From the softball field to the Calder Cannons, Jacara Egan is a trailblazer. In 2021, she’s the only Indigenous woman coaching in the NAB league.
By Kirby Fenwick and Courtney Hagen
It’s a Saturday morning at Highgate Reserve in Craigieburn in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs. The Calder Cannons are playing the Oakleigh Chargers in round three of the 2021 NAB League—Victoria’s premier youth competition for AFLW hopefuls. On the ground, there are young women whose names will one day be as familiar to us as Daisy, Maddie or Ellie. On the boundary, a woman who one day may coach today’s hopefuls in tomorrow’s big leagues. Jacara Egan is one of only ten women coaching in the NAB League. She is the only Indigenous woman.
In an all too familiar story, Jacara, a Muthi-Muthi/Gunditjmara woman, never had the opportunity to play football growing up.
“My dad [Phil Egan] played VFL/AFL for Richmond and so I grew up watching him. And then we went home after his career finished back to Mildura. So weekends were footy weekends where we’d watch dad play Saturday, my brother play Sunday. We’d just be at the club all the time.”
While the lack of opportunities to pull on the boots were a disappointment for a young Jacara, she soon found her way onto a different field. A chance encounter with a local softball team at Mildura’s Aerodrome Ovals led to an impressive record in the sport
“I got into that really young and found out I was pretty good at it,” Jacara says.
Pretty good translates to state representative selection for South Australia in both the U16s and U19s teams. Being scouted at 12-year-old. And just casually, an U19s National Championship. If that’s not enough for pretty good, Jacara also dominated in open level softball, finding her place in the Australian squad as a teenager and only narrowly missing out on national team selection.
“Just making that squad and just playing at such a high level, you get addicted to it a bit. I think just playing with the best people in the country and against the best people in the country. If you’re competitive and just driving to make yourself a better player…yeah, I wouldn’t change it for the world.
“Softball gave me so much. Softball gave me my confidence. It gave me a community of women that I’m still friends with to this day… It’s just played a huge role in my life.
“And I know and I’ve seen how footy does that as well. And that’s what I love about sport.”
The opportunity to play in the national squad in friendly matches against USA, New Zealand and Canada gave Jacara a taste of elite competition and an understanding of what it takes to make it. The dedication and the perseverance required. And the hard work.
“It’s really hard for young people who are trying to be young people but also elite athletes. And it really impacts their psyche and psychologically and I know for me, there were a lot of challenges.”
Playing softball at such a high level meant Jacara had to make the hours-long trip to Adelaide every weekend to play and train.
“That all has an impact on your development and if I can support young women to do that. Like you will make sacrifices and it is a different way of growing up. But if I can help support them do that, by utilising my own experience as well, I think that’s a win for me too.”
Koori Womens Carnival opens doors
After dedicating herself to softball, it was another moment of chance that Jacara seized with both hands that saw her finally take to the footy field. It was an opportunity to represent the Fitzroy Stars in the inaugural Koorie Women’s Carnival—a staple carnival in Victoria where culture and footy collide.
“I just got a taste for playing and thought nah, I’m just going to see what I can do,” Jacara says.
Jacara was in her late twenties by then, with two children. But the lure of the footy field was strong.
“My cousin [and I] went down to Preston Bullants that next season and we thought yeah, let’s just give it a crack and played our first season at Preston Bullants in the VAFA and then did really well.”
Jacara was awarded the club best and fairest in her first season with the Bullants in 2018. With that success under her belt, she wondered if she could have a crack at the VFLW. With a nothing to lose, Jacara tried out for VFLW and was signed as a rookie by Melbourne Uni/North Melbourne for the 2019 season. Being no stranger to elite competition, Jacara threw everything into her first VFLW season and was rewarded with a finals berth that year. Jacara’s football development soared as she absorbed every second of the elite environment and structure of Melbourne Uni and North Melbourne, while also playing with Aberfeldie in the EDFL.
“It was a lot of work going into training and football that year and we got through with [Aberfeldie] as undefeated premier so I’m thinking this is deadly my second year in footy, I’ve got myself a premiership maybe I just stop now. I’ve done the VFL[W], I got myself a premiership, let’s just give up while we’re ahead.”
Instead of giving the game away, Jacara pivoted to the coaches box. It was an auspicious decision.
Pathway to coaching
While she was kicking goals on the field, Jacara was also taking her first steps towards coaching football. It wasn’t a completely new experience for her—she’d done some coaching while playing softball. It was there that an appreciation for the value of a good coach was born.
“I’ve always been really passionate [about] and been aware of the impact a good coach can have on an individual throughout their life, not just with sport,” she says.
“I remember my first softball coach. And I’ll never forget her to the day I die. Just because of the amount of care that she put into me and my development.”
This early appreciation for the impact a good coach can have on a young athlete was strengthened by Jacara’s work in mental health where she says a movement towards a lived experience workforce influenced her approach to coaching.
“I translate and think about it… If you’ve done that pathway and you understand what these young people are going through and if you can effectively translate that into your coaching practice rather than just overlaying your experience on someone else’s, but just integrate that into your practice, I think that is one of the best kinds of coaches you could get.”
After that early experience in softball, Jacara’s next steps on her coaching pathway were stints coaching juniors at the Fitzroy Stars and taking the reins at the Koori Women’s Carnival. More experience came via senior coaching and welfare roles at Aberfeldie. Then she was offered the opportunity to work with Carlton’s Next Gen AFLW Aacademy through the club’s relationship with the Fitzroy Stars.
“Coaching the Next Gen Academy and coaching with Tayla [Harris] and Maddie [Prespakis], that was a really great learning experience. And then COVID hit and kind of derailed everything like everyone else’s life. And I was thinking gee, you know, I was just getting into it. Just getting a taste for it.”
But Jacara’s pathway wasn’t going to be hampered by a global pandemic. She completed her Level Two Coaching Accreditation and when the Calder Cannons job came up at the end of last year, she put her hand up.
While Jacara remains passionate about coaching women, her role at the Cannons sees her working with both the female and male U19s teams. She views that as an opportunity for change. But one with far greater impacts than the footy field.
“If I can have a positive impact and kind of role model positive relationships with young men as well, I think that’s a really big tick for me because I think that’s so important. And just the way footy clubs have evolved being a really men, men only kind of space. A little bit toxic in some ways. Contributing to a bit of that positive change has always been a big thing for me.”
It’s a positive change that hits closer to home too, with Jacara conscious of the impact her work can have on her two sons as well.
“They see me do this and they’re going to grow up and whether they play footy or not… they talk about mummy playing football. I want to play football, I want to coach like mummy instead of daddy. And I think if I can challenge those gender stereotypes for them, like that’s a generation that we’re having an influence on as well.”
Dismantling the structures that keep women out
Having grown up around footy clubs, Jacara has first hand knowledge of the very patriarchal and white structures inherent in those football clubs. She also knows that the way to get more Indigenous women into those spaces is to dismantle those structures.
“Women, First Nations, Aboriginal women. We bring such a different perspective and approach to life and a really valuable approach to life and the spheres and spaces that we enter into.
“And I think if you’re going to develop well rounded athletes—which I think the sporting, any sporting code is really turning to, we know we have to develop really well rounded [athletes] and have a really holistic approach to our coaching—you need women in that space, and you need women coaching young women.”
For Indigenous women, Jacara believes there’s a wider conversation to be had about the pathway into the game as a player and also as a coach or administrator.
“Understanding what it takes for one of our mob to come into a system that doesn’t support us and is a totally different way of life. To thrive or be successful, it’s a huge challenge. Even just the fact of being off country, being away from family, and that’s a real problem… that needs to be addressed.”
Playing, Jacara says, is only one part of the puzzle: “Being in [an] organisation as a coach and leading is, again, like a whole different ball game.”
There are only five Indigenous coaches in the NAB League and Jacara is the only woman. In a sport that has rarely made space for women, the opportunities to coach are often less of a problem than the structure that exists around those opportunities. Jacara has seen first hand how an inclusive and supportive club environment can begin to dismantle those structures.
“You have to have a lot of confidence. And you have to have your knowledge about who you are, who you are as a coach like really down pat and your why, like why are you’re doing it and then be supported by the structure so I’m really lucky at the Cannons, we’ve got an amazing team.
“Even though I’m surrounded by men every training, they’re absolutely on board and it’s not tokenistic either. It is meaningful engagement and support. And they believe in what I can do.
“They’ve been so supportive of me from day one and so respectful of me. And that’s really helped me step into that space but this wasn’t the case probably five years ago.
“It’s been much needed but slow change, but we do know change happens over a number of years. So if I can be a part of that wave then I think that’s a great legacy or impact to leave behind.”
Stepping into your power
Getting to this point in her coaching career hasn’t been a walk in the park for Jacara. She’s struggled with self-doubt and it still niggles at her now. But she believes the key to breaking through that is to know why you’re coaching and to back yourself.
“If you don’t try it, the answer is always going to be no… You’ve just got to be comfortable with failure and not seeing it as failure but seeing it as learning experiences. That’s something I’ve really worked on.
“It’s… like going for the Cannons job, what am I going to get out of this? I’ll get experience in a footy interview. That’s gold and if I don’t get the job then I take that into the next one. So you’ve just got to attack it and just put yourself out there. Back yourself and have your little village around you to push you forward when you’re thinking that you can’t.
It may have taken Jacara a few years to get back into the game she grew up watching her dad and brother play. But she’s certainly making up for lost time. She’s also determined that one day very soon, she won’t be the only Indigenous woman coaching in the NAB League.
“Just get out there and do it sis. Like, just don’t listen to your internal negative narrative telling you, you can’t. And we’re in such a great time for change [and] we have value and we have so much to offer. And we’re actually doing people, even though some don’t really know it yet, but we’re doing them a disservice by not putting ourselves out there [and] stepping into our power and taking up space in these spaces that haven’t been reserved for us in the past and saying, ‘Well, look, this is how we do things. This is how we can add value, and it’s how we can do things differently’.”