'Female coach learners who had attended Level 1, Level 2, and UEFA B courses since 2010, highlighted similar instances of toxic masculinity and the use of sexualised language. In particular, they endured a deeply masculinised environment, deficient in fellow female peers and/or members of staff and, as such, the training became a site of struggle, access, and passive acceptance'....
Rebecca is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Hertfordshire and holds both the UEFA A Licence and FA Advanced Youth Licence. She has extensive knowledge of talent development, has worked within the girls’ RTC and boys’ Academy system in the UK. Additionally, Rebecca has worked with senior women’s players in the Championship, worked for the FA on technical talent camps and held the role of Technical Director at an RTC.
Dr William Taylor Bio: Bill is an Honorary Research Fellow at Leeds Beckett University within the ‘Research Centre for Sports Coaching’. He has undertaken research for a number of sporting and policy bodies including the FA. His research interests are in the professionalisation of coaching and coach education.
Dr Colin Lewis Bio: Colin is a Senior Lecturer at Liverpool John Moores University. He is an active researcher in the areas of gender-based violence and inequality in sport, coach education and physical literacy. Colin is also a UEFA B coach and has worked as a coach at Tranmere Rovers LFC, Everton Girls RTC and Liverpool Feds WFC.
Introduction to the study
The research and subsequent publication were born from discussions we have had over a number of years with friends and colleagues who have experienced the UEFA A licence programme delivered at the FA’s National Centre, St Georges Park. They suggested that their experiences were of an educational delivery which was limited in what it offered to female coach learners and the women’s game in general. They described a corrosive atmosphere - one that undermined their efforts to engage fully in the programme and was less than inclusive in content, setting, and delivery.
We set out to interview a number of female coach learners who had made this journey (nine who had participated in various A Licence courses over a 10-year period). This provided them with a voice to air their concerns regarding the training and to see if their individual experiences had common ground with other females who had made similar commitments to the award. The data from the interviews detailed a catalogue of sexist assumptions about the capabilities of female coaches, the use of inappropriate language by male participants and tutors, and a general disregard for and dismissal of the women’s game in all its formats.
What inspired this research?
Not only had we listened to female coaches for a number of years about the trials and tribulations of progressing through the FA’s coaching pathway, but all of us, to varying degrees, have had first-hand experience of seeing the androcentric nature of coaching education within the FA. In addition, some of our earlier work on the experience of females coaches participating in lower awards, had highlighted the difficulties and problems they had to deal with in their desire to engage in coach education and to become better coaches.
The issues females coach learners encountered
According to the coach learners we talked to in our recent study, they seem almost endless. We separated the concerns the interviewees expressed into four key areas. First was the language and verbal interactions used to silence and exclude female coach learners; some of the participants on the course felt under attack from the very first minute, even during the initial meetings. The fact that, as attendees, they met the perquisites for they course did not seem to be enough for some of the male participants.
Female coach learners recounted that the comments were not just probing, but also judgemental in nature. There was doubt cast on their background and coaching histories, a feature that the male attendees were not subject to. This critical questioning had to be endured alongside a steady background of sexist comments about the physical limits of females as coaches and footballers on one hand and the sexual availability of them as women on the other. As well as being challenged by the sexist and sexualised language, the interviewees felt they faced a dilemma: should they tackle the individuals, and course tutors who seemed deaf to this language, directly and possibly face further exclusion, or suffer in a silence that could be construed by others as being a co-conspirator of this toxic environment.
The second issue that was noted was the nature of the curriculum. The references made in the course booklets and practical examples offered by tutors were dominated by the male game. The students brought in for practical coaching sessions were male and there seemed to be a reluctance, from both tutors and others, to address or refer to the female game or to acknowledge the difference in tactics, approaches, and settings.
The third area of concern was the underlying assumptions brought to the course. One interviewee told us when the kit was issued, only male sizes and fitting were available. She said she felt both ridiculous and ridiculed by being asked to wear a tracksuit that neither fitted nor was fit for purpose. Others spoke of the unchallenged assumptions about the physical nature of football and the behaviours of coaching that were afforded most value; it seemed that male physicality was deemed to be the normative standard and, thus, to be lacking in certain male traits was perceived as a shortcoming. Some of the interviewees went on to suggest that these assumptions are more damaging because they remain almost hidden.
By doing so, they infiltrate the very nature of the delivery, the manner in which the coach training is presented, valued, and consumed by all. The female game might be referenced as an added extra, but not as something to be embraced and valued with an acknowledgment that it could enrich coaching and its possibilities whomever you coach and at whatever level.
The last area we considered was resistance and we were keen to hear from those who had spoken out against the androcentric nature of the A Licence. The overall concern was for participants not to feel that they were being cast as troublemakers. There was an understanding that the coaching world at this level was a small stage where one could be left feeling exposed.
One of the interviewees who brought her concerns to the attention of one the senior managers at the FA felt that her complaints were too easily dismissed and treated as a ‘one off’. Despite these fears, many of the female coach learners felt they had an obligation to challenge many of practices experienced in order that those women who followed might find a more accommodating atmosphere.
Is this a problem specific to the English coach education system or more widespread?
We have not completed research in other countries, so it is difficult to comment with any authority. Other research, however, suggests that the culture of football and it coaching have some similarities across countries and the male-centric nature of the game may influence the manner in which coach education is conceptualised, presented, and consumed.
This paper looks specifically at the UEFA A course, but are similar problems evident in UEFA B, Level 2, Level 1 courses?
Earlier research conducted by members of the team with female coach learners who had attended Level 1, Level 2, and UEFA B courses since 2010, highlighted similar instances of toxic masculinity and the use of sexualised language. In particular, they endured a deeply masculinised environment, deficient in fellow female peers and/or members of staff and, as such, the training became a site of struggle, access, and passive acceptance.
We suggest, therefore, that regardless of the stage you are at within the coach education pathway, most female coach learners will unfortunately encounter similar challenges to those highlighted within the UEFA A environment.
Which problems highlighted in your research form the biggest barrier to the progression of female coaches?
The use of the term ‘barrier’ implies that you can overcome these as obstacles. For example, the cost of any course may be barrier or the distance you may travel to attend delivery. The conditions that the participants in our study talked of were insidious in nature resulting in an androcentrism which presented the male game as the point of departure for all considerations within coaching delivery.
The assumptions that underpin this deference to the male game were reproduced by the language used in group discussions, the curriculum text presented as authoritative knowledge, and an atmosphere that prevented the females from full engagement and opportunities to present an authentic self.
So what needs to be done to change the way coach education is delivered to attract more females and be more inclusive?
We may differ here from others who have also conducted research in this area; we suggest that forming yet another committee to review coach education practices or offering additional in house training for tutors will no longer work. While these initiatives may serve to highlight examples of exclusion and negativity about the women’s game, we do not believe it will bring about a fundamental change in an institutionalised culture where sexism is commonplace and dismissal of the female game seems engrained in the very fabric of coach education.
What is required are new ways of thinking that define coaching and coach education with a fresh purpose and direction – the ‘just add women and stir approach’ has not worked up to now. It will take more than a few additional pictures of females coaching in the course text and a policy document with guidance on the use of pronouns. Coach education is a mirror of the wider way football values women, the women’s game, and the female coach.
We may have to deploy different coach educators, ones who do not just pander to notions of inclusiveness and equity. In addition, there needs to be an institutional acknowledgment of the differences in the ways females coach and receive coaching in order to add to the depth and open the possibilities to all who enjoy the game in all its formats.
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If anyone would like to share her stories of coach education with the research team, please contact the lead author email@example.com