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Equal to the task: Women have just as much to offer the coaching industry as men

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Deborah Bray 1

LOOK AND LEARN: Deborah Bray keeps her athletes focused on their goals

To celebrate International Women’s Day – a campaign established to encourage action on tackling gender inequality – award-winning athletics coach Deborah Bray discusses some of the difficulties faced by women as they make their way up the coaching ladder, and urges those contemplating a career as a track and field coach not to think twice about taking the leap.

  • Deborah Bray’s coaching story sends an empowering message to women.
  • You don’t have to have played a sport to coach it.
  • Forget a decent playing CV – the main attributes of a good coach include communication skills, an appreciation of the importance of getting to know athletes as individuals, a personable nature, willingness to learn and plenty of enthusiasm.
  • Women coaches aren’t always taken seriously by their male counterparts, says Deborah.
  • Women-only courses could help combat the dropout of female coaches.

Your starter for 10: What do former England rugby union coach Stuart Lancaster, Richard Williams – father of legendary tennis sisters Serena and Venus – and Jessica Ennis-Hill’s long-time heptathlon coach Toni Minichiello have in common?

The answer: None of them played at an elite level in their respective sports, and yet all carved out a highly successful career for themselves as a coach.

Exceptions to the rule they might be, but don’t for one moment think that, because you haven’t competed in the top echelons of your sport, it impacts on your chances of being a top coach. It doesn’t.

ConnectedCoaches member Deborah Bray is another shining example, at an amateur level, that success off the field of play is not dependent on success on it.

And she takes the parallel a step further. More than having no proven pedigree as an athlete, she confesses she ‘didn’t even compete in athletics as a youngster’.

That this has not been a barrier to her progress is a point she is keen to get across, in order to put the minds at rest of those women who may be contemplating taking their first steps into coaching.

‘I’m the perfect example of you don’t have to have played that sport to coach it,’ she says.

‘That shouldn't stop women taking up coaching. If I can do it, then anyone can. 

‘The Internet is a wonderful thing. There is a wealth of literature to browse, and visual information that is invaluable to look at in conjunction with coaching courses. I have an extensive library. I never had a mentor either so it is possible you can do it without one. I just watched people. Some coaches, I liked what I saw and took their ideas on board; others, I didn’t.

‘My advice: just do it.’

Obstacle course

Athletes looking to hire a coach to accelerate their careers should place a far greater importance on the qualities of good communication, an eagerness to get to know their athletes as individuals, a personable nature, willingness to learn and bags of enthusiasm, than on a glowing track record of super-fast PBs.

Deborah clearly has all of the above traits, which helped her scoop the prestigious 2015 England Athletics Voluntary Coach of the Year award. There was double cause for celebration as, earlier in the ceremony, she was also crowned South West Voluntary Coach of the Year.

But while online training manuals, DVDs and coaching guides – not to mention ConnectedCoaches of course wink – make the transition into coaching easier than ever before, it is not all plain sailing for women.

As International Women’s Day celebrates the social, economic, cultural, political and sporting achievements of women globally in an effort to draw attention to, and ultimately accelerate, gender parity, Deborah can vouch for the fact that inequality also exists in the field of athletics coaching.

The barriers are more galling than insurmountable. A Sally Gunnell-style talent for clearing hurdles is not necessary, although obstacles are out there, and can trip you up if you are not prepared.

‘I sometimes find that, as you go higher, you find that some male coaches don’t take you as seriously,’ says Deborah.

‘Sometimes when I am coaching, there will be a male track coach watching on who will say about my athletes, “They are not doing that properly”, or, “I do this with my athletes,” and I think, “If I said the same thing to them, they would look affronted.”’

Deborah gives another example of what could be construed as institutionalised sexism in sport.

‘If you took your child to the track and he was a sprinter, and there was a male and female sprint coach there, how many times would people make a beeline for the male coach? I think that’s part of the barrier female coaches face.’

Deborah Bray 2

A club of my own

Deborah followed a well-trodden path into coaching, running her children along to their local club before gradually taking on more and more duties herself.

From ‘just hanging around’ one week to ‘agreeing to help out a bit’ the next, it wasn’t long after they joined the club that she found herself enrolling on a course and, before she knew it, was a fully fledged coach.

‘When my children started at Bath University, I took on a bit of coaching there too,’ she adds. ‘I progressed up the ladder a bit and was responsible for my own athletes.

‘Then I got fed up of driving to Bath twice a week so thought I would start my own club up locally in Lavington (a small village deep in rural Wiltshire, a few miles south of Devizes).’

Deborah owes a debt of gratitude to Dauntsey’s School for allowing her free use of their facilities.

She has worked as an athletics coach in the summer term at Dauntsey’s, an independent day and boarding school in West Lavington, for 13 years. She is also employed during the summer holidays by UK Athletics’ flagship grass-roots participation programme Star Track, which is run in conjunction with Wiltshire Council.

‘Dauntsey’s have a fabulous grass track. I keep stressing to my kids that they don’t need to go to an artificial track. If you are going to run fast on grass, you are going to run fast on the track.

‘Touch wood, we don’t get any injuries. It’s such a lovely track that they can take their shoes off and run as nature intended. But they don’t have floodlights so, in the winter, they all go off and do different sports, which is a good thing. But I run circuit sessions indoors, which are cheaper than the gym, and I’ll get around 45–50 people coming along.’


Athletes with disabilities are more than welcome at Lavington AC.

The idea to have integrated sessions began after a local foster parent brought along a young boy with learning difficulties, says Deborah.

‘He did very well and got into the British Athletics Parallel Success academy, for those wanting to compete in the Paralympics. But then he got a girlfriend, and that was that.

‘But it piqued my interest, and now, I’m working with a lovely disabled lad who is so keen, it’s unbelievable. I do some one-to-one work with him as well as the regular sessions. But I do like having a mixture. I don’t agree with separating the disabled from the non-disabled in the club. Everybody is welcome and mucks in.’

There really is no rest for Level 3 performance coach and Level 3 high jump coach Deborah, who also coaches at Marlborough Juniors and City of Salisbury AC, where she helps athletes of all age groups and across a variety of events.

‘I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t love it,’ she says of her hectic schedule.

Numbers don’t add up

Deborah admits she was fortunate when her children were growing up that she was able to arrange her work as a self-employed chiropodist and podiatrist around her athletics commitments and family life.

She realises not every aspiring coach will be able to do this, but still recommends they give it a go as the commitment level as an assistant coach is not as arduous as for a qualified athletics coach.

‘Definitely go for it as, especially at the lower level, not so much is expected of you. You will start off with the young ones and, as you gain experience, will move on up if you want to and work with the more experienced athletes.’

So, with her experience and range of coaching duties over the last two decades – she also coaches athletes with learning disabilities as part of her role with the Mencap England Development Squad and is the Disability Officer for the Wiltshire County Athletic Association – does she believe there is a dearth of women coaches?

‘I’ve noticed a shortage of coaches higher up, yes. There are a lot of the old UKA Level 1 coaches – now called the Coaching Assistant award – but the Level 2 course has changed. It’s called the Athletics Coach programme and is like Level 2½.

‘There is no shortage of women taking the Leaders in Running and Fitness, and Coach in Running and Fitness courses. What we need are more assistant track & field coaches taking the Athletics Coach qualification.

‘There’s so much paperwork involved, including a diary in the form of three written workbooks you have to fill in, and of course a lot of women have children to look after, which makes it difficult to go higher up. You have to invest a lot of time in it, and it’s a big commitment.

‘There is a bit of a drop-off when their kids give up sport or leave a particular club, which doesn’t help either. And I know too that, on the sport education side, there aren’t many women tutors.’

‘But there are many more women than men coaching disability sport. It would be interesting to see why this is the case.’

sports coach UK has launched an ambitious campaign to get more women into coaching. The Reach campaign aims to break down the cultural roadblocks preventing women from entering sports coaching. 

Deborah is keen to explore initiatives that can be put in place to help remove some of the barriers to involvement. One such measure could be the implementation of women-only courses – ‘If women are a bit reluctant to go up the coaching ladder, maybe that is the answer.’

Research has shown women are put off discussing and disclosing information in mixed sessions. Having single-sex workshops would create a comfortable environment and one more conducive to learning – a theory explored in more detail in the blog The great divide: Are single-sex training sessions the way forward for sports coaches?

Deborah Bray 3

ALL YEAR ROUND: The hard work doesn't stop during the winter months 

Keep on smiling

As Deborah says, ‘Women bring to coaching an empathy which is unique.’ Their distinct set of interpersonal skills is an effective stimulus when it comes to generating and maintaining enthusiasm in those participating in sporting activities.

Talking of enthusiasm, Deborah’s is infectious. I can see this for myself because when we chat, we do so via FaceTime rather than a simple phone call.

She prefers this more personal method of communication, and I can see the attraction.

It gives me a greater perception of her personality, which continues to bring a smile to so many faces all over the south-west of England.

But what brings a smile to her face? What makes the endless hours worth the while?

‘I love seeing the reaction of anybody who likes something new, does well or achieves a personal best. Whatever makes them happy makes me happy. That’s the satisfaction I get.

‘Or someone coming to thank me at the end of a session to say they’ve enjoyed something or learnt something new. I’m not a coach who is obsessed by performance – worried if they will qualify for the regionals or nationals. If they enjoy it, that is the most important thing. That is what puts a smile on my face.’

Deborah’s top tips

  1. Don't look back and say ‘I wish I had...’ Have a go!
  2. Avoid the coach who says they know everything.
  3. There will be athletes you find too difficult to coach – it is not always your fault.
  4. Rejoice in successes, however small.
  5. DO NOT pander to the obsessive parent!

Next steps

We’re proud supporters of Reach, a national campaign run by sports coach UK and supported by many sports organisations around the UK. The campaign focuses on inspiring more women to get into coaching. You can find out more about Reach by visiting their website: www.reachintocoaching.co.uk/

If Deborah's thoughts have struck a note with you, please leave a comment below

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Comments (5)

Excellent article again Blake, it's great to see more and more female coaches putting there own stamp on coaching, as a multi sports coach It's taken many years to make my mark with many tears and nearly giving up, however I'm very strong headed individual and know what my capabilities are. If I need help I will ask. I'm currently working along side Englands athletics throws coach Phil Pete, coaching disability throw, I know when I go down on track this morning I will learn more. since working with Pete he has never told me I'm coaching wrong as we both have different coaching styles and ways of learning. I give praise to Phil for dedicating his time. However not all coaches are like this as I have found out over the past 8 years.
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Great piece Deborah and Blake; thank you. Deborah's story reinforces the fact that coaching can be very accessible for women, be it mothers, those looking to contribute to their community, etc. I think this is one of the key messages to get across in the challenge to raise the number of female coaches. It also reinforces how rewarding it can be.
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I have been an archery coach now for many years, being a county coach for at least 10 years. I love being involved in educating coaches as well as archers. I find almost all archers are happy to be coached by a female coach. There are some who are plain stubborn and "un-coachable", whatever the sex of the coach. The greatest barrier I have found comes from above, from county and regional level. I have frequently been by-passed in favour of male colleagues in spite of my numerous skills and qualifications. Many senior colleagues have commented on this in the past, wondering why I have not gone up to the next level. The higher echelons seem very male dominated. After teaching A level Biology for 30 years, I am very well qualified to be a coach educator and tutor but despite all my efforts don't seem to get anywhere. It really galls to sit through a session poorly presented by a male colleague, "death by power point" etc., when I know I could do better. I also firmly believe that fast tracking an Elite Sports person is not the best way to gain a good coach. They may have excellent technical skills and competitive experience, but can they empathise with a lest skilled struggling athlete. At Elite level, they operate on Auto-pilot, often unaware of what they are actually doing. How do they teach that?
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Hi Deborah, Brilliant article and there are lots of tips and ideas in this article for men coaches. I am a tennis coach and I always willing to learn from any one who could coach me or help me to learn regardless of their agenda. Having spent many years in the private and public sector as a manager, I have now taken up tennis coaching. We all need to come out of this mind set that only men know everything. There is a valid reason why Andy hired a female coach. Knowledge is power and as long as the coach had a passion for that sport and coaching the sport with full of enthusiasm I am willing to learn form her or him. This happens in the business industry as well. Alan Sugar hired a female CEO to run his series apprentice. So, there are people up there who recognize the knowledge, skills and the experience of female coaches, managers and CEOs. You have really done well and keep on doing what you are good at and you will reach the top.Good luck and thank you for sharing your thoughts and ideas.
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Many thanks for your kind comments David. I wish you well with your coaching.
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