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Women's coaching work powering forward

We spoke to Carol Isherwood, who is working with World Rugby to drive up the opportunities for women in coaching. 

Forty years after she first got involved in women’s rugby by setting up a team at her university in Leeds, Carol Isherwood remains one of the driving forces  behind moving the game into the modern era.

Already considered one of the game’s pioneers as a player, coach and administrator, she is now helping to significantly improve opportunities for female coaches and is leading several impressive interventions as a consultant to World Rugby.

Isherwood’s mantra is that the more visibility and credibility women have as coaches the more chances they will get at top jobs.

That belief has underpinned initiatives like the development of World Rugby’s successful Coach Internship Programme, which recently helped Whitney Hansen secure a role as assistant coach of the Black Ferns, the introduction of high-performance academy sessions for female coaches and several other programmes funded and supported by the Olympic Solidarity, giving aspiring coaches an opportunity to learn from other sports.

“The internship programme is a simple programme where teams going to the World Cup were provided with an extra place in their coaching team for one of our interns, which World Rugby helped to fund, and they were then given opportunity to get involved at the elite end of the game.  These are opportunities they would otherwise not get,” she says.

“There is often risk aversion to appointing women into coaching roles and so we have to influence those people who make recruitment decisions. If you get good women in, like we have done with the interns, there is often a eureka moment. Whitney Hansen (pictured) is a prime example of this. When the assistant coach job came up, they knew she was good. She’d been there all year and had had the chance to show it. Would they have brought her in if she hadn’t been in there on that programme – I am not sure”

Having built a network of the most talented female coaches around the world, Isherwood says part of the job is simply about building confidence.

“Confidence, and the lack of it, is always a consistent theme and barrier to women progressing in coaching. What we’ve been seeking to do through all our interventions is tackle that by helping build competence so that women feel, well I can do this, and then that confidence builds.

“We find too that women often think they don’t have enough of the technical or tactical knowledge or experience to go for top roles and that is reinforced when they go for jobs when they are told they haven’t got enough high-performance experience.

“That’s where the internship project has really worked.”

“To the powers that be who take decisions on recruitment – we want to get rid of that voice in their head that says well she’s only worked at this level, or she’s only worked in the women’s game. There is an automatic assumption there of course that there is more value in the men’s game, but I would say surely if you are going to work in the women’s game, it’s helpful to have had some background in it.”

Isherwood believes too that women can bring different skills and talents to coaching teams, which are often overlooked, whether that’s to lead women’s teams or be part of men’s set ups.

“If you look at the work of a head or assistant coach– I’d say probably a quarter is what you’d call technical/tactical – the part that women worry they are not good enough at. The rest is management, communication, relationships and general coaching, where you need lots of soft skills, which women have in abundance and many of those are transferable from other roles. So the job is often about getting women to understand that and encouraging them to be courageous enough to go for some of the roles and build their brand and reputation.

“With the network we have, that is starting to happen. We’ve had a couple of roles come up where some of the coaches in the group are saying to each other – are you going for this? If you go for it, I’ll go for it, because one of us must get it, it doesn’t matter who. They are helping and pushing each other to do that.”

World Rugby’s target is that 40% of the coaches at the 2025 World Cup will be women.

Given that at this year’s World Cup there are just two female head coaches – Lesley McKenzie and Annick Hayraud, and three assistants Louise Dalgleish, Whitney Hansen and Gaelle Mignot, it looks a tough target.

“Yes, it is,” Isherwood concedes, “but you must aspire high. There is a lot of influencing going on to the national governing bodies but there is a willingness there too.

“My ask when I talk to countries is simply that they have a plan around female coaching development. I ask them to be clear what they’re looking at and get a cohort or a depth chart, like they do with players, so they know who all the female coaches coming through at every level are. When they’ve done a course – they need to ask themselves how they are deploying those women across the game”

She points to England as a country which is doing this well.

“They’ve got clear numbers at different levels, and they ensure they have a percentage of places for women across their courses and training.  They recognise that they’ve got to do some unequal stuff in order to eventually bring about equality.

 “Of course, the challenge for so many that emerge at the top end is that many of the roles are part time or not paid. And so, women will say – I want a fulltime coaching job in rugby, but unless you’re coaching fulltime in rugby, it’s impossible to get a job fulltime in rugby. We have to myth bust the idea that you can’t make that leap as a woman.”

With welfare and integrity issues emerging across the landscape of women’s sport, Isherwood agrees there needs to be better understanding among male coaches moving into the women’s game, of what is likely to be expected.

“For years as a coach, I always thought if you were player centred that was good enough. But I think what is now clear is that you have to do some education and awareness with coaches to fast track their understanding that when you’re going to coach women there are some psychological differences and knowing and addressing those can make all the difference. We are building a module on ‘coaching women; at the moment in part to raise awareness about the differences, because it is different.”