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What it really feels like to coach a boys team as a Female Coach

Despite having coached several boys teams in the past, I always still get a little bit nervous when starting with a new team, especially when they are teenagers. Having had only one rugby training session with my College U18 squad we took to County 10s Tournament. I always wonder what they think when they first find out their coach is female, I wonder if I should talk them through my credentials, my experience and other teams I coach….but then I think why should I have to justify myself?

On the coach to the County 10s I got a chance to speak properly to the boys outside of a training session and the truth is many of them don’t care that they have a female as coach, instead they think it’s pretty cool. They told me about how there is many other women in their life involved in their rugby clubs, but not in a coaching positions, but see no reason why there isn’t more female coaches. They started asking me how I first got into coaching, who I spoke to to take my first steps and how they could get into it. Conversation soon moved onto my role within county coaching and how I first got into the game. At first I thought are they were starting to question my credentials, but I soon realised they are not questioning me because they doubt my abilities, they are asking because for them I am the first female coach in the game they have met and for them that’s interesting.

When we arrived at the tournament I was also the only female coach or as they call it in Schools Rugby ‘Master’. This automatically made me feel a little out of place inside, but at the end of the day it’s only a title and I’m sure the term is used due to tradition. I often caught members of other teams looking over at me, it can be a bit annoying at times, you know their trying to figure out if you are actually their coach or if you’ve been sent along just to look after the team for the day. It’s oddly something you get used to after a while. I just ignore it and know that I’m going to prove myself when my team take to the pitch…but then again why should I feel more pressure to do well just because I’m female?

My team did really well, they worked their socks off and took on board all I had asked them to do, eventually coming 4th. It was a good event to bond with my team too, I got to know them better as players and they got to know me better as a coach…spending a whole day with them too also gave me a chance to cement all their names in my head !! They got a chance to get used to me and the way I work too, nicknaming me Queen Bee due to the fact the Colleges mascot is a Bee, which I thought was pretty cool. I’m so excited to continue working with them and I’m pretty sure they are with me to….in two days post tournament they have recruited another 6 players!!!

My coaching Journey; Carmen Pekkarinen, Espoo, Finland

Carmen was born and raised in northern Ontario in Canada. She has been living and working in Finland since 1998 and feels a diverse background such as hers brings a value to the bench as a coach.

I’ve been involved in sports for as long as I can remember. I never excelled at anything and was labelled a good “all-rounder” by an award selection committee when I was in high school. I suppose it is a good label to have because I feel that is how my life has played out: I am a “Jill of all trades, but a master of none.” That’s okay, I feel like I have a variety of experiences to apply in any new situation I find myself in, and that includes coaching.

The first team I ever helped coach was a boys’ basketball team from my former elementary school when I was in high school. In my last year of high school I found myself on the coaching roster of our wrestling team. I was speed skating and needed some good cross-training to keep my fitness level up. When I approached the coaches they enthusiastically took me on-board because it allowed them work more on the technical aspects with the team, so I became responsible for fitness training. Looking back on that time I feel really bad now, boy did we ever drive the boys hard at the beginning of the season! They never forgot it, but it paid off dearly because we had one of the best wrestling teams in all of northern Ontario that season.

Girls’ wrestling in Canada began to emerge with more prominence in the early-mid 1990s and in university I found myself back on the mat with our club team at tournaments. The coaches were very good and they brought me on board as a support. I didn’t know a lot about wrestling and some of the girls looked to the more experienced coaches for help, but I learned as I went and felt like a valuable member of a team. At one point our girls as a team were ranked as one of the best teams in all of Ontario. They were driven and I know that good coaching played a role in that.

I wasn’t sure how to describe myself as a coach, so I asked a former colleague of mine, Mark, to add a few words. He said:

“What kind of Coach is Carmen Pekkarinen?  She's the best kind of coach.  She’s demanding and she's positive. Carmen believes a good attitude mixed with a sufficient amount of tough love can produce results for anyone.  When Carmen coaches you, you always feel like she believes in you.  No matter how difficult your quest know Carmen will be there for you.  At the same time Carmen does not settle for a weak effort.  She will push you and push you until you begin to realize you can achieve more than you thought you could, as long as you are willing to make the effort. Most of all - Carmen inspires her athletes with her own willingness to do what they are doing, to train as hard as they are training, and to push herself to her own limits.  Carmen's willingness to lead by example, and her belief that each athlete can excel with the proper attitude and effort, are what make her a great coach.”

In 1997 and 1998 I was working on my coaching certification for wrestling, but suddenly decided to move Finland to live because of good opportunities to work. The promises in wrestling were high, I had even been approached by the head of the Ontario Wrestling Association to become the athletes’ Ombudsman. With the move to Finland, I closed the door on the sport unfortunately, unable to get myself in the door on this side of the pond.

Integrating into the life of new country takes time and with lacklustre language skills I didn’t muster up the courage to join group activities or sports until just a few years ago. Having a child changed that because I had to venture out with her. I thank my neighbours for giving me confidence, and a new vocabulary!

Fast forward to 2012: My then four year-old daughter started playing ringette with the Espoon Kiekkoseura (Espoo Hockey Club) in January and after a stint in ringette school, she was moved to a team in the fall. I asked if I could join the team on the ice and I haven’t looked back. I found myself on the bench as a “huoltaja,” a caretaker of sorts: tightening skates, adjusting equipment, getting the goalie ready, filling water bottles and giving minor first aid among other things.

Last season I even dusted off my whistle, helped with drills and lead some of the warm-ups. Last year was a great season from my perspective, I worked with a group of 5-6-7 year-old girls who started off pretty slow. By the end of the season we had strong skaters, which was really great. A lot of them learned more about the game of ringette, my own daughter included, when I noticed that something had clicked for her, I was incredibly surprised. I wondered: “Wow, how did that happen!?”

The best part of coaching this crew of girls was that they didn’t care if I didn’t speak perfect Finnish, they understood me most of the time. We also had six girls who could speak and understand English, so that was a great bonus. As a group overall this team was better than the team of the previous year and it showed in our tournament performances against other clubs. I know they’re small kids, but we must have done something right!

My daughter and some of her teammates have moved up to the next level this season, so the demands are a little higher and the skill set a little more complicated. These kids are learning a lot stuff that I never learned as a player back in Canada. No wonder Finland has the best ringette players in the world! What pleased me the most was to hear one of the coaches say just a few weeks ago, that this group of girls have a better overall skating skill level than last year’s team.  I relayed that back to my old team and let them know – we did the right thing!
I even started playing again too and joined a women’s team in the same organization a year ago. The game has changed a lot since I played back in Canada, so the learning curve is high! I think my biggest challenge is the language, Finnish is not easy to learn!

Demand for coaching training is so high that getting into the annual ringette coaching clinics in Finland is tough. So far it is only offered once a year. I have missed it two years in a row now. Add on top of that a new language and the challenges increase. I have been assured I could make it through the coaching training in Finnish, so let’s hope I can get in next year. I suspect I’ll be following my daughter up the ranks as she gets older (provided she wants to stick with it) in the role of a coach or a caretaker. If she decides not to, I’ll go back to helping the small kids because I think that is where the most rewards and satisfaction are.

So I am with Mark, the best coach is the coach that is engaged with their kids and is out there on the court, field, mat or rink with them. The best coach is also a coach who believes in all of her players on a team, only one can be the best, but it’s important to extend support to all athletes on the team by giving them a chance to prove themselves.

Do women only coach development programmes actually work?

Do women only coach development programmes actually work? (Coach W)

Since London 2012 it seems there has been a rise in the interest of women who coach.  There have been some big headline stories recently given to Corrine Diacre (first female head coach to a mens football team in the top two divisions in Europe), Becky Hammon (first female assistant coach in the NBA), Amélie Mauresmo (first female coach to a male tennis player in the top 40) and Shelley Kerr (first female coach to a mens team in the UK) thanks to their new coaching roles and the fact that they will be coaching men.

Here is an interesting thought, did any of these women take part in women only coach development programmes / projects or did they just pull up their socks and get on with it?  After reading interviews with all these women and learning about their coaching roles, it is obvious that they or their players do not see them as a female coach, simply as a coach.

In a recent BBC interview when asked about her gender as a coach, Shelley Kerr answered; “It shouldn't be about gender, it should be about your ability as a coach."

And Andy Murray, the first male tennis player in the world top 40 rankings stated: “"To be honest, I’m just of the feeling that it’s not about gender but about the right person to do the job. Sometimes, 10 men could get hired over 10 women, and sometimes, it should also work the other way around. It’s about finding the right personality for the situation and the right person, basically. And to me, it isn’t about whether it’s a man or a woman. It’s about finding the right person for the situation, for the team’s or the individual’s needs." 

So, is it us women that are making a fuss about our gender, is it the media trying to sensationalise it, or it is sports federations jumping on the band wagon?

There is of course an obvious problem with the stats on female coaches...behind the wave of enthusiasm and excitement, the number of women at relatively high levels of sport are still woeful.  For example:

*England Athletics have stats in 2014 proving that of 1081 qualified coaches, only 24% are female
*NCAA Division I women's soccer coaches, only 27% of teams have women as head coaches
*The Australian Sports Commission state that only 20% of state coaching roles are held by women

Now, (perhaps thanks to the media attention) sports governing bodies around the world are starting to address these low numbers by creating women only coach development programmes.  There is the fear that they may simply be jumping on the band wagon and spending money on female coaching programmes just to tick a box. 
*British Athletics have funded the Female Coach Legacy Programme since 2012
*Canadian Collegiate Athletic Association have the Female Apprentice Coach Programme

Surely a focus on the individual coach, rather than their gender is more likely to have a lasting effect on the coaching stats?  How many of these women who have attended these gender specific programmes have gone on to hurdle the barriers to their coaching (identified as family commitments, time, cost and lack of mentors) and progressed to a higher level?

The fact is, it’s down to us, the women who coach day in and day out to stand up and have the courage to apply for coaching roles and for many to see past their own gender.  Yes of course we need the backing of our governing bodies and our coaching colleagues.  It’s a comforting feeling knowing you can talk to fellow female coaches about the difficulties you’ve had with male athletes, or coaches or having another woman to sit with during yet another arduous tournament weekend.  But to think that women can only develop and learn in a fully female environment is wrong in my opinion. 

I would be very interested to hear from women who have been on both mixed gender programmes and women only programmes.  Which benefitted your coaching the most?

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