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“I don’t see myself as a female coach. I’m simply a coach”

For my first blog post as part of the Coaching Hampshire & IOW (CHIOW) team, I am pleased to be able to share with you our recent experience at the British Athletics Women in Coaching conference.

EmilyFor those of you who don’t know me yet, my name is Emily Sanderson and I am the Assistant Project Officer for Coaching. Part of my role is to co-ordinate Project 500, our women’s coaching project being delivered in partnership with seven other counties across the South East. Women in sport is a subject particularly close to my heart: sport has given me the platform to meet new people, build my confidence, keep fit and most importantly provide me the chance to escape from the stresses that everyday life can sometimes bring. I would love to be able to make a difference (no matter how big or small) in helping more women get something out of sport like I have.

British Athletics leads the way for female coaches

The CHIOW team has been excited by the work recently undertaken by British Athletics with regards to women in coaching, including their Women’s Coaching Advisory group. Naturally we saw an immediate connection with our own project and we were kindly invited to attend British Athletics 6th annual Women in Coaching conference. Invitations were also extended to all Project 500 coaches no matter what their sporting background, giving these coaches the opportunity to network and learn from another sport.

The theme for this year’s conference was Inspire, Influence and Inform and with the high calibre of speakers in attendance, I was in no doubt at the start of the day that these key themes would resonate with me and the other female coaches in the room.

sharon hannonThe keynote speech was delivered by Sharon Hannon, the coach who first spotted Australia’s golden girl of Athletics, Sally Pearson, at the age of 12-years old. Sharon went on to coach Pearson for 14-years right through to her Olympic Gold medal success in London 2012.

The conference also welcomed Amanda Reddin, who is best known for coaching world champion gymnast and Olympic medallist, Beth Tweddle. Amanda carried out an informal Q&A session and shared her experiences as a high performance coach.

It was such a privilege to hear about both of their individual coaching journeys and they each got into coaching in a completely different ways: one as a willing parent and another knowing coaching was for her from a young age. When having discussions with other female coaches in attendance, it was interesting to hear that even though Sharon and Amanda are the pinnacle of female coaching, they found themselves being able to identify with both their experiences and relate to some of the challenges they have faced.

What am I so afraid of?

Being able to relate to role models I believe is so important to female coaches. I myself have been an inactive coach for a number of years and have always doubted my ability to appear competent in front of athletes. This perceived fear and self doubt is a big factor in preventing me from taking the plunge back into coaching. However, listening to both Sharon and Amanda really opened my eyes and got me thinking “What’s all the fuss about?” To be able to identify with these high performance coaches, when I have never coached beyond the recreational level, gave me the small confidence boost I needed to think differently and positively towards returning to coaching.

It was interesconference `ting to hear that Sharon only felt fully confident as a coach after August 2011 when Pearson achieved a Gold Medal at the World Championships in Deagu. Research through Project 500 found that confidence is one of the biggest barriers faced by our potential female workforce. Sharon’s admittance as one of the best elite coaches in the world made me think “I’m not alone and even high performance coaches can doubt themselves so why not just go for it?”

People can stand in their own way…meeting your chimp

Leading nicely on from a feeling of self reflection in relation to my own coaching, we explored the work of Dr Steve Peter’s through the critically acclaimed “Chimps Paradox” book. Dr Kate Goodger from Chimp Management Ltd delivered a fascinating session on the functionality of the brain, exploring the differences between males and females and how our close genetic association to chimps can explain some of our day to day behaviours.

So what is this chimp reference all about? Kate could see we were all mystified in the room and explained how the main focus of their programme is to improve overall quality of life first to ultimately help in sport. In simple terms, according to the chimp model of the brain, the “inner chimp” is the emotional part within the brain that thinks and acts for us without our permission. This can result in behaviours which we often dwell upon and kick ourselves over. For myself, I often find myself saying yes when asked to do something which I know will make me feel anxious or nervous (making a presentation to a large audience) and I always find myself saying “Why did I say yes when I know I don’t want to do it? Why am I so afraid to say no?”

conference 1For others in the room, characteristics which reflected their inner chimp included being impatient, being defensive when questioned and losing their temper over something quite insignificant but at the time seemed important. Kate explained that these characteristics we exhibit can often hold individuals back in their day to day lives.

Whilst this approach may not be for everyone, it allowed me to reflect about how this concept can be applied to coaches and their athletes. Do your athletes exhibit certain behaviours that on reflection may mean you may have to change your approach as a coach? For example, would you need to communicate with that athlete differently? Would you need to consider what learning style that athlete prefers?

It would be great to hear your thoughts on the Chimp Paradox and we may even look to make this a choice as part of our planned Coaches Book Club.

Are women too harsh on themselves as coaches?

Panel 1The conference was brought to a close with an inspiring panel discussion chaired by decorated athlete Kelly Sotherton. Questions from the audience were directed to the panel who offered advice and views on how we can help address the imbalance of male to female coaches across all sports.

A quote that has stuck with me is from Sharon Hannon who simply said “I don’t see myself as a female coach. I’m a coach.”  What a simple yet strong message. Is the problem that as women, are we comparing ourselves to men in the coaching realm and not seeing ourselves simply as coaches?  Sharon said that women bring so much to table that can make them good coaches, including intuition, ability to trust their instincts and a nurturing quality that can help build strong coach athlete relationships.

What do you think of Sharon’s statement? Please feel free to share your comments via the Project 500 Facebook page /Project500uk or tweet @femalecoaches using #Project500

The day was full to the brim with shared experiences and so insightful both in my professional capacity but also as an inactive coach from a different sport coming away with a new found sense of belief. It was interesting to see how all the speakers came into coaching in different ways and to hear what other female coaches want in terms of support. Out of interest no-one mentioned funding or financial incentives but more opportunities to network and learn from other female coaches. I definitely left the conference with a sense that British Athletics are leading the way and setting a precedent for other NGBs to follow about the importance of supporting women in sport in a coaching capacity.

What makes you tick?

I would really like to hear from other Project 500 coaches about this blog – do you like to relate to other female coaches? Do you have any role models or like to learn from your peers in the coaching realm?

We’re keen for coaches to share their comments, thoughts and ideas, not just about this blog, but about what influences you in your coaching. We’d love to hear about any books you may have read, any events that have inspired you to reflect on your own coaching practice or about the different ways you like to learn which you can share with others.

Please feel free to get in touch with the CHIOW team by emailing