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Business, Gender Edition Women’s AFL: The Future of Footy

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By: Michelle Cowan •  4 years ago •  

I ALWAYS LOVED WATCHING AFL, GROWING UP AS A YOUNG GIRL IN WESTERN AUSTRALIA. I WATCHED AS MANY WESTERN AUSTRALIAN FOOTBALL LEAGUE (WAFL) GAMES AS I COULD OVER THE WEEKEND AND AFL GAMES AS WELL. I PLAYED A LOT OF SPORTS, OF WHICH FOOTY WAS ONE, BUT AS THERE WASN’T A PATHWAY FOR FEMALES AS THERE IS TODAY, IT DIDN’T INTEREST ME COMPETITIVELY. INSTEAD I REPRESENTED WA AT STATE LEVEL IN OTHER SPORTS LIKE CRICKET. I LOVE SPORTS, SO IF I WASN’T PLAYING, I WAS WATCHING. IT WAS MY ULTIMATE THING TO BE DOING.

Michelle Cowan

M

y first ever job was coaching at the local recreation centre in a wide variety of sports like netball and basketball. This probably ignited the passion for coaching and love of teaching in me. I found I really enjoyed seeing somebody grow in their chosen sport. When I had to think about making a career out of one, it was pretty easy to make that decision out of a love for AFL.

I got my AFL Level 1 coach accreditation as a 17 year-old, and later on my Level 2 and Level 3. I also thought I wanted to be a PE teacher, so studied it through university, but found I didn’t really enjoy the course. With my Level 1 accreditation gained, I wrote to every AFL club at the time, asking for a job on their coaching team. Looking back, I was a bit naïve and I have to laugh about it, but opportunity did arise from asking those first questions. I ended up doing voluntary work at Geelong Football Club for a couple of years in my own time, learning the theoretical side of the game. Then came some opportunities at community level, and later on as Assistant Coach at WAFL level with West Perth Football Club, then South Fremantle Football Club, and now at Melbourne Football Club (AFL level). It’s been a long time in waiting to climb the ranks in that regard.

My brother is a big inspiration from the competitive side of things. Certainly, our backyard cricket was always very competitive! Another idol for me, was a PE teacher at school. She was always able to build strong relationships with myself and the other players – a skill I regard highly when it comes to my own coaching. It’s important to have a united team.

I went from schools coaching, to the opportunity with Geelong Football Club, then had to be more realistic about my goals and not aim solely for the AFL. So I got a job as a Midfield and Assistant Coach with West Perth FC and was there for a few years. After that, I had a family and launched my own business, while still doing a lot of coaching with state and female youth teams. Then I was back into WAFL with South Fremantle FC when my kids were a little older.

ONLY THE SECOND FEMALE COACH IN AFL

In 2013, I was appointed Senior Coach of the Melbourne FC Women’s team. At the start of this year, I was also offered the chance to be a part-time Assistant with their AFL men’s team in conjunction to the Women’s team role. When you get to live and breathe football as your job, it’s very different to the WAFL, where the boys generally have full-time jobs outside their WAFL commitments. With AFL, it’s obviously a full-time profession and the investment into the boys and their craft and careers is unbelievable. It’s a very different environment.

Michelle Cowan 2

I see myself growing in the role every day. When you surround yourself with the quality coaches that are at the club, the amount of sport science and everybody that makes a club successful, you see yourself grow and develop. In the last 6 months at Melbourne, it’s taken my coaching to a whole new level, which is purely due to being entrenched in an elite environment.

Going through the WAFL system, Paul Hasleby (former Fremantle player) had a big influence on my career, which was probably ideal as he went directly from a playing environment into coaching. I got a good sense from a player’s perspective what they were looking for. I also work really closely with Simon Goodwin, Senior Assistant Coach at Melbourne, who will be taking over the reins from Paul Roos at the end of this year. He’s been incredible with me, and we catch up daily and in a mentor type role fortnightly to see where I’m at, and where I see myself heading. He provides open and honest feedback through this. The club as a whole has been very open-minded and forward-thinking. Back in 2013, I walked into Paul Roos’ office for the opportunity to be part of the team, and he was extremely welcoming and open and helpful. What shone out for me, is that he’s an incredible character without any ego about him. I feel really comfortable around him and very lucky to be involved in that environment.

Every day I’m continuing to learn and stay open to learning. I’ll stick to my own beliefs and values when it comes to my coaching style, but when it comes to the education of the game, I’m learning so much. There are a variety of ways you can present, and how you communicate with different playing groups. That’s why I just love surrounding myself and listening to as many coaches as I can, and from a whole variety of sports as well. It’s about having an open, learning mindset and wanting to be the best you can be.

It’s about having an open, learning mindset and wanting to be the best you can be.

Outside of AFL, I’ve had a mentor in business senior management who is an empowering leader with great skills and traits. I bounce a lot of information through him. He’s independent to football and coaching, which I find really beneficial. For me, it’s really important to have a diverse group of mentors, as having a strong variety of people ensures I can be the best that I can be.

BUILD A UNITED TEAM CULTURE

With the girls that we are starting to see come through now, they’ve been able to play since they were 5 years old, which is what you see with the boys generally. Now that the girls have a complete pathway, you’re seeing 15 and 16 year-old girls with incredible skills because they’ve been playing for longer. They are absolute sponges and keen to learn and listen well. The men tend to have been in the elite environment for longer, so are more settled in their knowledge. There needs to be a bit more information and education around what’s expected, and you learn to customise your coaching to the audience you have. I wouldn’t present to an U16 girls team the same way as I would an AFL men’s team. That comes down to the involvement in an elite environment, understanding of drills, and experience.

Michelle Cowan 3

I’ve had a variety of teams for various amounts of time, ranging from coaching a single game, to a full season. For me, I have a strong focus of getting a clear understanding of the playing group and building strong relationships with both players and the coaching staff that support you. It’s important to make sure everyone is united as one. There may be 22 different personalities on the field, but at the end of the day, you want to make sure that everybody unites with one common goal in order to be successful. That would be my key. I have a lot of belief around the culture that you develop for your coaching staff and players, and have a strong emphasis on the values and behaviours that are acceptable in certain environments in order to have success.

For every single team environment that I’ve ever been involved with, it’s been about having open and honest genuine conversations on how we will be successful in relation to the behaviours that we have in the team. Examples might be: believing in each other, respecting each other, being united. I have the playing group drive this rather than the coach. When players walk outside those set out behaviours, it’s easier to manage situations that arise. Strong cultures and shared visions can be really powerful.

For example, one time, a women’s player was told they were not selected for the Grand Final. She did not react in the way we would have hoped. The night before, however, one of the selected players was ill and the original player who was on the emergency list was selected. However, the now selected player took herself off the team as she didn’t feel she had respected the team in the last 24 hours and lived by the team culture with her behaviours and actions. Instead she gave her spot in the team to another player. While I had said I was happy to have her in the team, it was her decision to make. She didn’t feel she deserved to play and offered to run water for the team instead. It shows the power of what having a positive culture and a shared vision can do. As coaches, we have this influence, and we must understand what impact a coach can have. It’s pretty profound. That is why it is first and foremost on any team I’m coaching – making sure we understand what the culture and expectation is. Then we can get to work and talk about game plans.

LOOKING AHEAD AT THE WOMEN’S NATIONAL LEAGUE

With the AFL now behind the Women’s National League, it has changed it already. So many girls are switching codes and entering the pathway from other sports like basketball. The AFL’s support of the program makes it a really exciting time for the 300,000+ girls playing footy at the moment. It’s currently the fastest growing sport for women in Australia. For the Women’s league, there were 13 quality submissions from clubs to the AFL, and we’re now awaiting a decision.

Michelle Cowan 4

Now that we have a complete female pathway and players at an elite level, I think there’s at least 10-15 young girls who would be retiring over the next few years who have the qualities to make good coaches. I understand that right now we don’t have a lot of women involved, but I think it could be a very different story in 5-10 years’ time. We are seeing a lot more women coaching at youth girls and U15s. So far, there’s only 2 women involved at 18 AFL clubs, so it would be great to see more included. I’ve also encouraged young men that I’ve coached to get some broader experience and coach in the women’s leagues as well. Peta Searle (St Kilda FC) and I have coached against each other a few times now, and we get to catch up a couple of times a year where we can have a chat and can bounce ideas off each other.

I’m not a ‘female’ coach, I’m just a coach and that’s how the players consider me. It’s all about getting the right person for the job, regardless of gender.

There may only be a handful of female coaches at the elite level at the moment, but that will change. The challenge is probably that there are some people who are sceptical of female coaches, having not played at the elite level, but we’ve just got to have the opportunity to prove ourselves. More clubs need to be like Melbourne and open the doors. It would be nice for other clubs to be that forward-thinking with the coaches they bring onto their playing staff. At the end of the day, it’s important that you have a diverse group of coaches that the players can feel comfortable with and get the best out of individuals.

I’m doing what I love doing, and it’s the kind of life I always wanted to live. As challenging as the last 16 years have been trying to get into the AFL, it’s all been worth it and character building. The passion for the game is what’s kept me going and the support of my husband and family. I’m not a ‘female’ coach, I’m just a coach and that’s how the players consider me. It’s all about getting the right person for the job, regardless of gender.

MICHELLE COWAN

Michelle Cowan is one of only two female coaches in the AFL. She is currently the Player Development Coach with Melbourne Football Club under Paul Roos and Simon Goodwin, and Head Coach of the Melbourne FC Women’s League team.

She was the 2013 AFL Football Woman of the Year, 2014 AFL DSR Coach of the Year for WA, and a Level 3 High Performance Coach. She has previously coached at West Perth and South Fremantle Football Clubs in the WAFL.

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