Christina Polatajko – Interview

Christina Polatajko is an Aussie Rules football coach from Australia. In November 2020, Christina was hired by Bec Goddard (winning coach of the inaugural AFLW season) to join her as her Assistant at Hawthorn VFLW (Victoria Football League Women’s) team for the new season. Along with 4 other coaches, Hawthorn became the first AFL (Australian Football League) club in VFLW/AFLW history to field an all-female coaching panel.

We got in touch with Christina to find out what it was like to be asked by Bec Goddard to join her coaching staff, and how she managed to adapt her coaching through the pandemic.

Congratulations on being part of the first football team with an all female coaching staff! Were you surprised with how much attention this got back in November, and what does it mean to you to be part of an all female coaching workforce?

It’s a huge honour to be part of the first all female coaching staff (for an AFL club) I think it just goes to show the amount of talented female coaches there are, who are hungry for opportunities. That’s what we want, a chance to show who we are and what we can offer to all players and their clubs.  

The coaches that I’m working with are very talented and passionate about women’s sport in general. It was a nice surprise, and we embraced the support, however we quickly went back to business and that was and still is to coach and to get ready for round 1. 

Why do you think the VFLW and it’s teams are making more progress in hiring women coaches than the AFLW? With 5 female Head Coaches in the VFLW versus only 1 in the AFLW and with your female coaching staff at Hawthorns – that is a huge difference in the opportunities available for women.

Like any profession it takes time to develop, therefore we are seeing a lot more females within the VFLW program which is so pleasing to see. I have no doubt within 2-3 years there will be more female head coaches within the AFLW. Us females now have more opportunities to develop through courses, being mentored and working closely with our clubs. I personally know that Hawthorn have made that commitment to the female coaches who are on board for 2021, to ensure we get the right and fair development to further our coaching ambitions. I’m very grateful for the club’s commitment. 

What is it like working alongside AFLW winning coach Bec Goddard who of course has such an incredible history of coaching success?

When Bec contacted me, I had butterflies in my stomach and couldn’t believe someone like her would want me to join her coaching team. She’s an AFLW premiership coach, that just goes to show she is able to create a winning formula on and off the field. 

She is very professional in what she does (and funny as well) and not only does she want the club to succeed, but more importantly she wants to see females to succeed. Whether it’s the coaches, players or even our admin staff. Bec cares about women in sport, and it was no brainer for me when she asked me to sign up. I’m bloody pumped to learn a few tricks in 2021 and beyond. 

What did it mean to you to win the ‘Peta Searle Coach of the Year Award’ in 2019?

2019 for me was a year I’ll never forget. Personally when I was awarded the coach of the year, I was very proud and humbled and knowing how much Peta Searle has given to women’s football, is something I won’t forget. But I was more proud of what we as a club was able to achieve in that year (VU Western Spurs). Winning the premiership and creating lifelong memories. Being acknowledged with these awards are great, but i would want to win more premierships and create more opportunities for players to play at the highest level, that’s why I love to coach and educate. 

How would you describe your coaching style, and what do you hope your players see in you when you coach them?

My coaching style begins with care and connections. I strongly believe to be an outstanding educator and coach you need to care about what you do and who’s in front of you when teaching/coaching. When it comes to on field styles, I really focus on the basics and fundamentals and also getting players to know their strengths. Sometimes as coaches we ‘over coach’ and expect players to do more than expected, when they can’t get the basics right. If we get the basics/fundamentals right then we can build on the layers of the game. It’s critical for players to feel comfortable within their environment and with coaches, therefore checking in with them and having clear communication is critical as well. Oh and also FUN. Sport is meant to be FUN – No FUN, no success. 

But overall, it’s caring and connecting, once you have your players on your side, anything is possible and that’s the exciting part of a team sport. 

As well as your role with the Hawthorns, you are also a teacher and AFL Academy coach, how do you manage your times between all your various roles?

I’m a full time educator at Diamond Valley College, Melbourne, where I teach some Health/PE classes, but my main role is Head Coach of the AFL/W Academy team. This is a super role where I’m developing future NAB League, VFLW and hopefully AFL/W stars. Both boys and girls are a part of this great program and we train a few times a week during school hours to up skill them and also to educate them off field. I’m well supported at home with a loving family who continues to encourage me to achieve my goals and that is to educate/coach as many passionate players as possible. Also to reach towards an AFLW as a coach. You would be surprised, I still have time for family, which for me is number one. 

How have you been able to navigate your coaching duties throughout the pandemic and what were you able to achieve that perhaps you couldn’t have done in a normal year?

It’s been a very different year as we all know, but it was a time to dig deep into coaching philosophies, content and education. I completed a few online courses to help me progress, which I’m really grateful for and probably wouldn’t have time to do so in a normal year. I also watched a lot of AFL/W games on YouTube to learn about different styles of play. Maintained communication with my current mentor in Craig Jennings and a few others along the way. I’m currently completing my Level 2 AFL Coach Accreditation, which will be completed throughout the 2021 season. At the start when footy was cancelled it was devastating and knowing there would be know games, but the covid year gave us time to reflect on what we wanted to achieve and gain within our coaching opportunities. It was also a great way to re charge and be grateful for what we’ve achieved and what’s ahead. 

What’s the most valuable lesson you have learnt along your coaching journey?

Taking risks leads to success – ask questions, as questions leads to new learnings and ideas. Networking opens doors, and your knowledge and passion keeps you there.