By Kasey Symons
Michelle Cowan is not only a household name for AFLW fans, she’s also a revered icon for women in football. Cowan was the inaugural coach of Fremantle in the first season of the AFLW in 2017. She was one of only two female coaches, the other Bec Goddard who coached Adelaide for their first two seasons. Cowan also led the Dockers in 2018 but stepped away from the role at the end of the season, citing a desire for a more balanced workload to incorporate time with family. It’s something her new role as a forward line coach at the West Coast Eagles offers her.
“It’s been really important for me from a family perspective, to have that better balance. But what this role also provides me, is that it completes the passion that I have my family and football. And now to be entrenched in such an incredible club that as a young girl, I was running around with an Eagles guernsey on, so now to be coaching in their inaugural season and be part of this is pretty surreal and something that’s really special to me.”
This desire for family balance is not to take away from Cowan’s drive and determination. Some long-term fans of women’s Australian rules football might recall her story of sending a letter to every club in the AFL after she completed highschool to enquire about coaching opportunities. Geelong were the only club to set a meeting with her and offered her the role of Western Australian talent scout. Cowan was just seventeen. She went on to become the first female assistant coach in the West Australian Football League (WAFL) at age twenty-one.
This approach of putting yourself out there and self-development is something that Cowan still advocates.
“I think for me, and it is my 20th year of coaching, one of the things that I’ve always done is stay true to myself, and stay true to knowing what I want to do and that was coaching. So when I got knocked back for opportunities, it was always a question to myself of, ‘how can I be better? And what areas do I need to grow as a coach?’ Whether that be tactically or in communication or in leadership, whatever area that is, I wanted to be the best possible person I can be so when the opportunity presented itself, a club couldn’t say no. In saying that, I was lucky enough to identify that coaching was what I wanted to do when I was about fourteen years old so I started to work towards that goal from a really young age.”
Fourteen is certainly young to know what you want to spend your life chasing but Cowan was adamant.
“The love of the game first and foremost, was why I knew I wanted to be a coach. I just found myself watching nine games of footy every weekend when my friends were probably at the beach or the movies, but I’d just be watching as much footy as I could. And I just knew that that’s what I wanted to do with my life.”
My dream as a young girl was that all clubs had a women’s team
However, there are still more barriers in place that can limit women’s capacity to enter the coaching ranks, no matter their determination and if they have some of that Cowan-like tenacity. In 2020, the AFLW’s fourth season and with fourteen clubs now in the competition, there is only one woman in a head coach position. Cowan sees this changing over time and is optimistic.
“I think we’ll see that grow as the years go on, you know, Peta (Searle) will do a fantastic job with St. Kilda. We know that we’ve got Bec Goddard back who’s at Hawthorn football club with the VFLW side. There are now a number of female coaches that are coaching as line coaches and assistant coaches, there are senior assistant coaches as well in the AFLW. The AFL also has a (coaching) academy which I think they will continue to invest more money and resources into growing that because it certainly is a time-consuming career. But it’s an exciting career as well for those that want to choose it.”
The West Coast Eagles made their first team trip to Melbourne on the weekend for their second preseason hitout, this match against fellow AFLW 2020 entrants Richmond. The Eagles fell to the Tigers 7.9 (51) to 3.5 (23) but the result wasn’t of much concern to Cowan who saw the opportunity to get the travel routine down and more time on the park as a plus.
“It was a really good opportunity for our 23 to fly over so it’s not only your match simulation that you get to take out of it, but you get to travel as a group and it’s the first time the group has done that, so you learn a lot from that as well as the game.”
The Eagles will travel to Melbourne three times, as will Fremantle, so for these Western Australian teams making the biggest trek in footy, preparation and routine is key as they look forward to planning for the season. The Eagles make the long trip again in two weeks for their season opener against Collingwood at Victoria Park.
“Taking on Collingwood in round one has been really our focus in the lead up to the season so to be here at Punt Road, at such a historical ground, has been pretty amazing—with the MCG just on the horizon, this is a pretty special ground.
“And an important piece for us this season is connecting the group when we’ve got a couple of girls from Ireland and a few girls from Victoria and girls from all around Western Australia as well. So for them to get the opportunity to play two preseason games together, we’re already getting better for going into this season.”
Cowan will be key to facilitating that connection with her experience at Fremantle given so many former Dockers appear in the Eagles’ inaugural squad.
“I certainly have got a lot of history with a number of the girls through Fremantle, but then also through state championships whether that be under 18s with Captain Emma Swanson or the Open Championships with a number of the girls as well, so it’s been really good to build on those relationships and I’m absolutely loving my role as a forwards coach as well.”
Looking forward to being part of the Eagles’ first season of women’s footy, Cowan is excited about what is ahead.
“Looking to the entire season is certainly exciting. The preseason has been incredibly exciting. I love being part of the football club and with a new facility as well. So to have that, I feel our AFL team, our WAFL team and now I feel our AFLW team actually makes it feel like the club is really complete with the game now for everybody.
“No doubt there is something that’s pretty special to be playing in the first ever Derby—that’s going to be history making and hopefully we’ll see a history making crowd, but first and foremost, I think we’ll see a really good contest.”
And looking forward to the future of the AFLW, something Cowan has been so integral in creating:
“My dream as a young girl was that all clubs had a women’s team. So I feel probably at this stage, the quicker we can get all 18 teams, because I know that there are four teams out there that would be knocking down the door. And I’m sure their supporters are saying, ‘Well, where’s our representation and where’s our women’s team?’ So to get the competition to having all teams having a men’s and women’s team, I think is a really important step.
“And second to that. You know, it’d be fantastic to see as the competition grows, the women become full-time.”