How female coaches can add a different dimension to men’s professional sport

As the 2020 American NFL season drew to a close with Tom brady winning her seventh Super Bowl record, it was interesting to note another sports first: the three women involved in the game – two coaches and an official.

With eight women coaches currently in the NFL, there is still a long way to go when it comes to parity, but it looks like women are finally entering elite men’s athletic training in the United States.

Sadly, the same cannot be said for most of the major team sports in the UK. Many elite sports, including rugby and locust have a poor track record in this regard. But perhaps the most prominent sport to embrace female coaches to date is professional football (soccer).

A contributing factor may be that when senior, experienced female coaches are linked to men’s football, the expectation seems to be that they should start from the bottom. Take the case of Emma Hayes, the manager of Chelsea, the defending women’s Super League champion. Despite this leadership position, Hayes has recently been linked with the vacant managerial post in the AFC Wimbledon men’s side – a side currently struggling to clear English football’s third tier relegation zone in League One.

Hayes beaten down rumors and said they were an “insult” to women’s football, adding:

I don’t know why anyone would think that women’s football is a step backwards (compared to men). The world of football must wake up. Although the game is played by a different gender, it is the exact same sport.

So slow progress is being done in other areas of life, not a single woman has been welcomed into professional men’s football training in the UK to date.

But why? Numerous studies over the past decade have focused on the issue of Power in men’s football. In particular, they highlighted the autocratic culture of domination and subordination that has existed in some clubs.

This is seen in coaches and managers controlling many aspects of the football environment and demanding full compliance from their players (especially young players), regardless of how this might correspond to contemporary notions of equality, rights and inclusiveness. For example, studies have cited coaches using aggressive language, humiliation and bullying as tactics to instill fear and create conformity in players. Such an environment is unlikely to continue like this with female coaches, as research shows their approach tends to be very different.

Cycle of masculine ideas

Research in 2020 suggested that coaches begin to develop their coaching beliefs (which later turn into coaching practice) throughout their childhood and playing career. In addition to playing experience, the coaching experience they gain at lower or developmental levels – and the mentors they learn from – are often cited as major factors. These social and cultural experiences shape future coaches in significant and often unconscious ways.

It is therefore not surprising that while male coaches play soccer as juniors in male environments, play professionally in male soccer, coach professional male teams academically and are mentored by other male coaches from around the world. elite, their experiences of the power-dominated men’s football culture may predispose them to this form of autocratic coaching. Thus, the men’s game can be trapped in a power-dominated training cycle, with little room for maneuver.

Men’s coaches have also dominated women’s football in England until recently. Today, eight of the twelve leadership positions in the Women’s Super League are held by women. But just two years ago, that number was only four. At the national level, Sarina Wiegman, the current coach of the Netherlands, should soon to resume the Lionesses of England after former England international Phil Neville resigned.

Wiegman is one of the few female coaches in the world to have professionally coached men’s football, having worked as an assistant coach for a single season at Sparta Rotterdam in the Dutch league in 2016.

What female coaches bring

Women coaches, many of whom may have played a variety of sports besides soccer, may have experienced very different environments than men and therefore have been shaped in very different ways.

According to a survey published in 2015, elite female athletes want to be able to talk about anything with their coaches. They want to be comfortable asking questions and receiving answers, with input, negotiation and flexibility. This is certainly what I have observed both as a coach researcher and developer and it seems to be in stark contrast to the autocratic male coaching style highlighted by previous studies.

One of the few studies to consider this issue noted that female coaches (again, former elite athletes) were seen to have better relationships with their athletes and greater empathy than male coaches.

Back across the Atlantic in American football, Jennifer King broke new ground in 2020 by becoming the first black coach of a men’s team with Washington when he was appointed assistant running back coach. Of the 14 teams that made it to the 2020 NFL playoffs, six had female coaches on staff. About this, the king noted:

I don’t think it’s a weirdness that these playoff teams had so many female coaches involved because these coaches created cultures of growth and inclusion and those things usually create wins.

It might be hard to imagine now, but the qualities that female coaches can bring – and the differences from what male coaches can currently provide – may well be the ingredient that professional football (not to mention ‘others elite sports) has been missing to help bring UK gaming fully into the 21st century.

This article first appeared in The conversation.
Pete holmes is a Senior Lecturer in Sports Coaching at Nottingham Trent University

Sara R. Cicero