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I had no coaching role models but it’s great to see more female coaches emerging

City of Sheffield Water Polo coach Pippa Jones explains in UK Coaching Week 2020 why she thinks being female brings something different to coaching.

There weren’t any coaching role models for me.

My sporting life began in a swimming pool where, once I had mastered the basics of swimming with an outstanding female teacher, I was coached by a series of male swimming coaches in club, regional and national squad settings.

There were some fantastic people in amongst them but no women.

And, at that point, I was a swimmer because ‘girls didn’t play water polo’ so there were certainly no females to look up to in what would later become my new sport.

I found out after many years that this was not quite true and women had played water polo at various stages throughout the 20th century, although there was nothing ‘official’ and certainly nothing in my home town of Cheltenham, where the water polo men reigned supreme.

So how did I end up coaching water polo? My route in was a little unusual and started when I moved away from Coventry in 1991.

During the 1980s, the movement to develop women’s water polo gathered real momentum and I was very much a part of it.

This included building a women’s team in Coventry where I had previously enjoyed some of my best swimming years.

The Coventry women’s water polo team became very successful and, when I moved away to take a job in Shropshire for two years, I wanted to continue to train and play for Coventry.

The local club in Shrewsbury only had a men’s team who were very accepting of my request to train with them but, when it came to league matches, realised that I couldn’t play because I was female.

So they asked if I’d stand on the side and ‘coach’. This meant little more initially than doing the ‘substitutions’ and enjoying a beer afterwards.

Tough and time-consuming challenge

We progressed and I learnt very quickly that working with a male team is very different to working with females.

In the 1980s, we considered ourselves to be real pioneers of women’s sport and it was during this time that we came across Dr Fiona Pixley, an Australian who caused a stir in Oxford when she tried to play for the university team in the annual Varsity game with Cambridge.

Of course, there was no women’s team then and, even though Dr Pixley was one of the strongest and most capable players available to Oxford, they lost the argument and she was left on the side coaching, much as I was to do later in Shrewsbury.

Fiona played a major part in inspiring and developing my knowledge of water polo and she coached the first Great Britain women’s team who left our shores to compete in the inaugural women’s European and World Championships in Madrid in 1986.

In 1993, I moved north and joined City of Sheffield Water Polo club and bought into coaching in a big way, taking the club’s senior women’s team to several national titles and success in European competition.

Like Fiona before me, I was always interested to note how few water polo coaches were female and, where there was the odd one, she would always be found coaching female sides.

Maybe it’s because coaching is a tough and time-consuming challenge and your mistakes can be very visible.

You work with a squad of 13 players and one of the most interesting aspects of the game for me is how you build that squad and how you work it in the water.

Getting the substitutions right so you always have a strong combination, deciding when to take your big players out to rest them, worrying about whether you will actually be able to get everyone in and not leaving it until the last minute, and perhaps a critical moment, to put your newest, least experienced player into the game.

I really enjoy watching other coaches and seeing what decisions they make – someone I really admire is Theo Nousios of City of Manchester as he manages his substitutions really effectively and seems to get the best from his whole squad.

Squad selection is tough – there are always a handful of players without whom the team would be lost but then how do you fill the remaining places?

We are progressing

How many players do you need in each position?

You may have the best three centre forwards in the world but do you need all three?

How do you use your utility players?

The other thing that intrigues me is player combinations. The ‘whole’ has to be greater than the sum of the parts.

So if I have a goalkeeper who works really well with a particular centre back, I develop that combination and make sure they work their defensive strategy because they trust each other – and trust between players takes a long time to build.

There are many more aspects of team play of course and these are often the subject of discussions late into the night when coaches get together to examine every detail of their preparation, planning and delivery and, of course, match results.

Does being female bring something different to coaching? Yes, I think it does.

The concept of ‘coach’ has long been a masculine construct and players often therefore seek reinforcement of traditional ‘coaching’ attributes which have been predominantly masculine and autocratic.

It has been suggested that a female coach demonstrates more traditional feminine qualities of supporting and nurturing and I do sometimes see this in me and other female coaches.

There is also some evidence to suggest that female teams accept autocratic coaching from male coaches more readily than from female coaches, and sometimes female coaches might need to develop a more autocratic style in order to coach males.

There are still far more men coaching women’s teams than there are women coaching women’s teams and there are very few females coaching male teams.

We are progressing and there are female coaches emerging – but how long will it be before a female takes charge of an international men’s squad?