Portobello Institute celebrated International Women's Day 2023 by hosting a webinar entitled Embracing Equity in Sport with three distinguished guests and sports experts.
Speakers on the night included Dr Danielle Prescott, Performance Analyst, Educator & Professional Football Scout, Jenny Coe Head of Performance & Wellbeing with West Ham United Women's Team and Andrew Randal Raines, PhD candidate & Performance Analyst with St Helens RFC Women's Team.
The webinar led to interesting insights into the world of sports and embracing equity, which was the theme of International Women’s Day 2023. This article shares some of the interesting insights from the webinar which you can rewatch here.
Jenny Coe shared her journey to her career today from her earlier days as an athlete with the Waterford Wildcats where she was exposed to “amazing coaches and an amazing level of performance” where early on she got an idea of “what it was like to be in high performance and be around a lot of females really committed to their sport and different types of coaching”.
Her coaches shaped how to embrace equity, and language, and how she now stays informed and supports the environment she is in. She now works in the area of wellbeing with a focus on a more inclusive and holistic approach to high performance. She said that this was not something she had during her time as an athlete.
The diversity of thought she now experiences in her role inspires and encourages her to be who she is and brings the ideas to the table with her passion behind what she does coming from this and the inclusion and sense of belonging she feels at West Ham.
Jenny works on a programme with 12 coaches, she says there is a lot of research underpinning programmes that are coming up in the UK and globally.
She spoke about research by Leanne Norman and Sofia Jowett which looked at female coaches and why they weren’t progressing to the highest levels like their male counterparts, her research said that confidence is at the forefront. Jenny says that what she has noticed in her work is that female coaches are very confident women but in certain circumstances where opportunities are provided, their confidence has been dented.
She started to explore in her work whether it really is a lack of confidence or lack of opportunity or perhaps a combination. She has seen massive growth in recent years in Rugby League because she says there is a massive support network for coaches themselves and from the RFL. She emphasised how this support network is critical to women fulfilling their highest potential.
Jenny has also worked with Dr Amy Whitehead on a book about myths in sports coaching, bringing her experience on the ground throughout her career. She said when developing the book, they focused on making it accessible through language and price point with 50% of the authors being female.
The success of the first book has spurred them on to write another book about female coaches and their support systems to inspire employers to think outside the box and make job descriptions more accessible and encourage more women to go for job opportunities without fitting every piece of the criteria listed. This book is a work in progress.
Despite the success and progress, Jenny shares how it ‘hasn’t been all bells and whistles along the way’.
As an athlete, she says she “very rarely saw female coaches”. She was 16 years old when she got into coaching while playing at the same time. Looking around her for inspiration, she mimicked coaches that she had had or what she had learned through government certifications, mostly delivered by men.
“When I look back at how I coached originally, it was absolutely atrocious. It was autocratic, it was closed-minded, it wasn’t holistic I didn’t have a good support network, and I didn’t have role models, at the time I had what I probably thought were brilliant coach role models but I don’t know if I was able to really understand how I could put my spin on it, what am I missing here? You don’t know what you don’t know. As an athlete, I felt like I was getting great coaching but when I went into coaching I didn’t know if I knew how to create great relationships, and I didn’t know how I could support the person in front of me. So that’s something over the course of all my coaching, into the years I did sports performance and psychology into the role I am in now, to understand the importance to look outside of the sport that I am in now so what is happening in rowing that I can use in football, now in basketball at the time, what’s happening in rugby, going to watch other coaches so I would know what good looked like. Listening to how people speak when I work as a coach developer in different environments so that I can really see and feel and hear what diversity and inclusive and embracing equity look like in those environments and not just sitting behind a screen going okay I need to write down this definition,” she said.
Another key thing she spoke about is the support network meaning not only who is going to support you but who are the people who will challenge you in the right way at the right time. This is where mentors came into her life in different forms who helped her to advance her career at the right moments when she doubted herself. She highlighted the instrumental role various mentors have had in her journey.
Andrew spoke about his experience in a dual role as an analyst and coach of the women’s team at St Helen’s.
He said what was interesting about rugby league in the women’s game was that it was and still is transitioning from grassroots to more professional. The performance side of it is still evolving.
“I think it has been a great opportunity for women, giving them a better opportunity to develop their game and to get opportunities on the back of it as well, that was exciting to be a part of,” he said.
He highlighted that it is this transition from grassroots to professional which is interesting.
“You have essentially people who just play for the love of the sport to suddenly having a training programme, so many sessions a week, you have to attend this, concussion talks and it’s interesting for me because they never had any sort of performance analysis before, they had never had the scrutiny that performance analysis can bring, as well as a lot of the good stuff, the videos, the development of cognitive excellence, they never really had that before because it was grassroots. I was there for four years, and the transition over four years has been really useful. When there is someone there with a camera, counting all the stats with a microscope, that can really affect people, some people loved it. That had never happened before, thankfully now it’s really accepted in the game. It was interesting to see that development, now they are all craving it,” he said.
Andrew also spoke about the difference between coaching men and women in his experience. In terms of coaching and analysing, when he was at Wigan Warriors and transitioning to the women, he didn’t think there was any difference. “The gender doesn’t define them, they are just rugby players, and they all want to win, they all want to do their best, they all want to strive for excellence,” he said.
Despite this, the biggest difference he found between working with men and women was that women ask a lot more questions than men.
“That is both a good thing and a bad thing. With the men I can say we are going to run something and they do it, they don’t question why they are doing it, but you need to question, the women asked them questions, they want to understand it, and they are striving for excellence and they want to win it but then again sometimes they ask too many instead of just experiencing things. They all have the same end goal, they are all just rugby players, which is great,” he said.
Dr Danielle Prescott asked Andrew if he felt that asking more questions led to better results and he said the progress that he has seen with the women’s team would suggest yes – they seem to dig deeper into understanding the changes they are making and why they are making them and as a result he has seen more progress, however, he emphasised this is purely anecdotal from his experience and has not been researched in-depth.
Andrew also highlighted how in the transition from grassroots to performance, there hasn’t been the same structure for men's and women’s teams.
“It’s very much up to U11s the girls play with the boys and after that, the girls are almost scratching around to see if there is a team anywhere, a lot transfer to rugby union because there are more teams available, so in terms of structure, there hasn’t been that, so with men, it was dead easy, you have U12, U14, U16, U18s etc. The girls haven’t had that just yet, but that is changing. The knowledge of the girls is lacking because of that structure but it is developing,” he said.
He also highlighted how recently for the Rugby League World Cup the England Men, England Women and England Wheelchair teams were all paid the same, he said this is a real step forward
“To show where it has been compared to where it was, all paid the same, all had the same resources, which I think is a real testament to the sport. Considering female sports have had hindrances, now they are being paid as players at the top end. I don’t think that’s important as such, there is still a desire to be rugby players which is the best bit about it, the right people are in the right places. Female players are doing coaching now too, that pathway didn’t always exist, and they are being mentored. There is a good opportunity now in the female game and in the men’s game too,” he said.
Dr Prescott spoke about her journey both as an academic and practitioner. She never planned for the academic journey, she never wanted to do it. She also didn’t believe that that’s what she could have done at that time in her life but her experience drove her to new opportunities.
As an undergrad, she was given opportunities for work experience. She was set on the career she wanted in performance analysis, which at the time was broad and vague. She had the opportunity to experience what it was like as a Performance Analysis at Bolton Wanderers. It was an experience that felt like a really good opportunity, Bolton was a Premier League team in the 2007 – 2008 season when she was there. She worked with the academy, predominantly the U18s, going to the games, filming the games and coding the games on the analysis software and doing reports and feeding them back.
“It was restricted, you didn’t have the luxury of delivering feedback to the players, it was all done via the people who were there full time. It was a great opportunity and I understood that,” she said.
Moving through her career, she began lecturing early on at her Alma Mater because her experience was recognised but she also wanted to keep one foot in her work on the field to avoid becoming outdated.
She spent a lot of time around high-profile players, managers and coaches who she said were brilliant to learn from and she relished this.
She said there was a really big gap in education because performance analysis was relatively new so there was a need to have people there to train others on new things that come up.
That’s where the door opened for her from an academic perspective. She said analysis was so new that you only needed one or two years of experience to be classified as significantly experienced, which put her in a favourable position for teaching. The university that she graduated from recognised that there would be students coming through that would need to understand how analysis works in practice, so it was a no-brainer. They needed someone to share the knowledge with students coming through. She had to work hard to prove herself as a young lecturer.
“It’s quite a difficult transition at that time I had just graduated, and I was teaching students. I was teaching people who were two years younger than me, and that’s quite difficult because surely, they are going to be thinking ‘what right have you got to be teaching me’ ‘what do you know’. They’re not wrong. I really had to work to be able to convince them that I earned the right to be at the top of that room and I think I did that by sharing my experiences, telling them things that I had done, including the academic underpinnings but for me, the highlight was sharing the experiences and the practices, problem-solving, that’s what people wanted to know to be prepared,” she said.
She highlighted how building her relationships with the managers, players and the club pushed her forward to where she is today. She said she felt hugely supported while working in this male-dominated environment but shared one particular insight into exceptions that needed to be made for her regarding changing rooms.
“At no point at all did the manager ever question the work I was doing, the quality of it and I am saying that from the point of view of being female, it never came up.
“The only time it was an issue was when at halftime during a live game, I would need to run across the pitch with the laptop, go into his office plug the laptop in and show him what was on the screen. The female aspect comes into it when there is a changing room full of men because I am not going in there, so there had to be allowances made for that, but the key thing is that there were allowances made and it’s a difficult one because I shouldn’t really feel like that is a privilege to have allowances made for the fact that I am female, I think it should just be a courtesy, I would like to think that is how it was perceived,” she said.
Dr Prescott moved to different clubs over the years and as she did, her role evolved. She worked not only in performance analysis, but her experience led her to opposition analysis, recruitment and scouting.
What it highlighted for her was that the network of people working in recruitment was very much male-dominated.
“I never saw another female working in recruitment or scouting at that particular time,” she said.
“The only female representation from a backroom staff perspective were female agents, who come in and represent the players. I never saw another female who was doing what I was doing, but it never put me off. It actually kind of made me feel quite proud, maybe I am the only one! That’s definitely not the case now but back then it was few and far between,” she said.
Through her work, she built a partnership with Manchester United and has worked with United’s Academy for seven years covering anything from 12s to 21s.
More recently, she has taken up a new position working with England Ladies. Her experience with men’s teams has been viewed favourably to translate to women’s.
Dr Prescott highlighted the important role the key male figures played early on in her career, supporting her and believing in her, which has helped her to get to where she is today.
"It is very different, and I am noticing that already in terms of the expectations at the different organisations. One thing for me that is very clear is that I wouldn’t have gotten into these positions without the assistance of a lot of the men that were around me in these roles. Micky Mellon was a key influence in that, without his trust in me, way back when I was at Fleetwood, I wouldn’t be at the point where I am now.
“Those people who took the opportunity to ignore the fact that I’m female and rather just look at the fact of what I can offer from the decisions I make, the opinions that were valued. That’s one of the key things, your opinions being valued. I do find it difficult sometimes in a club like United to express my opinions as a female, especially being around so many males but I quickly remind myself that that’s what they employ me to do, they employ me for my opinion, my gender has got nothing to do with it and that’s my issue. It’s not anything that they have done, it’s my feeling about the situation so I think it’s critical that you trust in what you can offer and gender is not part of that it’s just about having the faith in yourself to go forward with it,” she said.
Danielle briefly concluded by saying that 'imposter syndrome' is a feeling experienced by many women and that often, women can put that pressure on themselves rather than some external factor being responsible.
You can rewatch the webinar here.
To celebrate International Women’s Day, Portobello Institute interviewed a series of inspiring women about what embracing equity means to them, and how they have followed their passions and fulfilled their potential. You can read these articles here.
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