Women in coaching: same narratives but action is needed to create change (Ian Sherwin)

This time last year we were in celebratory mood as the Irish Hockey team qualified for the Tokyo Olympics and Katie Taylor was winning the World Super Lightweight Boxing title. The blog I wrote around these female sports events focused on Ireland’s readiness to build on the impact of the “20×20” initiative, a campaign launched to create a cultural shift on the perception of women in sport. It is heartening to see, read and hear more discussion on women in coaching (see last paragraph), lots more is needed if significant change is to take place.

I had the opportunity recently to reach a broader audience by presenting our research at the ECSS 2020 conference which took place in a virtual space over three days in October. One of the aims of the research was to investigate the lived experiences of female coaches in rugby union in Ireland and the UK. There is a clear under-representation of female coaches at elite level with only five women, compared with 21 men, in head coaching roles in the RFU’s women’s elite competition which began in 2018. In Ireland, the figures present a similar under-representation where only two of the ten teams in Division 1 of Ireland’s top club competition have a female head coach. Furthermore, the head coaches for the four provincial and the national sides are all male.

For change to take place it is important to understand this underrepresentation. To do this, we used LaVoi & Dutove’s (2012) Ecological-Intersectional Model (EIM). This model is particularly useful because it provides a unique lens that enhances understanding about the complex, multilevel system, (individual, interpersonal, organisational, societal) and has served as a valuable tool to help analyze the multiple barriers and support mechanisms associated with women gaining entry, succeeding, and then staying in coaching. The results in the adapted EIM graphic below demonstrate the barriers (seen in the red boxes) and supports (green boxes) experienced by female rugby coaches’ in rugby. The white boxes can be perceived as both barriers and supports.

On an individual basis the presence of female international athletes on the course was seen as very supportive to all female coaches. Results also show that female coaches lack of self-belief and family commitments are a barrier to coaching. On an interpersonal level, once again having other female coaches on the course was seen to be a support as was the availability of a mentor both at the coach education courses and as a general support during the season. From an organisation perspective having a female tutor was helpful and is also an area where females are largely underrepresented. Overall, the results identified how coach education courses in both countries were largely seen as positive experiences and valuable in developing technical coaching knowledge and skills. However, there are more barriers at organisational level than supports. As such, the narratives (‘blame the women’, ‘it is women’s own fault’, ‘little self-belief and self-efficacy’,) remain the same so we must use these results to recommend change.

Firstly, course tutors fulfil an important role in facilitating a cohesive and constructive atmosphere whilst also managing assumptions and perception, to promote positive experiences for all participants. Tutors attending equality training could help in this instance. Finally, both the RFU and IRFU amongst other NGBs need to pay more attention on how the diversity of their coach educators and tutors affects the experiences of women coaches, their capability to succeed, but also how it can contribute to growing the representation of women coaches in these roles.

I mentioned above about hearing more discussion on this topic and earlier this week I attended a really interesting webinar from Movement and Skill Acquisition Ireland (MSAI), the last of an eight-episode series on “Women who have changed the discussion”. For the unfamiliar, MSAI is run by, among others, Dr Phil Kearney from PESS! The webinar, hosted by journalist Marie Crowe, focused on “increasing and sustaining involvement” and included a panel of women who are leading these initiatives. Nora Stapleton, Women in Sport lead with Sport Ireland and Irene Hogan, lecturer and PhD researcher both discussed findings from their recent research which concur with our recommendations. While they admit the process may take a little longer, the investment of time and encouragement to promote females to coaching positions will reap rich rewards for the future of sport in Ireland.

Dr. Ian Sherwin is a Lecturer in Coaching at the Department of Physical Education and Sport Sciences and is the Course Director for academic programmes relating to the National Council for  Education and Fitness at the University of Limerick. Ian can be contacted at ian.sherwin@ul.ie and followed on twitter @ian_sherwin or on researchgate.

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