Emerging Sports Writer Program participant Phina Newton explores the complicated spaces women navigate in wanting to drive change in sport, but feeling pressure and fear.
Throughout my 11 years playing representative basketball, I have had many different coaches. They differ in race and age, but rarely in gender. For ten of those 11 years, all of my coaches, bar one, were male.
I have played for a few different clubs, and throughout my time in the game, this seemed to be the one constant: playing under a male coach. But I never questioned it.
Recently, Siren published an article about a new initiative, the Women’s Coaching Association (WCA) and how they are driving change for women in coaching. The WCA aims to educate and empower women to become involved in coaching, and work towards providing environments to help sustain and support their involvement. It is wonderful to see women encouraging other women in this way, and see more and more initiatives and programs launched that do this, especially in a world that often pits women against one another. And I wonder, if associations like this had been around while I was playing in my youth, might I have considered sooner that having just one woman coach is reflective of a broader cultural issue in coaching? How did this lack of visibility affect how I see women?
I have grown up around basketball and over time, I have seen the advances of women in the sport develop, but at the same time I feel like the progress is slow. In the basketball league I played in—BigV, in the highest division, State Champ, there is only one woman as a head coach in the women’s division, while the men’s side have no women as head coaches. A stark and highly visible example of the challenges we still face in driving change.
And driving change is always a difficult position to be in as again, the responsibility seems to fall on women. Initiatives like the WCA are only possible because of trailblazing and passionate women, but it is also another example of how women must always do the work themselves. While inspiring to see women take charge, we also need more men to join the fight to help ease the burden. Equality is the work of everyone.
This is a struggle for many women in this space who are constantly told that if they want change, to either go do it themselves or to be quiet. This is why I’m so impressed to see the formation of the Women’s Coaching Association, to see women go do it themselves. But I’m also conflicted. Because I still feel like I am shouldering a burden alone sometimes. Why do I, or should I, feel a level of responsibility on my shoulders to enact this change? And how do I feel simultaneously that my voice or power is stunted? Or, that I have to be extra careful that I watch what I say in order to stay on good terms with the men in charge?
I feel like I should do more at my level in my sport. Help more, coach more junior teams, be a role model. But I can’t do everything, and in calling out to others to help or offer more support, I don’t want to rock the boat, get in the way or put myself in a position where I’m judged, or looked at differently as someone who is difficult and ungrateful. It’s this in-between space that stifles so many, but needs more attention. And it needs the attention of the men in power, as we dwell in these spaces because the patriarchy has created them.
Initiatives like the Women’s Coaching Association are important, and will make a big difference in getting more women involved in coaching. But I’m worried that what doesn’t change without more support from men, is the complicated navigation women still experience in male-dominated coaching environments. It’s the culture of the space that continues to keep women out by not supporting them once they are in. Why would women want to work or volunteer in an environment where they might feel judged, their knowledge questioned or frankly, their existence ignored? These are experiences that many women can relate to, and something that the WCA are working hard to eradicate, but this is an environment that men have created and continue to benefit from, and men need to be more conscious of the role they play in this.
I’d love to see the men who are in these powerful positions, especially at community level sports, take some more responsibility and action to help correct the imbalance. From things as small as using more supportive language, there is no limit to the power this has to empower others. As a female athlete and coach, I am someone who knows what it is like to be in this position, being spoken to by men who should be treating me as an equal, but rather make me feel small and inadequate. I know the power of this kind of support as I have experienced times where men in positions of power have stood up for me and this has made a profound difference in how I’ve felt about myself and how others have treated me, and for that I am grateful. But I shouldn’t need to be grateful.
I want all community clubs and associations to start thinking about what they can do to initiate a cultural change that allows women to feel more supported without putting the responsibility on women to drive the change. Without the pressure falling on them. Without the ongoing navigation between feeling conflicted to challenge the status quo and not wanting to draw unwanted criticism. The more support provided, like that of the WCA and beyond, means that young women like myself won’t have to feel stuck and confused as to how we must act. Gold medals aren’t a result of settling, they come from pushing for the best. Imagine if we worked towards driving structural and social change in sport as hard as we do for gold medals.