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Business, Gender Edition Playing the House Down with Women’s NRL


By: Brad Donald •  4 years ago •  


Brad Intro


spent 5 happy seasons there, but in 2010 I got a call from Brian Canavan from Queensland Rugby League (QRL). They had developed a model for player development which integrated the QRL, Australian Rugby League and the Australian Rugby League development staff. Brian was quite persuasive and in the end, I chose to go.

While at QRL, in 2011, I still had the coaching itch, so my manager at QRL asked if I would do him a favour and coach the women’s team. I dipped my toe in the water with a team at the State titles, and went on to coach the QLD team the year after. At that time, they’d won 13 series in a row.

Prior to 2011, I hadn’t seen much of what the girls were doing but I remembered back to 2008/09 when the NRL was encouraging women to participate. I had run a few training days in Canberra where a number of schoolgirls came along. The first thing I noticed was there were about 200 girls attending. Their eagerness to play the game almost shocked me. Obviously, there were a bunch of girls for whom rugby league couldn’t be their No.1 sport simply because there was no competition available through high school. It got us thinking.

Then in 2009, we went to look at some recruitment prospects in Logan. There was a women’s game on after the Queensland Cup and I couldn’t believe the skill of the girls. My father-in-law, a tough old guy from the bush, was with me, and I remember saying to him, “Mate, don’t be surprised if these girls can play.” He gave me a wry smile but by the time I came back he was asking for a beer and was settled in to watch the game. I’ve learnt over time, this is the best chance of getting people to watch and play. They’re just as enthusiastic and keen as their male counterparts and in some cases, more so. Looking back now, I know who that team was, and they’ve been highly successful in QLD, and the team included Karen Murphy, who has been one of the greatest female players to-date.

I can remember my first session with the South East Queensland team like it was yesterday. The first thing that we noticed was that the coachability of the girls was unbelievable. I’d taken along one of the guys who worked with me, a guy who’d been in the St George system, and he couldn’t believe how the girls were hanging off every word I said.  I described the warm up plan and they’d do it without having it shown to them. In fact, everything I did that night was completed half an hour earlier than planned.

From what I’ve seen, the coachability of females is much better than males. At the moment, I coach my son’s U11 team and even the little U11s get a bit cheeky and question why we do certain activities. The boys need to know why we’re doing something, whereas the women take it on board and run with it. It’s definitely something that happens with all females in sport, and has been backed by research that we’ve done. Women are more willing to try new techniques if it will help them perform better. They’re also very keen to please the coach, whereas the boys expect the coach to get them to perform.

Women's Rugby League, Interstate Challenge, NSW v Qld, at Townsville, Saturday June 27 2015. Digital Image by Colin Whelan

When I was first offered the job, I asked if there was a current, well respected player who might be thinking of retiring who I could perhaps mentor into the position. That’s when I came across Karen Murphy, who has since retired and has an unbelievable eye for the game. However, in talking to the girls, they don’t actually care if the coach is male or female – they simply want the best coach possible. The late Graham Murray, coach of the Jillaroos, gave me some insight: “If there’s one bit of advice I can give you, it is to coach them as you would any other team.” I think he was about 80% right, as they play exactly the same way as the males.

After the session, the girls will be lined up to have a chat and ask questions of the coach. One girl came to me to discuss an issue, to which I offered several solutions (as a typical male who likes to fix problems!) which were all declined. After 25 minutes of talking, she walked away with a smile on her face, and I was standing there puzzled. When I got home, I talked to my wife about the session and that girl in particular. She said, “You’re an idiot. I’ve been telling you this forever. Girls don’t want you to fix their problems, they just want to be heard.” Although it’s certainly more time consuming to coach this way, it’s important to give them your ear and make time to listen to them. This was backed up by Belinda Watson, coach of the Queensland Women’s Roar (Soccer) team, at a recent coaching conference.

In team culture, the males tend be accepting of a hierarchy within the team, so they accept when they may have very talented teammates who they don’t get on with, but will put up with due to their abilities. The females like to be connected and feel part of the team, which can breed a great culture if you get the right people and they connect, but it can also be detrimental. If they’re all working for a common cause, then they all need to feel more attachment and connection. It’s definitely more complex and time consuming, despite being more coachable.

Male athletes tend to be more over-confident than females. This confidence level is a big difference. Visualisation is so important, and that can assist in reaching their goals. But high confidence levels can also be detrimental to a team environment. The extremely good female players who lack confidence can play the house down and still think they’ve not had a good game. I introduced a stats program just to demonstrate to the women how much work they’d done. Once they see the results, they are more accepting, but they’re always pushing themselves, always striving to be better. They have to be, because unfortunately for the girls at the top end of the game, they have to train themselves. They don’t have access to the best facilities and coaches. Now, they’re having more presence, which is leading to better support. As the game grows, hopefully the profile will grow, for both players and staff. We’re starting to see the profile of the sport raised, with more television coverage, for all games – male and female.

There is a focus to get more women into the sport. My day-to-day role with the NRL is as a Participation Strategy Manager, so we’ve been offering school and club-based opportunities for girls and women.

It’s the fastest growing areas of our sport, and one of the fastest growing sports for females. I didn’t really expect 200 girls to show up to that training day back in Canberra and we’re now exploring a number of options for more girls to play. Currently they can play through primary school with the boys, but once they turn 13 they have to play in a girls-only competition. We need to make sure there is opportunity for girls to play girls-only rugby league from 6-12 as well. At the moment, there’s an obvious drop out in girls at age 12 due to that lack of opportunity. We’ve now got U14, U16 and U18 competition starting to pick up, and have other avenues to keep them involved, through rugby league tag or touch football.

We’ve also got a big push on to find future female coaches from within the sport. It doesn’t matter if a female coaches a male team or vice versa. Research actually suggests we’d be better off to have females coaching our males 6, 7, 8, 9s, as they’ve a better sense of fairness and inclusiveness, without being over-competitive.

In coaching, you always have to challenge yourself, and there’s always the itch to do something different. The Jillaroos will participate in the World Cup next year, which I will also be involved with on some level. All good coaches continue to learn. I learn something off my U11s team every week! You learn by being around that environment, and seeing other coaches in action, regardless of the level.

Tips for coaching women’s teams

Getting to know the individual, with females, is very important. Understand their personality, what motivates them in their lives as well as sport, understand what their goals are, and work out what methods bring out the best in them. These aren’t specific to females, but this is what I’ve found to be much more important for the female athlete than the male. Look at your communication style, be very approachable. In the male athlete, you might have 3 after a session with questions or looking for feedback; with females, you’ll only have 3 that don’t. Use constructive and positive feedback. The girls particularly need personalised feedback. In the old days, it was team feedback, but girls get more out of one-on-one.


Brad started his career by playing with the lucrative Bathurst Panthers in the Group 10 division, and coached the U13 team. He went on to coach the U14, and U18 teams, winning a premiership and catching the coaching bug. He then coached at the Panthers for a number of years before spending a year at Orange CYMS.

A call from the Canberra Raiders saw him make the move to Canberra where he spent 5 years before heading to Queensland. His experience coaching both Men’s and Women’s Rugby League teams gives him a unique insight into coaching both genders.

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