In the NFL season that just started, there are six full-time female coaches throughout the league, with Tampa Bay’s Lori Locust and Maral Javadifar trusted with the task of coaching the likes of all-time greats Brady and Rob Gronkowski.
These six women join a long list of female coaches who have played key roles in the sport since 2015 when Jen Welter became a linebacker coach for the Arizona Cardinals and smashed the sport’s glass ceiling.
In an interview with the Herald last year, Locust said the responsibility lies with the organisation to take the initiative to “work and mentor” young women who show an interest in coaching.
“I’m a football coach who happens to be a woman, not a woman who happens to be a football coach,” she said. “If we continue to try and carve out or highlight gender differences it can fuel continued separation on regarding us as equal or viable coaches.
“Create a framework of progression so that they get experience at every level of the sport, help them connect and find resources so that they are knowledgeable and confident approaching opportunities.”
Javadifar said it was incumbent on the sport, not the individual, to make the shift happen.
“Recognise and acknowledge the lack of diversity in their field, and then create initiatives and programs to address that,” she said.
“Organisations need to consciously seek out and recruit female candidates for coaching positions as many women do not even think there could be a potential option for them there.”
While there are more teams and more coaches in the NFL, the NRL is still yet to have one female on the coaching staff of any of the 16 clubs.
Earlier this year, elite and aspiring coaches and trainers in the NRL were brought to the Gold Coast to participate in the first National Coaching and Performance Conference specifically designed for the women’s game. Half of those who attended were women.
But Norris said making the leap from the women’s game to the men’s was another matter altogether.
“Sometimes it’s about having played the game and at what level and the respect you get from players … and that’s a really big part of it,” Norris said. “But Rob Wright [Collingwood Magpies Super Netball coach] has never played a [professional] game of netball in his life and he gets a lot of respect from his players.
“He’s a stats man. Everyone has the speciality of who they are as coaches and it’s just about developing that.”
Norris, a former Jillaroo who played in 58 representative games and who managed the gold medal-winning men’s kayak team at the London Olympics, has been branded as one of the most likely candidates to break into the NRL coaching ranks.
The governing body says rugby league has recorded a 98 per cent increase in female coaches across all levels of the game in the past five years, but Norris says it is a very different story at the elite level of the men’s game.
Meanwhile, in the AFL, St Kilda appointed Peta Searle as an assistant coach in 2014 before she was appointed AFLW head coach for the club in 2019.
St Kilda chief executive Matt Finnis said the hiring six years ago was based on her “experience and her expertise”.
“She was rated so highly by the players she had coached, particularly because of the culture she had been able to establish within those teams,” he said. “The way she was able to bring together the group and build such a strong team ethos was quite remarkable.”
Jillaroos head coach Brad Donald has urged NRL clubs to seriously consider appointing a woman to their coaching ranks. Before the NRL’s women in league round this weekend, Donald said the NRL was falling behind when it comes to providing elite coaching opportunities for women.
“We seem to follow AFL and the AFL have had female assistant coaches over the last 10 years,” he said. “There is a lot of responsibility on the club to develop the coaches, like there is players.”
But even with a mentor such as Donald and more than 20 years experience in the game, Norris said she needs the NRL to help with that transition from the women’s to the men’s game.
“I’ve gone to a couple of things that the Titans have run, but it is something the NRL could help with,” she said. “I don’t know Trent Robinson, for example, but the NRL can set up a meeting.”
Norris says clubs and the NRL need to do their part to ensure female coaches have the pathways to move into the men’s game.
“We need someone to advocate internally for that to happen,” she said. “A big thing is relationship building and finding avenues to get those opportunities.”
Donald believes that, similar to women now being hired as full-time referees, all it will take is one to break the glass ceiling and shape the future.
“It is certainly an area of the game we are investing in,” he said. “We see lots of females around the coaching staff … we are not too far off.”
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Sarah is a journalist for The Sydney Morning Herald.