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How female coaches can help bring professional men’s football into the 21st century

Football coaches with training footballers blurred out.
Football coach Sarina Wiegman training the Netherlands team at the 2019 Women’s World Cup in France. Pro Shots/Alamy Live News

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

With eight women currently coaching in the NFL, there’s still a long way to go when it comes to parity, but it does seem that women are finally breaking into elite men’s sports coaching in the US.

Sadly, the same cannot be said about most major team sports in the UK. Many elite sports, including rugby and cricket have a poor record in this regard. But perhaps the most high profile sport yet to embrace female coaches is professional football (soccer).

One contributing factor may be that when experienced top flight female coaches are linked to men’s football, the expectation seems to be that they should start at the bottom. Consider the case of Emma Hayes, the manager of Chelsea – the reigning Women’s Super League champions. Despite this leading position, Hayes was recently linked with the vacant manager’s job at the men’s side AFC Wimbledon – a team which is currently struggling to clear the relegation zone of the third tier of English football in League One.

Hayes shot down the rumours and said they were an “insult” to the women’s game, adding:

I don’t know why anyone would think women’s football is a step down (in comparison to men’s). The football world needs to wake up. While the game is played by a different gender, it’s exactly the same sport.

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

But why? Numerous studies over the last decade or so have focused on the issue of power in men’s football. In particular, they’ve highlighted the autocratic culture of dominance and subordinance that has existed in certain clubs.

This is seen in coaches and managers controlling many aspects of the football environment and demanding total compliance from their players (particularly younger players), regardless of how this might sit with contemporary notions of equality, rights and inclusivity. For example, the studies cited coaches using aggressive language, humiliation and bullying as tactics to instil fear and create compliance in players. It is doubtful that such an environment would continue like this with female coaches around, 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 (that later turn into coaching practice) through their childhood and playing careers. 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.

Not surprisingly then, if male coaches play football as juniors in male environments, play professionally in the male game, coach at academy level for professional male teams and are mentored by other elite male coaches, their experiences of the power-dominated male football culture may predispose them to this form of autocratic coaching. So the men’s game can become trapped in a cycle of power-dominted practice, with little room for manoeuvre.

Male coaches also dominated women’s football in England until recently. Today, eight of the 12 managerial roles in the Women’s Super League are filled by women. But only two years ago that figure stood at just four. At the national level, Sarina Wiegman, the current Netherlands head coach, is shortly set to take over the England Lionesses after the former England international, Phil Neville resigned.

Wiegman is one of few female coaches, worldwide, who has coached at the professional level in the men’s game, having worked as an assistant coach for a single season at Sparta Rotterdam in the Dutch league in 2016.

What female coaches bring

Female coaches, many of whom may have played a range of sports in addition to football, may have experienced very different environments to men and so have been shaped in very different ways.

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

One of the few studies to consider this issue noted that female coaches (again, typically ex-elite athletes) were considered to have a higher quality of relationships with their athletes and greater empathy than male coaches.

Back across the Atlantic to American Football, Jennifer King broke additional new ground in 2020 when she became the first black female coach with a men’s team with Washington when appointed as assistant running back coach. Of the 14 teams who made the NFL playoffs in 2020, six included female coaches among their staff. On this subject, King said:

I don’t think it’s an oddity that those play-off teams had so many female coaches involved because those coaches created cultures of growth and inclusion and those things generally create wins.

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

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