Karen Ephraim is a professor of the Master in Coaching course at the Johan Cruyff Institute, Amsterdam. Since 2010, Karen has been teaching the programme which aims to support coaches by improving oneself, using the philosophy of the founder of the institute, Johan Cruyff.
Originally a PE teacher for ten years, Karen went on to become the National Head Coach for the Wheelchair Rugby team and developed her own coaching philosophy aimed at working on “on possibilities and not impossibilities.”
In celebration of our recent webinar with the Johan Cruyff Institute, we wanted to interview a number of female coaches involved with the program. Below, Karen shares her journey into coaching and what life is like in the Netherlands as a female coach…
Can you tell us how you became a coach and what your own coaching journey has been like so far?
I started my career as a teacher in Physical Education and I worked in a high school for ten years. When I was working with the children in the school, my focus was always on the development and that is what I still focus on now.
When I worked in the school I was also a volleyball coach, and had the same focusses.? After a few years, I founded and coached the wheelchair rugby team at Den Haag, the city where I live in the Netherlands. I was also Head Coach of the National Wheelchair Rugby Team for a few years. I very much enjoyed this, we always worked on possibilities and not impossibilities…which is so important in disability sports, and in development in general.? So if some one can’t walk, it is useless to focus on walking, you need to focus on the way he is able to move. For me, that is the same way I look at coaching in general.? Wheelchair Rugby is a small sport, so whether it’s men or women, they all play together in one team. It’s not about being a man or being a woman, it?s about the contribution each player can give to the team.
In my opinion in disability sports, it’s easier to manage the differences because the differences are very physical and with that very apparent. For me it was a very good lesson in learning to coach the possibilities of that player and looking at the way I could contribute to the possibilities of each person.
Was it always your ambition to become a Professor and to teach people how to become better coaches?
I think it has always been my ambition to be a Professor and Teacher, my parents where both teachers and they showed me their love for the work they did. When I was a little girl I always wanted to be a PE teacher, so it started at school for me. I do really enjoy what I do now because sports people are always eager to learn and to develop and that’s a great environment to work in.
Can you share with us your experience of working as a Professor on the ‘Masters in Coaching’ programme at the Johan Cruyff Institute?
I have been a teacher on this course since 2010, it is a big honour to work with a group of students who are eager to develop their coaching skills. For me, the most important part of the program for me is that it’s all about personal development. Cruyff said “you can only coach others if you can coach yourself”, so the journey we go on with the students is all about their personal development and how they can make themselves better in all that they do. It is always exciting to see the students to develop in one year! We show them how important it is to watch and listen to other people, I think for a coach, his or her eyes are very important tool to be able to coach because coaching is about seeing, which for me also includes hearing and feeling.
In July this year, you attended the ‘Women in Football’ conference held during the European Championships in the Netherlands. What are your thoughts on this conference and do you think it is important that governing bodies continue to host events such as this?
Yes I do think it’s important because people tend to just stick with the way they have always done things, which in this case is that more men are members of boards and technical committees than women. In order to get more women leaders in football, everyone has to be aware of this issue. So for example, traditionally, whenever there is a board meeting, most if not all of the people involved are men – and that’s the way it has always been. I think it is important to force others to change this. In this case, I think the organizations involved with the Women’s European Championships did well because they really highlighted these points and the lack of women leaders. I think it necessary to continue to do this until the new behaviour begins and having more women involved becomes a new ‘normal’.
As you know, there is such a lack of women who are head coaches in football, however, those that are tend to be very successful. For example, whilst less than 10% of all women’s national teams have female head coaches, the success rate is 92% in global competition of a female head coach winning a championship…why do you think this is?
It was good to see the Netherlands win in the European Championships hosted in the Netherlands and that all the hard work that Sarina Wiegman (the head coach) had put in paid off. She has worked for so many years in football, she is very professional and in my opinion did everything a good coach should be doing i.e. Seeing, hearing every aspect of the game. I don’t know her personally, but I think she has always been busy being a football coach and not being a female football coach. She did what she thought was needed to be the best football coach and that was her ambition. It was so wonderful to see them win!
I think that the women who are given the head coaching jobs have had to prove, and prove and prove again how good they are as coaches. They have to prove themselves so much more than men have to do. This has made me think of the German football referee Bibiana Steinhaus who last week refereed in the German Men’s league and she got really positive feedback. She said that she doesn’t want to be seen as an example, I do what I love to do and I just want to be very good.
Like I said before, we are not used to have female coaches in high positions, and as long as it is not normal, we have to work hard for it to get up there and be normal. Firstly the female coaches themselves have to work hard to get themselves to that position, and secondly we have to support them and create those opportunities.
What would you say is the most important trait or attribute that a successful sports coach needs and why?
I think one of the most important things is that you know your players and who they are and you help them to understand themselves. That way, you can give them what they need and deal with their individual needs.
What advice would you give to women who want to progress in their coaching career?
I think one of the things is to work hard. Know what your possibilities are and the things you are not good at. Work hard to get better at what you do. Don’t focus on being a woman, focus on how you can progress. You may do things differently to that of a male coach, but realize that this is a good thing!