Seven female rugby coaches have now graduated from the inaugural Women’s Sport Leadership Academy for High Performance Coaching (WSLA HPC) programme, despite the challenges presented by COVID-19.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC)-approved pilot scheme received universal praise from the coaches who first embarked on the project in November 2019, at a week-long residential course in Hertfordshire in England before moving to online tutorials and workshops, with one of the participants – Australian-based Inge Visser – hailing it as “an experience of a lifetime”.

Visser, Berta García (Spain), Rachel Taylor (Wales), Marithy Pienaar (South Africa), Filoi Eneliko (Samoa), Royce Chan Leong-Sze (Hong Kong) and Victoria Grant (New Zealand) came through the programme with flying colours, all richer for the insight and knowledge they gained not only from the facilitators and trainers but fellow attendees representing five other Olympic sports.

Coaches from cycling, rowing, wrestling, tennis and triathlon joined those from rugby in a collaborative environment that has also strengthened the female coaching network, another important aspect of the initiative which, it is hoped, will be rolled out again in the future.

“It is an inspirational and transformational programme, and the exchange with other sports is invaluable in trying to look at things differently, instead of being stuck in your own little bubble,” said Carol Isherwood, the former England captain and performance coach, who was one of four lead facilitators of the course.

Rugby World Cup target

World Rugby’s involvement in the WSLA HPC project is part of the governing body’s commitment to addressing gender inequality in high performance coaching, an imbalance found across most Olympic sports.

The aim is to have 40 per cent of coaching positions at Rugby World Cup 2025 filled by women, and initiatives like WSLA HPC are important in giving female coaches with designs on making it to the top, the confidence and the tools required to overcome historical biases in recruitment.

At present, Jo Hull (Hong Kong), Annick Heyraud (France) and Lesley McKenzie (Japan) stand apart as the only female head coaches of leading international women’s rugby teams.

“Whereas participation has grown in rugby, there’s not been a similar growth in female coach participation at the higher levels,” pointed out Isherwood, a World Rugby Hall of Fame inductee.

“It’s not just rugby, because if you look at the Olympics the percentage of female coaches within Olympic squads was just 11 per cent in 2012 and it was still 11 per cent in 2016.”

Support network

Isherwood says the support network is crucial to more women entering into high performance coaching and staying in it for the long term.

“If they do make it to the top, the research shows that they can get really isolated.  Because they are on their own and the only ones, everything stands and falls with them a little bit.

“You are representing your whole gender, not just yourself. You are hardly allowed to fail and the pressure of that often means the women that are there or have been there, burn out after five years.

“With Lesley, this pressure is exacerbated by the fact she is in Japan and the language difficulties and lack of support network around that. She is probably one of the bravest coaches I know.

“Often women have been excluded from male networks and we’re trying to shift that a bit and encourage them to develop their own network as well, to be competitive on the pitch and collaborative off it. The women are really good at sharing.”

This sentiment is echoed by former Wales number eight and captain, Rachel Taylor. “WSLA HPC has taught me the importance of your network… not only did we have incredible mentors but also pretty incredible ‘friendtors’ in the other coaches along the way. They have been invaluable and inspirational in supporting me and my well-being as well as my leadership and coaching development.”

Clearly, there is still a long way to go but initiatives like this one and the Rugby World Cup 2021 Coaching Internship Programme are helping rugby to move in the right direction.

Learning on the job

Courses like the WSLA HPC programme not only empower the coaches to have a better technical understanding of the game but how to best present those ideas across, whether it is to a group of players or board members.

Eneliko is already putting what she has learnt to good use in her native Samoa. “In 2020, I was appointed the first female coach of one of the top four men’s teams in Samoa. I applied some of the tools I learned from the WSLA programme to plan and prepare my team throughout the competition.”

Spaniard García travelled the globe during a storied playing career that included stops in London, Waikato, Perpignan and Toulouse.

And on the international stage, she represented her country at three Rugby World Cups, two Rugby World Cup Sevens and on the sport’s return to the Olympic Games at Rio 2016.

Since hanging up her boots post-RWC 2017, the 38-year-old has been building a reputation for herself in coaching. But, as anyone involved in elite sport will attest, there is always scope to learn.

“WSLA HPC has been a turning point in my [coaching] process,” she said. “You need to have an open mind; you need to take action to improve yourself and evolve personally. Using the competency framework is proving to be an excellent tool for my ongoing development. It’s going to make me feel more confident to be unstoppable and to achieve my goals.”

The (WSLA HPC) programme is now undergoing the monitoring and evaluation phase with a comprehensive report planned to go before the IOC in May.

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