5 Reasons Why There Aren’t More Women Coaches in High Performance Athletics in the U.K.

Track & Field is one of the FCN’s key sports and it is also the sport closest to our founders heart. We are currently in the process of conducting a UK wide research project called “Achieving Gender Equality in High Performance Athletics Coaching in the U.K” and we hope that the findings of this research will benefit all stakeholders in the sport to create a more equitable and prosperous sport for all.

Below is an article written by our founder highlighting 5 key reasons why there are a lack of female coaches in athletics in the U.K. The aim of this article is to spark discussion and asks coaches of all genders, backgrounds, levels, positions and clubs to take a step back and have a think about their own behaviours in the coaching world.

Please share your own experiences, thoughts and views in the comments box at the bottom of the page.

The Power of the ‘Old Boys Club’ and Hiring of Chums

One of the biggest causes of the current inequality of coaching and leadership in sport is that sport was rationalised by only one demographic of people. The original rules were set through one pair of eyes and governing organisations were established under the rules of these same people. Sport was never created for all. Even the great man himself, the father of the Modern Olympic Games Pierre de Coubertin stated that the “inclusion of women would be impractical, uninteresting, unaesthetic, and incorrect.”

The consequences of this rationalisation is still felt to this day and has manifested itself into a lack of black, asian and female coaches. Particularly at the higher levels of the sport, there is virtually no diversity in leadership and coaching. We see this in all sports from the English Football to American Football and from Olympic sports to X Game sports.

This trend continues to this day in Track & Field in the U.K. The hiring of coaches for national teams for example, are very often done by those in charge by deciding on who they can work with best, not who is best to work with the athletes. The process as a whole lacks transparency and honesty. We rarely see women or black coaches presenting workshops, headlining conferences or indeed, being part of national teams. At the last World Championships in Doha, none of the team coaches were female and none of the team coaches were black.

Subtle Passive Aggressiveness

This one can be difficult to explain, and often, when dealt with individually can often come off as someone being sensitive and moany or that they need to toughen up in a high pressured environment. But when you take a step back and see passive aggressiveness in repetitive context…the reasons why some people choose to act this way are highlighted.

Nowadays, most of us understand that pure aggressiveness is an unacceptable part of our society. Most if not all workplaces have policies and procedures in place to stop colleagues being violent towards each other, displaying overtly aggressive and dominate behaviours or even screaming expletives to each other. In todays’ society, if you do not want to lose your job or even face a court case, you have to find creative ways to show dominance towards others.

Whether this is a trait of the high performance arena, or a trait of those who traditionally have the roles in this arena, passive aggressive behaviour is used consistently on those who may be seen (consciously or unconsciously) as a threat. With such fine lines in sport between winning and losing, between being successful and unsuccessful, those in certain roles constantly feel that nagging desperation of needing to do whatever it takes to keep the status quo and to remain in power.

So when a fellow coach dips their toes into their arena and threatens their ‘power’ with their own knowledge, experience and expertise, alarm bells sound and fight or flight kicks in. By exerting subtle passive aggressiveness and reminding the newbie who is in charge and who indeed rules the roost, order is restored and the newbie backs off.

Blatant Sexism and Racism

Whilst our sport boasts a relatively equal footing of male and female athletes and of black and white athletes, may we remind you that this fact alone does not create a diverse sport. In Track & Field, results are not subjective such as gymnastics or figure skating, but objective. You either won the race or you didn’t, you threw the furthest or you didn’t. The results of our sport are black and white, excuse the pun.

So in Track & Field, those athletes who are chosen to compete for their national teams are chosen because they have the fastest times of the year, jumped the furthest or threw the furthest (well..most of the time). They are on the team because they are the best at what they do.

So why does this not happen at the coaching level? Why are coaches not chosen because they are the best coach, the best coach for a particular role, or the best coach to work with that athlete? Why can those in power not accept that sometimes the best coach for the job may be a woman, they may be a black woman, they may be a black man?

Without being able to write substantial evidence in this article (evidence will be provided in our research paper due out later this year), it would be unfair of me to accuse anyone of racism or sexism outright. But I ask anyone who reads this, to please add their own examples of sexism and racism in the comment section below. To kick start this, please indulge me as I explain one example of my own:

As a 25 year old female coach at my club (a few years ago now!), I was approached by 3 gentlemen all over the age of 50. In succession, almost as if they had rehearsed it, they told me that I was acting too big for my boots by attending the National Coach Development Program and thinking I was better than them. (They were all turned down for the program). In very simple terms and I quote “Women are not capable of coaching male athletes, and they are certainly not capable of coaching a very good male athlete. For a start, how will you be able to advise your athlete competently when you are on your time of the month?” I had two choices; 1. I give up coaching because why should I have to deal with that shit or 2. I bite down hard and prove to the entire club what I and my male athletes were capable of. I’m pleased to say I chose choice number 2 – but have to admit for many months after I dreaded going down to the track.

I am unwilling to break the confidence of my peers in writing more stories about sexism and racism for the sake of this article, but please note that we are currently conducting extensive research into the way women of all backgrounds are treated in Track & Field in the U.K. The results of which will be made public in the coming months.

Whilst my example, in the grand scheme of the thousands of coaches out there may seem very minor, I challenge you to speak with a female coach or a black coach at your local club and ask them what they have experienced. I can’t imagine there is a minority coach in the land who does not have at least one story to tell.

Poaching of Athletes and the Male Ego

Poaching is defined as “illegally hunting or catching on land that is not one’s own or in contravention of official protection.” Replace hunting or catching with ‘taking’, replace land with ‘a track’ and replace official protection with ‘coaches terms and conditions’ (which by the way only has male pronouns throughout…but that’s another issue for another time) there you have the meaning of what it is to poach another coaches athlete.

There is no acceptable justification for poaching. And yet how many times have we all heard stories of coaches who have spent years and years developing a young athlete, only for that athlete to be poached just before they hit the big time?

And why does poaching exist? It’s not as if in Track & Field in the U.K coaches make money out of their athletes. It’s not as if that by coaching a GB international you will suddenly go from coaching for free to earning thousands of pounds. The reasons behind poaching are purely egotistical, purely for the poaching coach to continue to brag to the World they are great coaches, because the World of Track & Field in the UK defines great coaches as those who have GB athletes.

Once again, this of course happens to both male and female coaches, but due to low numbers of women, it disproportionally affects female coaches. Take for example the following stats: only 7.7% of all athletes (male and female) in the Top 100 across all events have a female coach and at the last World Championships in Doha, only 5% of the athletes had a female coach. There aren’t many female coaches to begin with! So when you take away an athlete from a successful female coach, the repercussions are even greater.

Disrespect and Mistreatment of Personal Coaches

Track & Field is a funny sport…it relies on thousands of volunteers around the Country spending all their spare time and cash on becoming an expert in coaching a specific event to produce a professional athlete whose success in turn keeps the governing body in business. It relies on volunteers sacrificing time with family, sacrificing their holidays and sacrificing years of their life in order to produce athletes that may one day be good enough to compete for their country. And when that one day arrives (if that athlete has not been poached by someone else), a day that should be the reward for all the years of hard work and sacrifce, the day when a coach can sit back and enjoy the fruits of their labour, they are told they aren’t allowed accreditations, aren’t allowed any financial support to travel to the stadium and aren’t even given the respect they deserve by those in power with a simple thank you. Of course, this happens to both male and female coaches, but as there are very few women who reach senior international level with their athlete, it disproportionally affects female coaches.

The idea of this article is to highlight some of the many issues that minority coaches face day to day in track and field in the U.K. This article is not written to offend, it is not written to accuse, it is written to begin the process of change. And that change will ultimately create a more successful and prosperous sport for everyone. The first step to change is accepting there is a problem, and as a whole, our sport has a big problem. Our hope is that one day the best coaches will to rise to the top regardless of skin colour or gender.

Please share your own experiences, thoughts and views in the comments box at the bottom of the page.