so coordinating what players need when they need it, keep them running at their full capacity, and having somebody be their go to person for that, I think it’s crucial for the players. It shows our players, you guys are important to us, and we’re going to take the time and bring somebody in that is going to be your advocate all year long.”
Norton’s position as part of a technical staff in the USL Championship isn’t unique. Take a 90-mile drive southwest down I-80 and you’ll find Lisa Bonta Sumii, who has served as Oakland Roots SC’s Mental Performance Coach since the start of the 2021 season. An experienced clinical social worker for more than two decades, Bonta Sumii has brought her passion for the game and for helping players achieve into Roots SC’s organization to evident success.
Oakland Roots SC's Lisa Bonta Sumii is now in her third season as the club's Mental Performance Coach, breaking down barriers that have led to improved on-field performances for the club's players. | Photo courtesy Oakland Roots SC
As times and attitudes toward mental health have changed more broadly in society, what Bonta Sumii has brought to Roots SC has opened new avenues for players and their day-to-day mindset. While in the past there might have been a stigma of weakness attached to that, and resistance to discussing those topics openly, Bonta Sumii has helped break down barriers within Roots SC’s organization to the benefit of the on-field product.
“I think for me, it’s a knowledge base in our approach that I think is very new to sports,” she said. “We can say, ‘hey, we’re giving you tools and skills for life and on the field.’ There’s no judgement of it. It’s a way to be better.
“Our professional athletes want to be at least one percent better on a regular basis, and this is one thing that can tip them over the edge. Them believing that it’s worth a try is because it’s built on a relationship that I build with them – first the connection, and then starting to introduce the work. They start to trust who I am, who I am to the club, and that I mean only the best for them.”
Bonta Sumii and Norton share traits. First and foremost, both were eager soccer players as youngsters, something that helped them remain connected to the game as they moved into their professional pathways. Now they’re among the rising number of women who are actively involved on the technical side of men’s professional sports. While that’s not unprecedented in the USL Championship – see Carrie Taylor’s appointment as an assistant coach on Landon Donovan’s first coaching staff at San Diego Loyal SC – it’s a trend that has gained momentum year-on-year.
From the likes of New Orleans Pelicans assistant coach Teresa Weatherspoon and Dallas Mavericks assistant coach Kristi Toliver among women on coaching staffs in the NBA to Tampa Bay Buccaneers assistant coach Maral Javadifar and Philadelphia Eagles assistant Autumn Lockwood in the NFL, more roles are being taken on at the top levels of professional sports by women.
It’s a trend that both Bonta Sumii and Norton are happy to see.
“I love seeing it,” said Bonta Sumii. “I have a bias. I like that women’s sports would prioritize a woman. Not all women are created equal. Not all men are created equal. But I think for women’s sports, to have women as role models in these professional roles is really important. And I think that it’s important for women to be invited, and celebrated, and to be able to thrive within the capacity of an all-men’s technical team like myself.”
“People are starting to see it doesn’t matter,” added Norton. “Male or female, if you’re the right qualified person for the job and you can bring to the table what the club is looking for, then there’s opportunity for you there. It no longer is I have to fight my way I have to push harder because I’m female. You're the right person for the job because this is what you're qualified to do. And I love that there are so many more opportunities and clubs are seeing value in women being in technical positions.”
Sacramento Republic FC Director of Performance Katy Norton has been welcomed as a full-time member of Head Coach Mark Briggs' technical staff this season. | Photo courtesy Sacramento Republic FC
The successes both have achieved at their respective clubs has also provided its own reward. Norton recounts the joy of celebrating with former Republic FC midfielder Jaime Villarreal when he scored his first goal of the 2019 season. Having been central to his rehabilitation after a broken foot curtailed his 2018 campaign, that moment stands out among the successes she’s helped players achieve during her time with the club.
Norton’s work on the sidelines has also offered a visible example for those who have their own aspirations to work in professional sports, too. Her advice for those who do want to follow in her footsteps? Creating and fostering the right connections are key.
“Every person that you meet that’s involved in sports – or in soccer, whatever it may be – that you’re trying to get into, maintain that relationship, reach out to them,” said Norton. “Maintain contact with them every couple of weeks, because all those relationships can help guide you at some point in your career. It’s really about making the connections and letting people know this is where I’m at and this is what I’m interested in.
“It might feel like a far-fetched thing, but it’s not. You just keep putting yourself out there.”
As much progress has been made, there’s the recognition that there’s much more that needs to happen to open the pathways more broadly for women’s careers in men’s professional sports.
For Bonta Sumii, though, once that tipping point is reached, the potential for the USL Championship or League One to see its first woman Head Coach might not be too far away.
“I think we’re making different steps and striving toward that every day, every month, every year,” said Bonta Sumii. “Not to take for granted the positions that women have now in whatever capacity that might be and highlighting them and recognizing the different challenges that it might have and normalizing that, putting attention to it, but also [getting to] where they say, ‘let the gates open’. Let us all come to where we want to go and prove that we can be just as effective given the chance.
“You know, we live in a society, in a country, where men are prioritized and that’s the deal. We’ve just got to keep making strides to challenge that.”