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‘Celebrating achievements and more visibility of women's sport is crucial’

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All too often it is still male voices that we hear within the coaching world, which begs the question whether enough opportunities exist for women to get into the vocation. We talk to two of the leading women coaches in football and rugby union in the city about their experiences and what more can be done to encourage others.

Spotlight on the sports coaching opportunities for women.
Spotlight on the sports coaching opportunities for women.

As a senior lecturer in sports coaching and physical education at Anglia Ruskin University, Dr Anna Stodter is ideally placed to assess opportunities for female coaches.

As well as a PhD in understanding coaches’ learning and education from Loughborough University, Stodter represented Scotland in the Women’s Six Nations Championships and is now part of the Cambridge University RUFC women’s coaching team.

It means that she is able to offer a unique insight from multiple viewpoints – as a player, coach and educator – to help to inform the reality of what happens on the ground.

And, first things first, Stodter outlines how simple it was to first get into coaching.

As a footballer at university in Edinburgh, having done a couple of entry qualifications in Scotland, she went to coach in the US one summer and, on her return, took charge of an under-13 girls’ team in her homeland.

“It was pretty easy to get involved, but it was voluntary at that stage – that team in particular wouldn’t have had anyone to coach them if I hadn’t,” says Stodter.

“There are teams all over the place begging for coaches, especially coaches that are interested in improving themselves and doing the best job they can. So it wasn’t too difficult.”

Having moved from Edinburgh to Loughborough to study for her PhD, Stodter lost the network of people so stopped coaching to concentrate on playing, especially having switched from football to rugby union.

“I did my PhD in coaching and so it’s encouraged in that academic domain to be involved in coaching because then you can understand the things you’re trying to teach people about,” she says.

“You understand the practical application of the more theoretical things you’re studying. I’ve felt pretty well encouraged.”

The coaching qualifications process is expensive, and so that forms a barrier, especially for volunteers in grassroots sport.

Stodter was able to get female specific bursaries for her Level 2 and 3 rugby qualifications, with the second of those coming from the RFU, linked to her coaching at the Saracens’ girls’ centre of excellence.

As part of her work at ARU, a Cambridgeshire coaching network has been set up for women and, working with Living Sport, hosted a couple of Let’s Coach Girls network events.

“I think generally all the coaches we met were pretty positive,” says Stodter.

“The negative sides of coaching for women are the more unseen aspects.

“Women are under-represented through less obvious aspects like what women are traditionally expected to be – very feminine, at home in traditional roles rather than being out and about running round the sports fields with a bunch of rugby balls or footballs and cones.

“I feel the more negative aspects are probably hidden, not as obvious.”

This relates to the expectations and recognition associated with women’s sport and coaching.

Stodter gives the example of playing for Scotland in the Six Nations, Saracens in the Premiership XVs and at the same time having a full-time job lecturing.

“I was having to travel from Cambridge to London for training, from Cambridge to Italy to play internationally, and that was a lot of stuff to balance,” she says.

“If I was male, I wouldn’t necessarily have to balance so many things because I wouldn’t have to hold down a full-time job as well as competing internationally, for example.

“That would be my full-time job, to be a professional sportsperson, but that opportunity wasn’t available for me as a woman.”

It begs the question of what can be done differently? If such influences pull an individual in all directions, you have to wonder what gives first? Or what assistance can be provided?

Bursary support was a big boost for Stodter doing her Level 3, as was having a mentor.

And the work of one of her masters students, Kerri Eke, looked at the impact of informal networks.

“She followed four case study female coaches in Cambridgeshire and looked at their professional development opportunities and that, combined with other research in sports coaching, shows the informal network of social support is really important for female coaches,” says Stodter.

“In men’s sport they might already have those informal networks, whereas in women’s sport they might have to work a bit harder to make them happen.

“The people that they are connected to might not be so powerful because there is a lack of women in powerful positions, particularly in sport.

“Making women coaches more visible and their achievements more visible would be pretty helpful, and having more women in powerful positions would be more helpful too.”

ARU's Anna Stodter. Picture: Gary Hutchison/SRU
ARU's Anna Stodter. Picture: Gary Hutchison/SRU

Assessing whether opportunities exist at the elite level come down to the individual.

Life circumstances can have an impact on the ability to commit to coaching and there is an overall lack of funding for women’s sport, so they might be less likely to get paid.

The role of clubs becomes important in giving opportunities to women interested in developing their coaching, which was provided to Stodter by Cambridge University RUFC.

There is a will to offer more, but it is a matter of overcoming the systemic problem.

“The RFU Eastern Counties in the last season had some funding available to support women coaches but I think part of the problem is they didn’t really know how to do it, or what to do with the money,” says Stodter.

“There is a desire to make things better, and I think involving women’s coaches in that and involving some kind of research evidence might be quite helpful too.”

Some research has shown that women make up just less than half of the UK’s coaching workforce, but they are underrepresented by qualified sports coaches.

The study found that only 18 per cent of the UK’s qualified coaching population are women, which means lots are coaching or leading activities, like run leaders, but may not have the qualifications to back it up.

There have also been findings that show the more diverse a team – in sport and the wider workplace – the more successful in terms of performance.

It is why having positive female coaching role models can have a big difference.

“I think the players that I coach really value the perspective that I bring because I’ve been where they’ve been,” says Stodter.

“I’ve been through the system that they’ve been through, not exactly the same one at Cambridge University but I took up rugby at university and moved on to higher performance levels as well, so I can identify with them on that level.

“I think it is really important and it shows them that it’s something they can do too. It’s that well used saying that if you can’t see it, you can’t be it.”

There have been obstacles as well though.

When Stodter explains some of the situations she has encountered, it reiterates the strides that still need to be made in order to value women in sport more.

The most shocking part is when she describes still being looked down upon.

“I still have experiences where people assume I’m the physio or one of the players when I turn up to a match with the team that I’m coaching,” she says.

“I’ve had times when I’m there with other male coaches and the referee will introduce himself to the men and forget me, or not even look at me, just because I’m a woman and they assume perhaps I’m not the coach.

“Doing my Level 3, I had matchday observation as part of the qualification and the referee was terrible. He spent 10 minutes speaking down to the team telling them how to play rugby, basically.

“There are still lots of little things that build up, and can make you feel less valued than men, perhaps.

“I think valuing women’s sport more by celebrating achievements and making women’s sport more visible in the media is just one step.”

But Stodter would largely recommend the vocation, whether it be in a professional or voluntary setting.

“It’s a very rewarding role, coaching,” she says.

“You build great relationships, and you can see the influence of what you do to help people.

“It’s definitely a very positive thing to be involved in. I think there are opportunities there for women and you just have to seek them out.”

Gemma Clare outlines the importance of getting positive female coaching role models to encourage more girls into game

Cambridge City's Gemma Clare. Picture: Chris Mosley
Cambridge City's Gemma Clare. Picture: Chris Mosley

Gemma Clare offers a far-reaching oversight of the opportunities afforded to female football coaches in the county.

A former player with Cambridge City Ladies, she switched her attention to coaching and is now the manager of the A team, newly created last season, and the under-18s.

Clare could perhaps be considered one of the first of the new vanguard in a push to help more women into coaching 10 years ago.

An emphasis has been placed on encouraging more women along the same route, one which Clare describes as “very easy to get into”, and, having played at a good level she was able to skip Level 1 and go straight to Level 2 of the qualifications.

“The number of female coaches in girls/ladies football is still growing and I believe any club would be silly not to take up the offer of a female coach for girls’ football as it is just a great way for girls to have a positive female role model in their lives,” says Clare.

“I do still believe it is hard to be part of boys’ football as a female coach though as you have to go through a period of proving yourself and that you know what you’re on about, which men don’t seem to have to do.

“Again, I think this has got much better and it is not totally rare to see a female having a lead role in a boys’ team, but is still to be improved.”

She added: “Once you get into more colts football for example (under-11+), it feels as if it’s expected that someone else will then come in – usually a man – who will take that team further and be more competitive.

“Overall, I do think it is getting easier each year, especially if a female has got the flair and desire to do it.”

The club environment was crucial for Clare to pursue her coaching ambitions.

City are proactive in promoting and even paying for new courses, and the parents and players are equally supportive.

The encouragement helps to keep coaches engaged, especially those starting out young, and sow the seed of it becoming a career.

“If you end up creating a great team and develop good, supportive relationships with players and parents, you also feel more encouraged to go further with it,” she says.

“But, admittedly, having a great team can blind you to the whole coaching/football environment as you can get caught up in the bubble of your own team.”

It is here that a divide opens up.

Clare started coaching a decade ago when she was at college, and then she got a job before going to university.

During that six to seven-year period, she had time to plan sessions but now she has a career, it is more time-consuming.

“I am a teacher and find it difficult to put in the same amount of time I did before and that does frustrate me,” Clare explains.

“I felt I could never make a living out of coaching so I had to pick a different career instead, accepting that coaching would just be something I did on the side because I loved football and enjoyed developing a team.

“I felt I was never going to be able to make enough money to live out of coaching unless I got lucky and set up my own coaching company with a unique selling point, as that is pretty much what every person wanting to be a professional does.”

Finding out about the opportunities that exist for women in coaching was one of the biggest difficulties for Clare. There were no clear markers or signposts as to what could be achieved, or how and where to do it.

While there were multiple volunteer chances at grassroots, the coaching roles at county FAs seemed to be few and far between – and they were then mainly a stepping stone to academy structures

“Paid roles within academies don’t appear often though, and are well sought after by both males and females,” says Clare.

“I am under the impression the opportunities differ per county/area though. London has a lot of clubs, at a good level too, so I would take a guess the opportunities are better there.

“In Cambridge, I feel there are minimal opportunities. It is a bit gutting really as I know many girls who would like to at least try coaching, earn a bit of money from it before they go off to uni but there isn’t anything.”

It leads to the question as what can be done to get more women involved in coaching, and also create better career opportunities.

Clare suggests breaking down the stigma that still exists that women cannot offer as much in football.

“I think changes in the little things could make a huge difference,” she says. “Females are always largely outnumbered at coaching courses – there are usually only one or two females compared to 12 to 15 men.

“I only felt I could complete my Level 2 because I knew I could play football, so when it came to the practical sessions outside, I would be OK. Those who haven’t got that must feel so anxious towards doing a course knowing there are many practical sessions with fully grown, competitive men.”

It also comes back to the question of life getting in the way.

Coaching courses are costly, and many held at inconvenient times during the working day.

Clare believes that increasing the incentives for more females to coach would be a good thing, and that helping to fill the gap which sees teams run in villages for boys but not girls.

“Many of the clubs are open to girls too but they are put off because of the boys,” she says.

“I know there are so many more young girls out there who want to play football or be involved in it but too scared to play with the boys.”

She points to Bar Hill and Longstanton where lots of girls are playing football, but do not have girls’ only teams.

Encouraging more females into coaching would help to bridge that gap, and also create positive role models.

“It is so important for younger girls to see women coaching as someone to look up to, for role models and be encouraged to know that it is good for girls to play football,” says Clare.

“Also, it is important that young boys also see females involved in football so they see it is normal too and reduce that massive stigma that girls can’t play football.

“There are many older men who will never accept women in football and there isn’t any point in trying to change their minds but we can have a massive effect on boys growing up and their views on it.

“It was only at the end of my schooling that people believed girls could actually play football and would fight your corner. Not just teachers but male friends too.

“Boys of primary school age can still be influenced and the most effective way is having good female coaches so they see for themselves it is OK.”

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