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How Far Can The Female Coach Rise?

Peta Searle, Helena Costa and Amelie Mauresmo have broken new ground for women in sport but how far can the female coach rise?

Peta Searle, Helena Costa and Amelie Mauresmo have broken new ground for women in sport but how far can the female coach rise?


Wally Lewis believes a woman will coach in the NRL.

Cracks are showing in sport’s traditional glass ceiling with a ground swell of discussion about the rise of the female coach.

Just this week Andy Murray appointed former World Number 1 Amelie Mauresmo as his new coach. St Kilda recently hired the AFL’s first female coach with Peta Searle joining the club in a development role. Helena Costa made European football history when she was announced as manager of French second tier club, Clermont Foot. While last month, Ros Solien became the first female assistant coach in the Northern Territory Football League.

The question remains – when will we see a female head coach in either the AFL or NRL?

Lewis believes it’s not a matter of if, but when it’ll happen in the NRL.

“I’ve got no doubt that we’ll come up with a number of women that will display enormous potential over the years,” Lewis told Sportette during an interview this week.

“We’ve had some junior coaches along the way and there are some whispers they’re just starting to get into it at a Q-Cup level and once they make an advance into that stage, it’s only a matter of time before they progress into the ultimate position.”

Searle’s appointment in the AFL is a powerful sign that the barriers may be starting to break down, but it’s no guarantee that it will help open the door for other female coaches, especially when we look at examples overseas.

Bernadette Mattox was the first female assistant coach in U.S. College Basketball in 1990.

Bernadette Mattox was the first female assistant coach in U.S. College Basketball in 1990.

In the U.S, Bernadette Mattox was a basketball coaching trailblazer. Mattox was the first female appointed as an assistant coach of the Men’s College Basketball Division 1 side. It was a bold move by Kentucky and seen as a decision that would assist in breaking down barriers for other women in coaching.

That was in 1990.

In the next 24 years only two other women have been appointed as assistants to a men’s division 1 college basketball side. No women have been appointed as head coach and none have gone on to coach at the elite NBA level.

Are there women out there knocking on the door? Or are there just women out there calling for women to knock on the door?

The head coach who first appointed Mattox as assistant, Rick Pitino, expressed shock that he never received another call or application from a female coach to be considered for that position. In fact, the next two women appointed as assistants in the league didn’t actively seek out their positions, but were headhunted.

So do women see coaching as a realistic career path?

Ruan Sims is a duel international having represented Australia in both Rugby League and Rugby Union, winning a World Cup for both. The 32-year old is the sister of NRL players, Ashton, Tariq and Korbin. Ruan believes women still don’t see coaching the men as a viable option.

“I think they see it within the women’s game as a future after playing, but I don’t think a lot of women look outside of the women’s game itself and look at the men’s game,” Sims told Sportette.

“I hope it does change in the future because it’s an avenue I’d like to pursue when I finish my playing career. I know I’d have to start off in the women’s but it’s a natural progression if you’ve achieved all you can in one section then it makes sense, that if you want to keep achieving, that you move across into a more challenging role in the men’s divisions.”

Dual International Ruan Sims believes women don't yet see coaching the men as a viable career path.

Dual International Ruan Sims believes women don’t yet see coaching the men as a viable career path.

The rise and influence of the female athlete will also assist in breaking down those coaching barriers as sport is perceived less and less as a male domain over time.

But how would male athletes react to a female coach?

Broncos, Queensland and Australian forward Sam Thaiday says he wouldn’t have a problem with a female coach and identified the Jillaroos (Australian Women’s Rugby League Team) as potential pool for future leaders.

“There are a lot of women who play rugby league and the Jillaroos side are fantastic players, there’s no reason they wouldn’t be able to coach,” Thaiday told Sportette.

“I’d encourage it, if any of the Jillaroos want to further their knowledge and become a coach, it’d only be great for our game.”

Wally Lewis agrees there’s no reason why a female can’t advance to the elite level.

“The most important thing for a coach was to make each and every player a better player and a better person on the footy field,”

“And that in itself guarantees that women will be stepping into that position, they’re just as capable of ensuring people will become better people and better players.”

The AFL may be ahead of the NRL, but Searle’s groundbreaking appointment with St Kilda came after she was forced to quit from her coaching position at VFL side Port Melbourne sighting a lack of clear career path. Fed up with doors closing and unable to justify another $5000 salary for another season, Searle had returned to teaching in April, the job she initially walked away from seven years ago in order to pursue her coaching dream.

Searle’s resignation made more headlines than her initial appointment and prompted four-time Premiership winning coach and President of the AFL Coaches Association, David Parkin, to admit there were deep-rooted attitudes in the sport that are preventing women from cracking its most inner-sanctum. In short, the boys club continues to be a powerful influence on recruitment.

Peta Searle has become the AFL's first female coach.

Peta Searle has become the AFL’s first female coach.

This notion was backed up in a recent article for the Australian Sports Commission by Graham Cooke who concluded that the “old boys’ networks are a potent force” and “A breakthrough into the top level is still largely dependent on the attitudes of the males at the top”. That same article also notes that “they will eventually be replaced by generations that have a more accepting and all-encompassing view of females in society, and by extension, in sport”. As society’s attitudes towards females change so too will those in positions of power in sport.

The boys network in the NRL has the potential to keep barriers up but aren’t impenetrable.

“The boys network will be there but I’m damn sure that whilst the AFL has to be congratulated in this being an obvious point of progress for the game, there’ll be people from other codes watching on and saying ‘’We’ve never considered that, I wonder if it will work?’,” Lewis told Sportette.

“You’ll get your doubters who’ll say, ‘it’s no chance, it won’t work’. But as soon as they do start to display some form of success, they’ll be saying ‘well maybe we should be doing it the same way”.  So it’s a wonderful thing for the acceptance of women in positions of power in sport, one that they deserve to have. “ said Lewis.

Generations ago professional female athletes were a dream concept, the notion of women CEOs of football clubs was laughed  atand it was deemed impossible to even think there would have been female referees, commentators, administrators and sports reporters. Bit by bit the sporting landscape is changing and women are an integral part of it all, hopefully it won’t be long before we look back on this article and wonder about that world that didn’t have female coaches.

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