Game changers: The role of gender in football coaching

Common Goal in collaboration with Women Win

In the traditional sports landscape, there has long been a construction, organisation, and promotion that predominantly favours it as a men-dominated activity.

 Despite a significant surge in the active participation of women in sports over the last five decades, there remains a glaring disparity in opportunities, investment, and corporate and media attention dedicated to women athletes globally. This discrepancy is particularly evident in coaching, where the underrepresentation of women coaches and a lack of gender perspective in training sessions perpetuates gender stereotypes, neglecting the unique needs of women and girls in sports.

 The adidas Breaking Barriers research paper "Empowering Her Game: Exploring the Importance of Gender-Informed Coaching" uncovered three root causes within coaching practices that contribute to the limited engagement of women and girls in sports. It shows that institutionalised biases, the systematic undervaluation of women in coaching roles, manifest through inadequate resources allocated to women's coaches. Additionally, it sheds light on the absence of a gender-oriented approach in coaching methodologies, perpetuating a system that overlooks the specific needs of girls. Lastly, the research uncovers a knowledge gap in understanding coach-athlete relationships and their pivotal role in shaping women's and girls' participation, retention, and aspirations in sports.

 Implementing strategies to overcome these issues shouldn't just be focused on achieving equal representation in coaching, or solely promoting the participation of women and girls in sports. It's time to re-think coaching practices, change the dominant narratives, and promote gender-inclusive and respectful spaces in sports.

The challenges for women coaches in the professional football landscape

Women's football has evolved rapidly during the last decade, with the 21st century bringing an increasing number of professional women athletes and managers. However, the sustainability of professional football for women continues to be a challenge. This is the case of women coaches in recent examples, such as in the 2023 Women’s World Cup.

Institutionalised bias plays a role in how women are systemically undermined in their roles as coaches and often overlooked in the media. One only has to look as far as the success of Sarina Wiegman in the women’s game – leading England to European glory in 2022 and finishing as a World Cup runner-up in successive tournaments. Wiegman is undoubtedly one of the game’s heavyweights, yet she has not received adequate recognition among the best in the footballing world.

It's not only the men's game that's full of men's coaches. There is also an over-representation of men coaches in the women's game, within the entire footballing ecosystem. This is notorious at a global level with only 12 of the 32 countries that competed in the Women’s World Cup being coached by women.

Juggling motherhood and a coaching career in football also puts heavy pressure on women due to organisational demands in the industry. Traditional gender roles – and the lack of policies in place to promote a better distribution of unpaid care roles between parents and society – continue to disproportionately affect women in professional football. As football players, women often wait until retirement to start a family. Considering coaching after retirement adds a double burden for women. These circumstances have a significant impact on women managers' careers. For Emma Hayes, one of the best managers in the game, balancing the demands of motherhood with club management has been a struggle. It is rare that an interview passes without mentioning her son Harry, who resents football because it takes his mum away. Her exit from Chelsea and move to international management at the USWNT is the chance for a more normal day-to-day with her son.

A notable knowledge gap concerning the physiology of women and girls is commonly associated with injuries in women’s football. When discussing football-related injuries, the incidence of anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injuries is known to be higher among women players than men. Various factors such as anatomy, biomechanics, player load, menstrual cycle, and hormones contribute to these injuries. Understanding the intricacies of footballers' menstrual cycles, for example, enables coaches to collaborate closely with menstruating athletes, ensuring optimal performance and well-being. Regular health check-ins, incorporating both subjective and objective measures, could effectively prevent a spike in injury rates. In 2020, Chelsea FC became the first club in the world to tailor training to menstrual cycles. This initiative came from manager Emma Hayes to understand the huge role players’ cycles have on preventing injuries.

Nonetheless, the majority of current coaching frameworks in Europe continue to exhibit as both gender-biased and gender-blind, resulting in disengagement among girls and women participants. This underlines the necessity for a paradigm shift to better support the unique needs of girls and women in football, and in sports more broadly.

There is also a need for a transformation in the knowledge gap within coach-athlete relationships. Athletes demonstrate a keen awareness of social dynamics, emphasising the pivotal role of coaches in establishing a positive sports environment – which is crucial for engaging and retaining girls in sports. This importance is heightened during puberty when girls are particularly susceptible to peer influence, compounded by societal socialisation that fosters low self-confidence and body shame.

To facilitate girls' participation and retention in football, it is imperative to prioritise physical safety and safeguarding. Unfortunately, these considerations often take a backseat in coaching setups. The World Cup in 2023 again – while worthy of celebration –  also served to highlight the scale of the issue with nations entering the competition with coaches that had allegations of sexual misconduct against them.

Amid these challenges, there are positive examples that demonstrate a better way forward. Sarina Wiegman’s coaching style showcases the potential for healthy coach-athlete relationships. Unlike numerous sports coaches, whose success is synonymous with a tough, demanding, and aggressive styles of leadership; Wiegman's toughness and high demand is underpinned by a people-centric and supportive way of coaching. The support Wiegman gives her team is evident in interviews with the players, and their mantra of 'In Sarina We Trust.'

 Recognising the unique needs of girls within the coach-athlete relationship is paramount. Addressing vulnerability, socialisation impacts, and safeguarding concerns while promoting positive coaching dynamics will contribute to enhanced engagement and retention of girls in sports.

Embracing change

The Women’s World Cup marked a significant shift in the football landscape, challenging stereotypes and highlighting the persistent gender gap in coaching roles. While figures like Sarina Wiegman and Emma Hayes showcase positive strides toward gender justice, there remains a crucial need to foster inclusive and gender-focused coaching practices.

It is time to change the perception that women’s football does not make as much revenue as men’s. The 2023 Women’s World Cup is a perfect example of this. The event was the most-attended Women's World Cup of all time. According to FIFA, nearly two million people attended the 64 matches, signalling a rising interest and support in the women’s game. However, despite this progress, women’s football still faces deep-rooted sexism. As the United States women's national team player, Megan Rapinoe, underscored about Spain football federation chief Luis Rubiales and his planted kiss on the lips of Women’s World champion Jenni Hermoso: "there is a deep level of misogyny and sexism in that federation and in that man.”

 The role of coaches is pivotal in fostering girls’ self-confidence and body acceptance. By serving as role models who openly share their imperfections and challenges, coaches contribute to a positive environment. At a higher level, supporting women’s and girls' sports involves proper funding, awareness raising, high visibility campaigns, and men willingly sharing their space and privilege to make room for girls and women at every level of play.

 With a vast global audience, football holds immense potential to reshape perceptions about women in the sport. From addressing the unique needs of girls and women to ensuring equitable access to resources, funding, and meaningful representation, football can lead the charge for change. This includes initiatives at the grassroots level that recognize the role of coaches in retaining girls in football and creating an environment where women can pursue their football careers with equal resources, fair parental leaves, and equitable, respectful organisational practices.

 Creating a more inclusive and empowering environment for women and girls in football requires a collective effort to challenge stereotypes and embrace change. To dive further into the research, download the full adidas Breaking Barriers research paper here.