Students from the Cruyff Institute Interview FCN Founder Vicky about Leadership in Sport

On Saturday 9th May, students studying the Master in Sports Management Course at the Cruyff Institue in Amsterdam, Netherlands, took part in a leadership discussion

45 students attended an online video call with 3 leaders who included; Niels Meijer – the Director of the Cruyff Institute, Joost de Wit- CEO at a Sports Consultancy firm in the Netherlands and Vicky Huyton – the founder of the FCN.

The discussion gave the students the opportuniy to interview the leaders and ask questions about their leadership experience and thoughts on various leadership topics.

Below is a transcript of the questions asked to our founder Vicky Huyton, in which she sahred her own experience of leadership, her journey with the FCN and how she thinks the Sporting world will solve its inequitable coaching practices.

Vicky, can you tell us about the Female Coaching Network and why you started it?

My original idea for the FCN back in 2014, was to create a simple online forum / website. Back then, my vision was a little vague, I had no experience or knowledge of how to run an organisation, no idea how to start one from scratch, and not really any idea where it was going. All I knew is that I was passionate about wanting to make a change, passionate about coaching, and passionate about sport. I had an idea and I had a belief in that idea.

I have never really considered myself a leader and I have had no formal leadership education. I have studied coaching at a degree level and have 20 years experience coaching and leading athletes, but the world of leadership in the type of setting I am in now and perhaps the type of setting you are studying has been learnt by myself through trial and error and reading plenty of books.

I have failed more times than I can remember, and it has certainly taken me longer than I initially thought to get to where I am today – which is no where near where I want to be…but I am really honoured to be part of this discussion and hope I can share with you some insight into what not to do as a leader and a coach. Hopefully I can be of some use to you!

Over the last few years, I have been pushed to hone in my vision. I feel I have a responsibility to all the amazing women and men who have helped me, advised me and shared their stories with me. I have spent time learning about what it means to create such an organisation, what it means to make a tangible difference and what the result of diverse leadership looks like.

Whilst the FCN has a focus on female coaches, the end goal is to be a disruptor in the industry and to educate and support sports administration to recognise the benefits of diverse leadership. The FCN exists to support the creation of equal opportunities (not equal outcome), to ensure that sports leadership and coaching is open to the best person for the job, and not closed to those who don’t meet the traditional physical appearance of a sports leader or coach.

I believe that sport governance has lost it’s way, and that many sports federations have forgotten why they exist and continue to exist…the athletes and coaches.

Because the FCN is independent, and can take a step back from inside the bubble of sports governance, I believe it can have a tangible, sustainable and positive impact on the way athletes and coaches are treated, ultimately making sport a more positive and prosperous place for all.

As I repeat on our website and in the work we do ‘We don’t just tick boxes, we make change happen.”, we are now in a position to create and deliver unique and powerful projects that will increase the number of women coaching in high performance sport and make it a better place for all.

You started off by saying “I never intended to be a leader”, when did you realise you had become a leader?

I think I realised I had perhaps become a leader when I received an email from you asking me to join a leadership discussion. I know that sounds funny, but I do feel that it is true, because for me, my aim has never been to be a leader of a sports organisation, it was purely because I believed things could be done better, and in order to do that, I had to become a leader.

I know that as part of your students research for this discussion, they were trying to find me on social media, and the reason they couldn’t is because I don’t want to be known and I don’t want my face known. I guess that is purely a confidence thing, if it was up to me, my name wouldn’t be found anywhere on the FCN, I would hide behind the website and logo and drive it silently – not because I am ashamed of it, I am very proud of the FCN and I have dedicated my life to it for the last 6 years…I am just a very shy person and don’t like centre stage. However, I have learned over the lat few years that I can’t move things forwards the way they need to be without stepping up and putting myself in front to lead this project properly.

Do you now feel the front woman of a movement? Do you feel this is different than being a leader?

Perhaps I did, but again, not until I received your invitation did I really reflect on my position. I have read a huge amount of books on leadership and I do have a big interest in the subject, but I have never really considered myself a leader in all of this. A big part of what I do involves leadership skills, starting a brand and an organisation from nothing definitely involves leadership skills and I perhaps did not realise how prominent those skills where to my everyday until now.

I am really enjoying the journey, it is a huge learning curve for me but I would never see myself as a traditional leader. If I was to see a ‘leadership job description’, I think I would have said to myself ‘no, that’s not me’, even though it’s what I do everyday.

Do you think the issue is the same for other women, they see the job description and think the same as you, that they don’t have what it takes?

Yes, and the reason I say that is for a couple of reasons. Firstly, there has been some research undertaken into the reasons behind the lack of women coaches and one of the reasons that has been identified as a barrier is that there is a ‘blame culture’, that organisations ‘blame’ women themselves for not applying for roles. Many may disagree with me on my point here, so please feel free to let me know – but for me, I actually partly agree with the statement that women aren’t applying for roles. I know a number of women who are more than qualified and more than experienced to have applied for certain coaching positions, and don’t. There are a number of examples in this, whether they be private conversations I have had, or even stories that have made it into the media.

Secondly, I want to give an example that women don’t sell themselves properly. A few years ago I was involved in a coach development programme and we wanted to do an experiment as to how male coaches and female coaches talk about themselves. Day 1, we asked a group of male only coaches who were sat in a circle around the room. We asked 1 simple question “Can you introduced yourself?” We sat back and let them speak. There was 10 male coaches, the introductions lasted 2 hours. The coaches spoke about their own education, the athletes they coached, the competitions they had coached at, people they had worked with etc etc.

The next day, we sat 10 female coaches in the same room and asked the same question “Can you introduce yourself?”. The conversation lasted 5 and a half minutes.

From my own experience of speaking with many many female coaches, women in business, and about how I feel about things, I don’t feel that all women shout about themselves enough, they don’t know how to (or don’t want to) sell themselves and don’t always have the confidence to apply for roles they would be great at.

Do you think that another reason might be that a women who is the lead coach gets the blame for doing a bad job because she is a woman, whereas a man would never get the blame for doing a bad job because he is man?

I do think this is also a huge problem…take men’s football in the U.K as an example. There is currently no female head coach in men’s professional football and yet, on paper, there are a lot of women who are more than qualified to do that job – but who would want to be the first female head coach of a men;s football team in England?! Can you imagine how difficult it would be standing on the side line as the first female coach in the Premier League? I know football managers are always getting critiscms for the wrong decisions, but they are criticised for being terrible at their job, not because they are a man…but I guarantee that a female head coach would be criticised because she is a woman!

Whoever that first woman head coach will be, will have to deal with a hell of a lot more than her male peers.

One thing I do want to say is, one of the reason why women who do get to the top of the coaching tree are so successful is because they have to fight that much harder than any others. they have to make themselves bullet proof, and an even better coach than perhaps they would have been had they not had to fight as hard. Look at women’s international football – since 2000, all but one international tournament has been won by a team with a female head coach! And 92% of all time!

At the moment, women can only reach the top if they are superior to their male counterparts, because will get picked on quicker than mistakes from a male coach.

We need to make female coaches the norm so that we can crtise female coaches on the same levels we critise (or praise) male head coaches – i.e., she made the wrong coaching decision, she isn’t a good coach, instead of, she is a women and she can’t coach.

Men’s Pro sports in the US are leading the way with trying to make female coaches the norm. At the moment, there are 5 female assistant coaches in the NFL and I think about 9 in the NBA. New female assistant coaches in these two leagues are slowly starting to become a norm and ‘accepted’ by die hard male fans. We still have a long way to go, and when we eventually get a head female coach in one of these leagues, she is going to have a tough time…but it won’t be as such as shock, particularly in the case of someone like Becky Hammon, the assistant coach at Spurs NBA team, because she has even lead the team in their summer league a couple of seasons ago.

I heard a quote a couple of days ago that said “we will reach total equality when a woman in a leading positions can be criticised the same way a man would be”. Would you agree?

Yes! When we can comfortably critise a female leader for making a mistake or making the wrong decision, then yes, that is true equality. You only have to look at any post-game press-conference, nobody has a problem with cruising male managers, and sometimes very harshly, but quite often, questions asked to some female coaches can be deemed as a little soft, perhaps because of fear of coming across as rude, or sexism.

It’s about stepping back and asking ourselves, do we treat that leader the same because she is a woman?

Do you think there is a difference between feminine and masculine types of leadership?

I don’t think there should be. For me, I don’t feel that leadership has a gender. I don’t think behaviours have a gender. But I do think that because of the history of sport, because the way the media portrays sport, I think those things have attached gender to leadership behaviours.

It is completely normal and accepted to see a male coach screaming at his players on the touch line. There is a big issue however, with how we respond to female coaches doing the same thing. In the US, there have been major issues with the way the media treat women coaches who scream on the sidelines. It seems to be expected that male coaches are going to shout and scream at players, but unacceptable and perhaps even a surprise if you see a women coach conducting herself the same way.

You only need to look at the language used by the media – a male shouting coach is strong, powerful and in charge…a female coach is angry, emotional and lost her tempter.

We are continually taught that this type of behaviour is not feminine and therefore is not acceptable if a woman displays this type of behaviour.

Leadership has no gender, it doesn’t matter what behaviour you are displaying, so long as that behaviour matches your role as leader.

Do you think there is a big responsibility for the clubs to stand behind each other and face the media? In Holland we have a TV show called ‘Football Inside’ and they make negative remarks on women (not very female friendly shall we say), do you think the clubs should make a statement together on this, because they are a really important stakeholder – but they won’t do it.

I do! If people are racist, it is addressed and people lose their jobs, if people are homophobic, it is addressed and people lose their jobs, racism and homophobia is not tolerated…so why is sexism?

I think one of the biggest problems is that at the management level of clubs or sports organisations, it seems to be too much effort to address the issue of sexism, so it gets overlooked. For many organisations, gender equality is seen as a tick in the box exercise, rather than something that should be fought for and proactively implemented. It isn’t taken seriously, sexist jokes are still a part of the culture of many sports. And in many others, there is no understanding at all as to the benefits of diverse leadership, and so long as the team, players or athletes are successful, diversity and equality don’t matter.

In Holland, the clubs that have welcomed women and younger people onto their boards, have more energy in the clubs, I think when you have examples of clubs with a diverse board of leaders being successful, it sets examples for other clubs as well. This is slowly happening, which is why I really like what the FCN is doing, but I feel clubs should be standing together and standing against the media when they say negative things about women…

I agree! One of the problems with sports administration and sports leagues is that they all seem to work in silos. Leagues, clubs, sports….they are all acting in different ways, because the sports federations do not take lead and set good examples. Using your football example – FIFA who is the top of the football administration tree, should be setting an example to the entire footballing world, ensuring that it’s clubs, players, coaches and leaders act with the same moral code. A moral code which build people up, not breaks them down. A moral code which treats everyone the same regardless of their skin colour, gender or background

But unfortunately with FIFA, as with many sports federations, the tone they have always set is a very aggressive, corrupt and win at all cost. There is only so long you can survive that way before it comes crumbling down around the leadership.

In order to tip the balance of making coaching more equal, should we establishing legislation that – i.e. if there are 10 coaching positions, 5 of them need to be available to women, 5 of them need to be available to men?

The problem with that solution is the creation of tokenism, and for me, this is something that needs to be avoided. I don’t think anyone should run a sports organisation or a club that hires a woman coach just because they are a woman – because not only does that make the hiring a ‘tick box exercise’, it undermines that woman who has been given the role and it deprives someone a role who would have done it well.

Hiring coaches and leaders should be about hiring the best person for the job, regardless of gender, race or background.