Why so few? The rise of the Female Coaching Network

Female Sports Coaches // Vicky Huyton set up the Female Coaching Network (FCN) in 2014, after working as an athletics and football coach. You can find the FCN on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, and connect with Vicky here.

The joke in my family was that my sprint times are calculated on a calendar not a stopwatch! I was a horrendous athlete, so ever since I was a teenager I was interested in coaching. My childhood memories are of watching Wimbledon, Steffi Graf, the Williams sisters, then the Olympics every four years: I wanted to be part of that. But because I lacked the ability to perform as an athlete, my dream was to be a coach.

I originally qualified as a football coach, but back in the early 2000s being a female football coach was a horrendous place to be. I was then obsessed with becoming a track and field coach. I had ambitions of wanting to coach an Olympian and go all the way. But the more I progressed in my career, getting involved in UK Athletics coach development programmes, I started to see a bit of a pattern that I wasn’t getting jobs, not because I wasn’t capable, but because, I felt, I was a woman. I know that sounds like a very easy conclusion to jump to, but the more female sports coaches I was connecting with, I increasingly saw a trend.

Fast forward to 2014, I naively set up the Female Coaching Network with the idea of trying to create an online platform to connect women coaching across all sports. For about four years I published one interview every week: everyone from British volunteer coaches to women coaching professionally in the NBA.

What’s the gender balance in coaching?

You need to differentiate between the different levels of the sporting pyramid. There are a lot more women at grassroots, then very quickly as you rise up the funnel that number gets smaller and smaller. In athletics, assistant coach level is roughly 50/50 gender split, but once you get to elite you’re talking two or three women at GB level, of the 100-odd that go to an Olympic Games.

In the US, the famous Title IX 1972 federal legislation equalising investment into men’s and women’s sport, has meant unbelievable opportunities for female athletes at US colleges; but the professionalisation of women’s college sport has actually reduced the opportunities for female coaches. Before Title IX, there were far, far more female coaches in that college system than there are now.

What are the barriers to female sports coaches?

There are similar issues (at grassroots and elite), but they are more pronounced at elite. The higher you rise, the more commitment is needed and the more the culture is like a bubble. For an outsider, it’s harder to break in.

Role models are important. Women’s football is doing well because of the high-profile female coaches such as England’s Sarina Weigmann or former Chelsea manager Emma Hayes. Also, it’s professional and there is a pathway. Compare that to athletics, where there’s no pathway. You get your basic coaching qualification, then it’s pot-luck if an athlete walks on to the track who can make it to the top. You rise if they rise.

Do men coach differently to women?

You’ve got to be careful about putting a big generalisation out there, but I think they do based on the hundreds of coaches – of both genders – I’ve spoken to. I think it comes more naturally to a woman to put the person first before the athlete; to coach the person not the sport. And people like Mel Marshall (Adam Peaty’s coach), Jane Figueiredo (Tom Daley’s coach) and Sarina Weigman; in interviews they always bring up that differentiation.

I love my sport. Can I make coaching my career?

Not every athlete makes a good coach! Being a coach is a very different set of skills to being an athlete; athletes are single-minded and coaches have to put other people first. That’s not a bad thing – but recognise it’s not for everyone.

But as an athlete you have so many experiences you can draw on: delivering under pressure, learning from adversity, discipline, commitment, overcoming setbacks, learning to deal with pressure, learning from mistakes, resilience. Plus you know your sport inside out. You know the tactics, technique and what works. Reflect on what you liked as an athlete from your coach, and what you didn’t like.

And as a female athlete you’ve built that network of people in the sport around you so to an extent some of those coaching doors are already open.

Finally, don’t rush into it! Spend time thinking: what kind of coach do I want to be?