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Clearing the path for female sport coaches to rise to the top
Author: Nana Adom-Aboagye
Published: 27/10/2022

​More needs to be done to ensure female sport coaches in Africa break through to elite-level coaching positions, argues Dr Nana Adom-Aboagye from Maties Sport in an opinion piece published by the Mail & Guardian on Monday (24 October 2022).

  • Read the article below or click he​​​re for the piece as published.

​Nana Adom-Aboagye*

South Africans are still basking in the glow of Banyana Banyana's recent triumph at the Women's Africa Cup of Nations (Wafcon) tournament in Morocco. What made this victory even sweeter for me as someone who does research on women in sport, is that a female coach led our team to victory.  What is also interesting is that at this year's Wafcon, only three of the 12 teams were coached by women, when in fact, five teams qualified for the tournament with female coaches. By contrast, the UEFA Women's EURO 2022, which was held almost concurrently, had six teams being coached by women, out of the 16 teams participating.

Now you may be wondering why this is important. It is important because, despite South Africa leading the way for African countries with respect to commitment to international gendered policies and prescripts in sport, female African coaches still struggle to break through to elite-level coaching positions on the continent. This issue is further amplified by a recent interview given by Liz Mills who is the first and still the only woman to coach a team at AfroBasket — the men's basketball continental championship. In the interview, Mills, who hails from Australia, acknowledged how working on the continent has helped advance her career and applauded the numerous opportunities available in sports in Africa. However, she also admitted that if she was African, she may not be in the privileged position that she now finds herself in [as a woman].

​Like many female coaches from more privileged economies, Mills knows that there are structures and policies in place in these countries to aid women in advancing their coaching careers to elite levels. These structures and policies have in turn been largely influenced by academic research that speaks to the experiences, challenges, and needs of female coaches.

In a recently published research essay, I reviewed academic articles (focusing on women in sports​ coaching) that had been published since 1994. This was the year that the women in sport movement was globally formalised, with the inception of the International Working Group (IWG) for Women and Sport, and the adoption of the Brighton Declaration. My review of publications that registered the experiences of female sport coaches as the focal point (wholly or in part), garnered 125 publications from 1994 to the present. Of these, 65 were from the USA; 29 from Europe; 18 from Canada; nine from the Asia Pacific and four from Africa (South Africa). To put this further into perspective, the (South) African research on women in sports coaching and their experiences, amounts to 3.2% of the current global research output.

Four main themes or issues emerged that hamper women in sports coaching, namely (i) stereotypes and misconceptions; (ii) lack of knowledge; (iii) cultural expectations and family challenges and (iv) lack of opportunities and structural barriers. These issues affect women in sports globally. They occur in varying forms, depending on the region, culture and context that women find themselves coaching in. Globally, but more so in industrialised countries, those involved in women in sports coaching have been able to use such results from studies to advocate for paid remuneration for their coaching services. Those fortunate enough to be professional coaches have also used research and amended policies and prescripts, to call for more favourable terms to their employment.

Unfortunately, in South Africa (and probably in Africa too) we are still far behind our global counterparts when it comes to increasing the number of women coaches in sports. This is due to additional underlying issues (separate from those mentioned above) affecting females in the sports coaching space. And solutions for these underlying issues are often not forthcoming at an acceptable pace. The four studies from South Africa previously mentioned, identified additional issues that generally affect women who want to become sports coaches in the country.

Volunteerism is the main form of recruitment for many women pursuing coaching careers in sports. This is because having a formal coaching accreditation is not a requirement in South Africa, as in other parts of the world. This leads to many women either coaching for free or often receiving nominal stipends. Compared to their male counterparts, most women coaches in the country cannot subsist solely on a coaching salary or fee. Very few women are indeed privileged to have a paying career in sports coaching. And you usually find these women within university sports or in football.

Due to a lack of support, mentorship, and guidance received from federations to advance their coaching accreditation (and hence their careers), many female coaches become job insecure. This is, however, not the case for most male coaches. It is a well-known (but unspoken) fact that many men are provided with career guidance and opportunities to further their coaching careers, especially after they have retired from professional sports.

The only sport in the country that has seemingly tried to provide female coaches with opportunities to advance their careers, is football. This may be due to the tireless efforts of individuals such as Fran Hilton-Smith at home and on the continent. Africa's football governing body CAF has also recently come on board to support efforts regionally for women wanting to coach football at the highest level. This is an example of the pockets of siloed attempts that are commendable, but not nearly enough.

Women wanting to become coaches at the highest level, need more than sport-specific skills training, knowledge and experience – which is currently happening in Africa. This may also perhaps be why more females are not advancing to top-level coaching. Women coaches need well-rounded coaching education and training that would develop and enhance their leadership and business acumen skills, and competencies needed to operate at the elite level. Such training is currently being piloted in the United Kingdom through the Women In Sport High Performance Pathway (WISH) with funding from the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

Despite the support from the IOC, only a limited number of women can be accepted into WISH, especially from Africa. This can be linked to the capacity of the trainers as well as the expense involved in developing and supporting participants (by their national federations) to attend the programme.

WISH could be replicated in Africa. We have the human resources in South Africa and the rest of the continent to do so. We have scholars and sports administrators that could further explore (sport-specific or generic) challenges that women coaches face. Thereby formulating Afrocentric, yet globally relevant coaching education and training, to supplement the currently available coaching certification and licensing offered by federations.

However, this can only be done if mindsets are changed and if sports researchers are given more support when trying to engage with federations on issues affecting women in sports. Researchers are not the enemies of federations. We just want to help find lasting solutions to persistent systemic challenges faced by women and girls in sports. If we are able to do so, we could unleash greater potential in this field, than the pockets we currently see.

*Dr Nana Adom-Aboagye is the Acting Head of the Centre for Sport Leadership at Maties Sport at Stellenbosch University. This article is based, in part, on her research essay published recently in Frontiers in Sports and Active Living.