/ 24 October 2022

Clearing the path for female sports coaches to rise to the top

Desiree Eliis
: Desiree Ellis, Head Coach of South Africa gives her team instructions during the 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup France group B match between South Africa and China PR at Parc des Princes on June 13, 2019 in Paris, France. (Photo by Joosep Martinson - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

South Africans are still basking in the glow of Banyana Banyana’s recent triumph at the Women’s Africa Cup of Nations (Wafcon) tournament in Morocco. What made this victory sweeter for me, as someone who does research on women in sport, is that a female coach led our team to victory.  

What is also interesting is that at this year’s Wafcon, only three of the 12 teams were coached by women, when in fact, five teams qualified for the tournament with female coaches. By contrast, the Uefa Women’s Euro 2022, which was held almost concurrently, had six teams being coached by women, out of the 16 teams participating. 

Now you may be wondering why this is important. It is important because, despite South Africa leading the way for African countries with respect to commitment to international gendered policies and prescripts in sport, female African coaches still struggle to break through to elite-level coaching positions on the continent. 

This issue is further amplified by a recent interview given by Liz Mills who is the first, and still the only, woman to coach a team at AfroBasket — the men’s basketball continental championship. In the interview, Mills, who hails from Australia, acknowledged how working on the continent has helped advance her career and applauded the numerous opportunities available in sports in Africa. However, she also admitted if she was African, she might not be in the privileged position that she now finds herself in as a woman. 

Like many female coaches from more privileged economies, Mills knows that there are structures and policies in place in these countries to aid women in advancing their coaching careers to elite levels. These structures and policies have in turn been largely influenced by academic research that speaks to the experiences, challenges and needs of female coaches. 

In a recently published research essay, I reviewed academic articles focusing on women in sport coaching that had been published since 1994. This was the year that the women in sport movement was globally formalised, with the inception of the International Working Group for Women and Sport, and the adoption of the Brighton Declaration

My review of publications that registered the experiences of female sports coaches as the focal point (wholly or in part), garnered 125 publications from 1994 to the present. Of these, 65 were from the US, 29 from Europe, 18 from Canada, nine from the Asia Pacific and four from Africa (South Africa). To put this further into perspective, the (South) African research on women in sports coaching and their experiences amounts to 3.2% of the current global research output.

Four main themes or issues emerged that hamper women in sports coaching, namely stereotypes and misconceptions; lack of knowledge; cultural expectations and family challenges and lack of opportunities and structural barriers. 

These issues affect women in sports globally. They occur in varying forms, depending on the region, culture and context that women find themselves coaching in. Globally, but more so in industrialised countries, those involved in women in sports coaching have been able to use results from such studies to advocate for paid remuneration for their coaching services. 

Those fortunate enough to be professional coaches have also used research and amended policies and prescripts to call for more favourable terms of employment. 

Unfortunately, in South Africa (and probably in Africa too), we are still far behind our global counterparts when it comes to increasing the number of women coaches in sports. This is due to additional underlying issues (separate from those mentioned above) affecting females in the sports coaching space. 

And solutions for these underlying issues are often not forthcoming at an acceptable pace. The four studies from South Africa previously mentioned identified additional issues that generally affect women who want to become sports coaches in the country. 

Volunteerism is the main form of recruitment for many women pursuing coaching careers. This is because having a formal coaching accreditation is not a requirement in South Africa, as in other parts of the world. This leads to many women either coaching for free or receiving nominal stipends. 

Compared to their male counterparts, most women coaches in the country cannot subsist solely on a coaching salary or fee. Very few women are indeed privileged to have a paying career in sports coaching. And you usually find these women in university sports or in football.

Due to the lack of support, mentorship and guidance from federations to advance their coaching accreditation (and hence their careers), many female coaches become job insecure. This is, however, not the case for most male coaches. 

It is a well-known, but unspoken, fact that many men are provided with career guidance and opportunities to further their coaching careers, especially after they have retired from professional sports. 

The only sport in the country that has seemingly tried to provide female coaches with opportunities to advance their careers is football. This may be due to the tireless efforts of individuals such as Fran Hilton-Smith at home and on the continent. 

Africa’s football governing body, the Confederation of African Football, has recently come on board to support efforts regionally for women wanting to coach football at the highest level. This is an example of the pockets of siloed attempts, which are commendable, but not nearly enough. 

Women wanting to become coaches at the highest level need more than sport-specific skills training, knowledge and experience — which is currently happening in Africa. This could also be why more females are not advancing to top-level coaching. 

Women coaches need well-rounded coaching education and training that would develop and enhance their leadership and business acumen skills and competencies needed to operate at the elite level. Such training is currently being piloted in the United Kingdom through the Women In Sport High Performance Pathway (Wish) with funding from the International Olympic Committee (IOC). 

Despite the support from the IOC, only a limited number of women can be accepted into Wish, especially from Africa. This can be linked to the capacity of the trainers as well as the expense involved in developing and supporting participants (by their national federations) to attend the programme. 

Wish could be replicated in Africa. We have the human resources in South Africa and the rest of the continent to do so. We have scholars and sports administrators that could further explore (sport-specific or generic) challenges that women coaches face. Thereby formulating Afrocentric, yet globally relevant, coaching education and training to supplement the currently available coaching certification and licensing offered by federations. 

However, this can only be done if mindsets are changed and if sports researchers are given more support when trying to engage with federations on issues affecting women in sport. 

Researchers are not the enemies of federations. We just want to help find lasting solutions to the persistent systemic challenges faced by women and girls in sports. If we are able to do so, we could unleash greater potential in this field than the isolated pockets we currently see. 

Dr Nana Adom-Aboagye is the acting head of the Centre for Sport Leadership at Maties Sport at Stellenbosch University. This article is based, in part, on her research essay published recently in Frontiers in Sports and Active Living.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.