The new season of the women’s Aussie rules football league starts on Friday 7th February, now in its 4th year and welcomes a host of new teams.
The first season of the league began in February 2017 with 8 teams, which grew to 10 teams in the 2019 season, and has now grown to 14 teams in 2020.
With more teams comes more opportunities for female coaches right?
In 2017, the league had 25% of its coaches as women. That’s 2 teams out of the 8. These two women were incredibly successful, with Bec Goddard (Head Coach of Adelaide Football Club) taking the League Trophy and Michelle Cowan (Head Coach of Fremantle) finishing 7th.
In 2018, the percentage of women’s coaches dropped to 12% as Michelle Cowan resigned at the end of the previous season. Bec Goddard continued in her role, leading her team to a disappointing 5th.
In 2019, the stats got even worse, as the percentage dropped to 0%. Bec Goddard resigned from her role, stating she wanted to return to Canberra to resume full-time work with the Australian Federal Police. She returned to coaching soon after as she took the role of assistant coach at the University of Canberra Capitals basketball team, who went on to win Women’s National Basketball League (WNBL) championship
The 2020 season welcomes a new female Head Coach as Peta Searle takes on the role with St Kildas, making the percentage of female coaches in the league to 7% – thats 1 out of 14 teams.
AFL v AFLW
The creation of the AFLW was a breakthrough for women in Australia. The men’s game boasts huge audiences with 100,000 attending Grand Finals and a season total of over 6 million people in the stadiums.
TV Audiences add to the numbers with millions watching each week and sponsorship for the league at an all time high. The inaugural men’s league began in 1897 and has become a national obsession ever since.
Women’s football began to be organised in the early 20th century, but for several decades occurred mostly in the form of scratch matches and one-off exhibition games. State-based leagues emerged in the 1980s, with the Victorian Women’s Football League (VWFL) forming in Melbourne in 1981 and the West Australian Women’s Football League (WAWFL) forming in Perth in 1988.
The AFL Women’s National Championships were inaugurated in 1992. Women’s football became professionalised in the 2010s, with a national league, AFL Women’s, commencing its inaugural season in 2017 with teams formed by existing Australian Football League (AFL) clubs.
The start of the new professional women’s league was supposed to be the start of a new era for sports women in Australia. Whilst 53,000 people attended the 2019 Grand Final, there are still many issues the sport needs to overcome for it to be fully welcomed into the Australian sport culture. Complaints include conferences, free-to-air TV, poaching players, finals times and locations, expansion, standard of the game, have enough goals been kicked…all adding to the impatience of fans of the men’s game.
It’s easy to forget that AFLW is still in its establishment stage because it’s aligned with the AFL and is the women’s official competition of Aussie Rules.
Coaching in Australian Sport
Coaching positions held by women are few and far between in Australian sport – according to the Australian Institute of Sport, women make up fewer than 15% of high performance coaches and 36% overall.
On an Olympic level, Oceania only gives 13% of its coaching accreditations to women – that’s across all sports.
Whilst participation in sport in the Country is growing, the lack of women coaches is stark and few interventions have proven effective to retain female sport coaches.
Female Coaches and the AFLW
On top of all the usual excuses for not hiring women coaches, what has further exasperated this lack of women coaching in the AFLW, is the speed at which the league is developing. In order for the league to be a success, the teams themselves have to be a success and with that comes an impatience to win.
Coaches are expected to be ‘work-ready’ so they can elevate a team to the next performance level. And in a sport that has only just begun its pathway to elite performance, time is needed to develop its coaches too.
Professional women’s sport has opened the door to dual coaching pathways for men. Sporting organisations need to think long term and creatively about how to design and provide experience that jettisons women into head coaching roles. For example, women could become head coaches in high-performance male youth programs or in men’s leagues that are mature.
Advocates for women in sport had hoped the expanded competition would establish more coaching opportunities for women. Yet of the 14 teams, only one boasts a woman as head coach – St Kilda, with Peta Searle, who made history as the first woman to be part of an AFL men’s coaching program.
Former AFLW head coaches Bec Goddard and Cowan have returned to the game in some way – Cowan as a forward line coach with the Eagles and Goddard with Hawthorn’s VFLW program – but progress remains slow in this space. The AFL established an AFLW coaching academy in 2019 (also headed up by Cowan) to address the issue, but the fruits of that are yet to truly be seen – either in the women’s or men’s competitions.