Marlene Bjornsrud has been one of the most influential women at the heart of women’s sport in the US for over 35 years. Her many varied roles have ranged from being a collegiate national championship winning tennis coach, an athletics administrator, a general manager of a professional women’s soccer team and now the Executive Director of an NCAA funded organisation to increase the number of women sports coaches in the US.
In 2013, Marlene was awarded the Women in Sport Award by the International Olympic Committee after being recognised for a lifetime of work in the women’s sports community; specifically for her role as co-founder of the Bay Area Women’s Sports Initiative.
The FCN was privaledged to catch up with Marlene and chat to her about an incredible sporting career…
Can you tell us your earliest sporting memories and who were your sporting heros growing up?
My earliest sporting memories were really of watching baseball (Major League Baseball) with my Dad. I am now 61 years old so back when I was a child, we had a little black and white television and my Dad and I would focus on the Saturday game of the week.? During commercials we would go outside and throw the ball around. I was one of five kids, I had three brothers and one sister, but I was the one who loved sport, so my Dad and I just bonded around this. My heroes were all male athletes and were all baseball players; Miki Mantle, Yogi Berra, Sandy Kovacs, the old time baseball players in the United States. But in nineteen sixty something, during the Olympics, a woman from my City (a little tiny town in Colorado), won the Gold medal for figure skating. Her name was Peggy Fleming and I went to the parade when I was just a young elementary school age girl. I loved the fact that a woman had won something. For the first time in my life I met her only 2 years ago and as much as I’ve been around very big time athletes throughout my career, she just brought me to tears. Having the opportunity to meet someone who I watched when I think I was in fifth grade and just idolised!
What was it that inspired you from being a fan of sport to becoming a coach?
I think a couple of things; one is that I played tennis for a number of years. I grew up in a place and a time when girls didn’t play sport very much but I took to tennis in high school, played it all through college and after college. I absolutely loved it. But I think what inspired me to be a coach was watching tennis on TV, in particular Wimbledon. I would get up before the sun was up every year that Wimbledon was on television and I would watch.? I would watch it with other players and we would analyse strokes and strategy. One day it dawned on me that I felt I could do more for the game of tennis as a coach than I could as a player, so I began working with a woman who was a wonderful coach. Then low and behold a phone call came one day from a small University from Phoenix, Arizona, saying we are looking for someone to coach our women?s team, would you come talk to us. It was because I played competitively, but I put myself in the position to really study the game and learn from someone who I thought was one of the best coaches in the state. That made me feel like this is exactly what I want to do. Not everyone who coaches was a great player and not every great player can coach. I was one of those that was not a great player, but I think that I was a very impactful coach.
How did you start out on the journey of coach education?
I think in journey it became very real to me early on that there just wasn’t much opportunity out there to learn how to be a coach. Most of us simply (men and women) play the sport and then go into coaching, so often times we coach how we have been coached. I think it became really clear to me early on that the best coaches learned to coach from who they are, not just because someone coached them in a particular way. Coach education was something that came from an awareness in my own experience as well as talking with others that felt like there has to be more to this than just the sport itself.
You have spent 35 years in the sports industry in roles ranging from coach, administrator, mentor, event organiser, but what motivates you to keep working so hard within sport?
I think probably two things; one is first of all there is so much work to be done for women and girls in sport. I am not a good maintenance kind of person; I like to create and to build. So because women and girls in sport have not yet arrived in terms of being fully equal in the sports world, there?s just lots to do, lots of possibilities to do good within it.
And secondly; I look at it in a funny way, more as a calling than as a job. I never look for jobs, I look for opportunities to fight for a better culture in the sports world and to improve this culture so there is more room for girls and women. There’s much to be done, lots of possibilities and lots of goodness to share, so that’s why I get up every morning fired up to do more.
In 2005, you set up the Bay Area Women?s Sports Initiative (BAWSI), something which you went on to be awarded for by the International Olympic Committee. Can you tell us about this and why you set it up?
I didn’t found it by myself, it was a partnership with US World Cup and Olympic Champions Brandi Chastain and Julie Foudy, both from the US women’s soccer team. We had worked together in the first women’s professional soccer league in the country. What I saw during the 3 years that that league existed is those players (and those two in particular) had a very deep awareness that with their golden opportunity to play soccer at the highest level of the world, also came a responsibility to pay it forward to the next generation of girls.? So when that league went away, Brandi, Julie and I sat with a handful of others who really saw women athletes as great contributors to the greater good in the world. We created BAWSI as a way to invite all female athletes from all sports and all ages to use their platform in sport to do something good for girls. It started as just a simple idea and now almost 10 years later, there have been more than 10,000 athletes involved impacting the lives of more than 20,000 children throughout the San Francisco Bay area. It’s something that certainly caught on and will continue, I think forever, to do good in the World both for the athletes and for the young girls.
Can you tell us about the Alliance of Women Coaches and your role as Executive Director?
The purpose of the Alliance of Women Coaches (which is just a three year old non-profit organisation in the United States), is to strengthen the voice and presence of women in the coaching profession. The goals are to retain the women who are currently in the profession by providing opportunity to support them, offer educational training, connections and anything that will support them in their efforts to stay in the coaching profession. At the same time we are working to increase the number of women who come in to the coaching profession. I believe that coaching is like teaching, it’s a noble profession. I think it is the profession that people use to impact the next generation of kids. I talk to people all the time and often, the most influential person in their life has been a coach or a teacher. The alliance exists just to focus on the ways to support women in the coaching profession. It allows them to develop both personally and professionally and they have the connections they need to stay in a career which is increasingly complicated, pressure packed and challenging for women in particular.
For those coaches outside of the US, can you explain Title IX and how it impacted female sports coaches? Did it impact any opportunities you were given?
Title IX was a federal law passed by congress and signed by the United States President in 1972. It is under a group of laws called Civil Rights Laws that protect under represented people in our country, whether by race or by gender and now by sexual orientation.? Title IX in 1972 was passed so that women had equal rights to apply for and be admitted to colleges around the United States. It wasn’t written specifically for athletics, but because in the United States athletics is part of the educational system, it had a direct impact on the fact that colleges prior to 1972 and Title IX, could fund men?s sport team without limit and not fund women’s teams at all if they chose. All of a sudden, 40 some years ago, colleges had to adjust to provide equitable opportunity for women as they do for men.
It totally changed the landscape for women in sport in the United States. It went from about 32, 000 women competing in college sports prior to 1972, to now more than 200,000 women competing in college sport.? It hasn?t solved all the problems, there are still funding challenges and there are still institutions and universities who do not equitably fund women. The only way to challenge that is to get the government involved to force them, often times through law suits, to abide by the law. But it’s totally changed the landscape for women in sports. However, here?s one unintended consequence…I talked about how the number of women competing in sports has increased significantly; interestingly enough though, before Title IX was passed, 90% of the Head Coaches of Women’s teams were women, now less than 40% of Head Coaches of women’s sports are women. All of a sudden, coaches were paid and male coaches who had been in the profession for years and years could apply for those jobs and say well but I coached the men’s team for 20 years! Women began losing ground in terms of coaching opportunities and that’s part of why the alliance exists, to recapture the opportunities for great women coaches who are qualified to get back into those roles.
Did Title IX it have an effect on your sports career?
It was passed after I had finished high school, so when I was in high school, there were no sports teams for girls, only for boys and I chose to go to a college that didn?t have any sports teams. So it didn’t have an impact on me as an athlete. It did however have an impact on my coaching career, because when I received the call in 1979, by Grand Canyon University in Phoenix asking me to coach, they had created a salaried position for the women?s team because they had a salaried position for the men’s team. That would not have happened without Title IX, so it did have an impact that all of a sudden I was able to do something that I loved and actually got paid for it. I didn’t get paid an equal salary, but at least I got paid!
If you could make one immediate change in sport that would impact the number of and profile of female sports coaches, what would it be and why?
I think that’s the million dollar question and I don’t know that I have an answer, or that anyone has really come up with an answer as to that because it’s always a ripple impact. If I could change one thing (which is something I can’t change), I would change the culture of college athletics in the United States. The biggest challenge is now it has become business. It’s not about an experience for the athletes; it’s about the business of sport. It’s all about money, it’s all about pressure, it’s all about being measured by wins and losses. That’s something I don’t have the power to change directly. I don’t have a magic wand that would say let’s change the culture so it is all about the experience and the education through sports that athlete is receiving. What I can do is change it by working closely with women coaches and helping them always see the bigger picture of their role in sport. Its equal parts of coaching sports and equal parts coaching the human beings who play the sports.
You have achieved so much in your career, do you still have ambitions for your sporting future?
Future is a funny word isn’t it, as we don’t have any guarantees of the next minute in life! But I am 61 years old and I don’t see retirement any time soon. I feel that my work in the Alliance of Women Coaches provides great meaning to me and is very significant. I would see for perhaps the next 5 to 10 years that that will continue to be where I will sink my energies. I also see at some point in time, whether in this work or in a different context, one of the areas I most want to bring into the world of sport is a sense of mindfulness. A daily awareness of who we are and what our work is in the world and to help those athletes and coaches to slow down enough to take big breaths every day. Become aware much more of the bigness of life and the greatness of life and what they have to offer the world that really does have lots of pain and all of us need to be part of it. So somewhere somehow that will also be in my future of what I have to offer sport