Carlsbad United F.C. Female Coaches on the Challenges of Being a Woman in a Male-Dominated Sport
The dismissal of U.S. Women’s National Team coach Tom Sermanni and appointment of Jill Ellis as interim head coach has again brought to light the question of the place of female coaches in soccer. Carlsbad United F.C. is a leader in hiring female coaches, and Directors Michael Duggan and Steve Cowell are focused on finding the best coaches, regardless of gender.
On Sunday, April 6, 2014 U.S. Soccer announced that U.S. Women’s National Team head coach Tom Sermanni had been relieved of his duties, “effective immediately.” Beyond the question of why Sermanni, who had taken the team to the Olympic Gold Medal in London and an overall record of 17-2-4, was fired was the question of who would take the reins next?
While U.S. Soccer Director of Youth Development Jill Ellis will lead the team for now – and capably managed for seven matches between Pia Sundhage and Sermanni – is she, or any woman, on the short list of candidates for the job?
While no one who knows is willing to say who is on the short list of coaches being considered, U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati believes in the abilities of women coaches and would prefer a female coach for the U.S. Women’s National team. “I’ve said in the past that if we have a choice between two equal candidates and one is male, one is female, then my preference would be to go with a female candidate,” said Sunil to the media on Monday.
Women coaches are becoming more visible and more accepted at all levels – from youth to college and professional/international – but the fact that the question has to be asked at all shows that soccer is still not transparent to gender. Hurdles to equality remain in the world of youth as well as professional soccer, as was reflected in interviews with several of the women coaches across California. Yet, while female coaches acknowledged that barriers still remain, they also agreed that women are beginning to make important inroads into the world of youth soccer coaching.
In Southern California, Carlsbad United F.C. (CUFC) is a youth soccer club that has recognized the skills, abilities and strengths of female coaches, and has one of the largest female coach ranks in youth soccer. Director of Operations Michael Duggan and Technical Director Steve Cowell have made it clear that they are always looking for the best coaches, no matter who they are.
“No matter how you put it, as that one song goes, ‘It’s a man’s world,’” said Corrie Samaniego, who happens to be the only female currently coaching boys’ teams (BU8 Gold and BU10 Gold) at CUFC. “It is so true in the sports world especially coaching. You have to want to push through all the ‘testosterone’ and just set your goals.”
“I think one of the many reason there are so few women coaches is it has always been a male-dominated sport,” agreed Courtney Drummond who is CUFC GU14-GU19 Head of Player Development and also Women’s Soccer Assistant Coach at Cal State San Marcos.
“The sports world, and especially soccer, has been dominated by men, both in playing and coaching,” echoed GU10 Gold and GU11 Gold II coach Michele Ramirez. “Playing soccer for more than 20 years, I never had a female coach nor did I compete against many female coaches. When I made the decision to start coaching I knew that I was stepping into a world dominated by men, and I was going to have to gain my respect.”
That need to prove oneself was a common theme among the female coaches interviewed. Being the odd-one-out and feeling the need to prove oneself were constants.
“I think female coaches face the challenge of proving themselves and making a name for themselves,” Drummond acknowledged. “I think with the sport being predominantly male, it’s tough and you can be cast in the shadows very easily because no one gives credit to female coaches.”
“You have to be willing to step into a room or a coaching clinic and be the only women in there,” said Samaniego. “Not only step into the room but be comfortable with who you are and know that you can handle yourself.”
“I still feel the pressure to always gain respect from people in my profession or from parents, but that is a challenge I strive on,” said Ramirez. “I feel that many people who aren’t familiar with the sport just assume that female coaches may not ‘know’ as much as male coaches or may lack the experience that men coaches may have.”
While the pace has been slow, opportunities are becoming more prevalent for women in the coaching ranks. The success of high-profile international coaches like Sundhage and former U.S. WNT head coach April Heinrichs (87-17-20 and 2004 Olympic Gold Medal) has shown that female coaches have the proverbial “right stuff” to lead. The growing popularity of women’s soccer is also a major boon to the increase of female coaches in the sport.
“The Women’s side has really come into play in the last two decades with Mia Hamm and now Abby Wambach and Alex Morgan,” said Drummond. I think all of them have opened up the opportunity for so many players and now coaches because of the success they have had playing as well as playing under a female coach. I think society now has a different view on women coaches.”
“Personally, I think that there are a lot of opportunities out there for female coaches,” said GU11 Premier and GU11 Gold I coach Natalie Elkind. “We are seeing more and more female coaches make a name for themselves at the club, college and international levels.”
“I do feel like we have to prove ourselves and show others that we are qualified and good coaches before some will accept us for the role of their child’s coach,” agreed GU7 B and GU8 Gold coach Lauren Miszklevitz.
They key is having forward-thinking Directors such as Duggan and Cowell, who care about their coaches’ qualifications rather than their gender.
I have always felt that at Carlsbad United our directors seek out female coaches, and really value the female coaches on our staff,” said Elkind. Starting out as a young female coach, I always felt that our directors wanted to help me succeed and become a better coach. It’s great to see more clubs and organizations moving in that same direction.”
“We need to have more Directors of Coaching understand the importance of placing female coaches on girls’ teams and once placed, supporting their female coaches as they bring out the best in their players and teams,” said Heather Hilliard who not only coaches the GU10 Premier Team but is Co-Director of CUFC Recreation Soccer. “We are incredibly fortunate at Carlsbad United that our DOCs respect and support their female coaching staff.”
Women coaches are needed in America. There are too few of them.
“I feel that female coaches offer a different perspective to coaching soccer,” said GU16 Elite coach Marisa Zambetti, who began her own soccer career playing for Duggan at Carlsbad Lightning. “We understand the emotions behind our players. Working underneath Michael for three years, I quickly found that a lot of the girls approached me more so than him, simply because I was a girl and could relate to them. I love being a role model for these young girls and I feel that my relationship with them is so strong because I am female.”
With clubs such as CUFC helping to lead the way, female coaches will become less of an oddity in the sport and more mainstream. While we are not there yet, perhaps there will come a day when a reporter asks the female president of U.S. Soccer if a male head coach will be considered for a key position in the organization. We can dream.