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Attitudes Must Change to Ensure That Female Sports Coaches Are No Longer the Exception

22/06/2014 23:42 BST | Updated 22/08/2014 10:59 BST

Andy Murray's appointment of Amelie Mauresmo as his coach last week made waves in the sporting world. A male player? A female coach? It seemed to come as a surprise to many that a player of Murray's calibre believes that a woman can bring expertise to his game. As a multiple Grand Slam winner and the French Fed Cup captain, with experience of coaching on the ATP tour, Mauresmo is surely well qualified for the role. But the appointment of a female coach at this level is remarkable not simply because a woman is coaching a man, but because female coaches remain a rare commodity in elite sport.

Just 18% of qualified sports coaches in the UK are female. At elite level, the discrepancy is even more marked: less than 5% of British coaches at the 2013 World Athletics Championships were women. Of course, fewer girls and women participate in sport than boys and men; this automatically gives a smaller base from which to recruit into coaching. However, even taking this into account, the paucity of female coaches is disproportionate to participation rates (approximately 33% more men take part in regular sport, which means that only 33% more men than women would be qualified coaches if there were a correlation between the two).

It is essential that we look for ways to encourage more women into coaching. Female coaches are an untapped resource, and the current status quo is a huge loss to sport in terms of the knowledge and potential that more women could bring. In order to address the gender imbalance, it is vital that we first of all understand why this is the case - and the answer lies in attitudes and perceptions.

The barriers women encounter are, for the most part, not unique to sports coaching: female executives in business face similar issues (women account for only 21% of board positions in the FTSE 100). There are the perceived practical barriers: professional sports coaching often involves evening and weekend hours, and given that the main burden of child-care often falls on women, a family and a coaching role may seem incompatible. The implicit assumption that women are responsible for small children is also reflected in the roles female coaches have traditionally taken on, often focusing on younger children and beginner level sport. In turn, this becomes self-perpetuating: according to research by Sports Coach UK, the male-dominated nature of elite coaching networks encourages the perception among women that they are inaccessible. Additionally, we have the problem of a lack of role models: the low number of women visible in high profile coaching positions will hardly serve to inspire women to become top coaches.

That it made headlines when Murray was quoted as simply 'considering' a female coach is indicative of the widely held perception (not just in tennis) that women are in some way unqualified to coach men. Men, and male-dominated governing bodies, perceive coaching to be a man's world, a man's role, in the same way that men in board rooms purportedly tend to appoint men, because they fulfil a preconceived notion of what 'power' and 'leadership' look like. By appointing Mauresmo, Murray has certainly gone some way to dispel what is nothing more than a misconception. After all, even if biology means that your average male coach is always going to be faster and stronger than your average female coach, this is rarely relevant, as playing ability is not an essential attribute in a coach: rather, the core skills are knowledge of the sport (both technical and strategic), communication, imagination and ability to inspire. These are no more male attributes than they are female. But couple this pervading attitude with the fact that men's sport is a much bigger, wealthier machine, employing far more elite coaches, and we see a huge barrier for women looking to make a career in elite coaching.

A change in attitude is required at all levels of sport governance to make female coaches the norm not the exception, but practical support is also needed: a focus on recruiting female coaches, mentoring schemes to retain them, and targeted professional development to ensure that in the future, women are properly represented in coaching at all levels of sport.

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