Coaching: Women coaches fighting hard to take charge of level playing field

Female successes in the male-dominated world of sports coaching are rare - but they do exist
Click to follow
The Independent Online

She was not the first woman to coach a man at the highest level, but few had more impact than Gloria Connors. When her son, Jimmy, made his Wimbledon debut in 1972, Gloria was there, urging on her son from the sidelines. When the forehand drives and passing shots were clearly not coming off, Gloria once called on her boy to get back to basics: "Kick him in the nuts, Jimmy!"

If anyone thought Gloria Connors would blaze a trail, the evidence three decades later is that the fire she ignited is barely smouldering. While women have made progress across a whole range of sports, coaching remains a male-dominated activity. In particular, the idea of women showing men how to play the game, particularly at the top level, clearly has yet to catch on.

Yet the few women who have coached leading men have usually been successful. Gloria Connors, a decent player who became a coach before Jimmy took on the world, guided her son to a succession of triumphs. Closer to home, Lindsey Fraser was a key figure behind Britain's first medal at this summer's Olympics. Team manager in Athens for Britain's divers, she is also the personal coach of Peter Waterfield, who with Leon Taylor won the country's first Olympic medals in the sport for 44 years when they took silver in the 10-metre synchronised event.

Fraser is one of 12 fully qualified coaches at her Southampton diving academy. Six are men and six are women. Yet Fraser is the only woman diving coach working in Britain at "world-class performance" level and she agrees that women have a constant battle against prejudices and preconceptions. "When one of my divers learned from his mother that he was going to be coached by a female he thought that would be a terrible thing," she said. "There was no way he could see that a female could be a good coach."

Yet good coach she clearly is, as Waterfield's progress has shown. "Personally I don't see any great divide between male and female athletes," she said. "It's more important to treat people as individuals. In a coach-performer relationship there has to be a lot of trust and I think there also needs to be a certain amount of friendship. I don't go down to the pub with Peter and we don't have those sort of chats that we would have if we were both male or both female. But it's been a great success."

At the Olympics only eight per cent of coaches and four per cent of team managers in the British party were women. Although the figures are less one-sided when all levels of sport are taken into consideration - a survey by Sports Coach UK showed that 24 per cent of all coaches in the United Kingdom are women - there are many areas in which women are vastly outnumbered. Golf Monthly recently published a list of the top 25 coaches in the United Kingdom and Sarah Maclennan, from East Sussex National, was the only woman. "When I turned professional 17 years ago I was the only woman professional golfer in Scotland," she said. "Girls were just never introduced to golf."

Yet breakthroughs have been made in some surprising areas. While the vast majority of rugby union coaches, even in the female game, are men, women like Giselle Mather are changing the landscape. Mather, who as the only woman in the class brought her six-week-old baby along when she took her senior coaching qualifications, is a coach with the England women's team but does guest coaching sessions with men's sides. She also spent a successful year coaching Teddington Antlers, who run three men's teams.

"You generally have to prove more to men initially, but once you have their respect it's harder to lose it than it is with women," Mather said. "The initial reaction from men is often: 'Why is a woman coaching us?' I can see straight away who's got a problem with it. They'll never say anything, but you can see it in their body language. The first five to 10 minutes is very important. After 10 minutes they usually forget that it's a female standing in front of them."

Sam Marshall, now regional development manager for the Women's Rugby Football Union, had a similar experience when she coached the men at High Wycombe. "I integrated quite gradually into the coaching team," she said. "I felt that if I just came in and confronted a lot of blokes who are much bigger than me and have probably been playing a lot longer than I had been coaching or playing, that wouldn't necessarily be well received.

"In the end I think I got to understand some of the players better than some of the male coaches. I think I took the time to talk to them a bit more, or maybe I was a bit more approachable. Knowing what was going on with the player at home, or what their motivation was to be there, was the best way of getting the most out of them. Talking about their role within the team and how they felt about it wasn't something that I felt they discussed with the male coaches."

Bo Koolen, a Dutchwoman who this summer became the first female coach of a team in the English Hockey League when she took over at St Albans, also believes in a two-way approach. "A lot of men's coaches will simply tell a player what to do," she said. "I tend to give a player some options and ask him which one he thinks he should choose. I believe in individual responsibility.

"It's sometimes easier to be hard on men. Guys find it easier to have an argument and just shake hands afterwards. They're not really worried about what others are saying, which women often are, and I find that frustrating. I'm pretty blunt. The guys have been very positive. They just want a coach who knows the job."

It has been a difficult start for Koolen, who took over after 12 senior players left, several following her predecessor to his new club. When she met the players for the first time, before she had even accepted the job, she told them that if they had a problem with a woman taking charge she would walk away.

No opposing voices were raised and Malcolm Yull, the captain, said: "The team have responded well to her. They like her personal touch. They respond well to being taken aside during practice, to being asked to look at specific areas of their game. They like her professionalism. There's nothing that makes me think she is any more or less professional than a man doing the job. She's very self-critical and that's what she demands of us. In the end it doesn't matter whether it's a man or a woman coaching you. It's whether or not you're up to the task."