Coaching for Excellence in the Open Division

Written By: Jennifer Kwan

Establishing Excellence and Introducing Excellence

Three years of club playing and an Irish cap in hand, I was finally confident enough to coach my college women's beginner team. I was one of a handful of female coaches, almost all of them coaching only at entry level. Men, however, coached everyone and that was how it was. To coach a men's team (regardless of whether the players were good or bad) I felt like I would have to be not just good, but excellent. No one ever told me that, but the coaching culture in Ireland and Europe seemed to imply it. The numbers and the results implied it. In 2015, I decided to change that culture.

Four years later, I started coaching all divisions at Trinity. Despite the fact that I had been out of college for three years, had played on three national teams and coached one of them, I still felt nervous about coaching a team of 18-21 year old men who had at best four years' experience between school and college. As it turned out I could coach and I hope that the players learnt something from me that season. Part way through the season I did something brave and I decided to coach the U20 Irish Men's Team.

These players were good, and in almost every case I didn't know them and they didn't know me. I added four male assistant coaches to the bid. Each of them added a different layer of authority and knowledge to the team that I didn't think I had at the time. I still don't think I could have gone in without them and been as successful as we were. They knew the division and they had insights that I just didn't. They also were unwaveringly supportive of my decisions and techniques as head coach.

The first challenge was getting the players to trial for me. I couldn't and wouldn't have expected players to turn up to trial for someone they hadn't heard of before, and why would they? I had never coached schools or their division. I tackled this in two ways. The first thing I did was to have other people give me credibility as a coach. Assistant coaches called players to talk about the leadership team and what I did. I also spoke to teachers in the schools who were better placed to promote a team run by me than I was. Getting other people to introduce me gave me space to build rapport because I already had their attention. I called players,I asked questions and I listened. I didn't need to persuade them to turn up, I could focus on making them better. That year we came top eight at WJUC and as one player said, "I wasn't going to play again, but because you are coaching again next year I will." After 2016, many of the parents told me it was the best run team their kids had ever played on in any sport and I was only getting started. It was an okay debut into the U20 Open division.

The number of players at trials doubled the following year. I had a new coaching staff and added another woman as the performance coach. We were now gender equal in staffing and I introduced her as the most valuable new member of the coaching team from the very start. The boys excelled that year and we secured Ireland's first medal - for men or women - in the U20 division. They nominated her as their team MVP at the end of the season. Introducing women gives them power and authority to do their jobs, it allows them to build rapport quickly and allows them to be effective in their roles because when we take on new teams we don't just have to be good at our jobs, we have to be excellent. The following year I ran another team and had the highest turnout at trials of any team in Ireland. Excellence is attractive and excellence is rewarding so aim for it.

Establishing Rapport with Other Teams

There are very few female coaches on the European circuit and almost none in the men's divisions, even at the underage level. In 2017, myself and Nuala were two of three female coaches in the whole U20 men's division. It therefore shouldn't have been surprising to me that opposition coaches immediately assumed that the male coaches were in charge and didn't register us as leadership. However it happened on almost every occasion at a practice tournament where the opposing coach would introduce himself to our male coaches, be told that I was the head coach, but wouldn't follow up with introducing himself to me. It was strange, but I could live with it and initially I didn't think that it had anything to do with gender, we are all busy right before a match and walking around to try and meet everyone can be difficult. The problem got worse though when in one game the coaches wouldn't talk to me, they would talk to the guys, but wouldn't engage with me at all. It was infuriating, hurtful, and the first time in ultimate that I was made to feel like I wasn't wanted and didn't belong simply because of my gender.

Is it so shocking that a woman might be the head coach of a men's team that male coaches are immediately lost for words or manners? The tendency for every team that we played against was for them to assume that the men managed the game and the girls retrieved the water. So going into EYUC 2017 we took a different approach to introductions, we got there first. Before anyone on an opposing team had a chance to make an assumption about who everyone was, we introduced ourselves and our titles and our roles. We approached teams as a leadership group when we could and I would start. I would tell them my name, my role and what they should come to me for. I would then introduce the coaches and captains and what their roles were.

I should say the majority of male coaches that I have met have absolutely no questions, concerns or problems with me as a head coach. Perhaps it even gave us a slight advantage at the start of a match. They didn't expect me and in the stress of match time it can be hard to mentally adjust and so they continue to engage only with the male coaches. Introducing myself from the start helped change those perceptions. Winning dramatically changed those perceptions and I found that I got a lot more compliments about the team when I had introduced myself than when I hadn't. Once again, I had to be excellent, but by establishing my role immediately I ensured that I got the credit.

Creating the Norm of Women Coaching Men – Female Role Models and Male Allies

Delivering excellence puts marginalized communities on the map. We see it in sports where niche sports experience participation booms after someone receives a world or Olympic gold medal. We see it in work where females must achieve beyond expectations, we see it in every aspect of life where to get attention one person must go above and beyond. We have strong communities in ultimate and I would never have gotten the success I had as a female coach without the support and trust of male teachers, male coaches and the male athletes I coached those seasons. I found men who were willing and able to help make me great at what I do. There are male coaches who are willing and able to make female players great at what they do and to promote them as the elite athletes that they are.

It takes work and it does require some thinking about how to change perceptions that already exist. Have people introduce you and introduce other people. Share their accolades and achievements so that they can focus on the real work ahead. Deny the opportunity for people to make assumptions so that they get out of the practice of doing it. You don't have to win a medal, but you do need to be clear about who you are and what you can deliver.

Since the 2017 season the following has changed in Ireland:

  • One female college coach in the open division has grown to five; four as head coaches
  • 50% female college coaches for women's division grew to 75% in 2019
  • No female coaches in the college open final, up to two competing for the title in an indoor final
  • No female coaches in the open club division, to one head coach and multiple assistant coaches
  • No female coaches involved in U24 Open, up to two in 2019
  • Female coaches becoming top choices for men's teams at underage and college levels

The journey for women to gain respect in the open division isn't easy, but it is worth it. We have a new generation of players who may not only respect, but embrace the idea of a female head coach. Female coaches have a lot to offer and this has been acknowledged by players, parents and coaches when given a chance to see it. Give yourself every opportunity to be successful and ask for help because you can make huge changes in your community about how women are valued and perceived in their roles.

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