Gender Is Not A ‘Problem’ Olympian And Hockey Coach Janneke Schopman Has Encountered

Janneke Schopman/ USA Field Hockey
At the top level of the game — in fact, at any level of the game — it is possible to count the number of female head coaches on one hand.

Janneke Schopman is a dogged pragmatist. She’s also a double gold medalist — one for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing and one for the 2006 World Cup in Madrid — and has just taken on the position of head coach for the USA women’s field hockey team.

While Schopman’s appointment may seem like a likely next step — a culmination of strategy prowess and athleticism — her newfound presence in coaching flies in the face of bleak gender discrepancies in women’s field hockey. At the top level of the game—in fact, at any level of the game—it is possible to count the number of female head coaches on one hand.

So unusual is it to see a woman coaching, that when the Italian U21 women’s indoor hockey team recently boasted a bench comprising an all-female cast of doctor, physio, manager and head coach, this fact— rather than the competition itself — made headlines on the International Hockey Federation’s (FIH) website.

Among the top 20 women’s national field hockey teams there are three female head coaches and a smattering of assistant coaches. Of the top 20 men’s field hockey teams there are no female coaches whatsoever — head, assistant, or otherwise.

But even these stark numbers are an improvement on things from even just a year ago. At the start of 2016, former Australian international hockey player Alyson Annan was the sole flag-bearer for female head coaches at the top of the global game as the head coach of the Netherlands women; they rank number one in the world.

Annan has since been joined by two Dutch Olympians, Ageeth Boomgaardt, who coaches the Belgium Red Panthers and now, Janneke Schopman.

While hockey is a sport that regularly boasts about leading the way in gender equality — a paltry 25% of head coaches is not really a figure to celebrate.

FIH Executive Board and President Of European Hockey Federation, Marijke Fleuren, has addressed this troubling gender gap:

“Hockey plays a big role in the lives of men and women, boys and girls all over the world in 137 countries. Now the next step: to get both genders equally involved outside the field of play, in decision making bodies, in coaching and in umpiring. Why? Simply because we have the obligation to represent our men and women, boys and girls — equally.”

So what are the barriers that seem to prevent women leading women in field hockey? The FIH has pledged to drive up the number of female coaches through its High Performance Academy’s Women in Elite Coaching initiative; several national federations are encouraging female coaches into accelerated coaching programs, notably Argentina and Scotland; and the females who are already in situ are adamant that if you want it badly enough and, importantly, are good enough, then there is no gender barrier.

Until recently, Karen Brown was assistant coach to the gold-medal winning Great Britain women’s hockey team. She is also a coach mentor for high performance coaches in a number of sports. For her, the paucity of female coaches often comes down to simple a lifestyle choice:

“There is no doubt that being a head coach of an international team is tough. You spend weeks of the year away from home and for many women, and men, that is tough. It is particularly true of players who have come to the end of their playing career because that is the time they might be thinking of starting a family. For most new mothers, there is no way they would want to be away from their family for that amount of time.”

Brown is correct in identifying motherhood as a large factor in a woman’s career decisions, and this does not just relate to sports coaching. Since 2012, there has been an upward trend for mothers of children up to the age of 18 to stay at home. Currently around 29% of mothers don’t work outside the home — up from 23% in 2000 — but a far cry from the 49% of stay at home moms in the 1960s.

Janneke Schopman / USA Field Hockey

Despite her assertion that the opportunities are there, Brown does reluctantly concede the gender gap: “Sport is slightly behind other industries when it comes to gender equality, but it is catching up. However, you have to be realistic. You cannot just flood the market with female coaches, they have to have the right qualities and the right skill sets.”

Janneke Schopman agrees with Brown. Interviewing the newly appointed coach, my over-riding impression is of a woman for whom life is a series of black and white answers. Despite my own attempts to get her to admit that there were gender inequalities in coaching, she refuses to evolve her opinion any further than her own experience and she claims her gender is not a “problem” she has encountered.

You can’t dispute the figures, however. Three female coaches working within the top 12 nations does not sing a song of gender equality, despite the words of Schopman and Brown. But even these stark numbers are an improvement on things from even just a year ago. At the start of 2016, former Australian international Alyson Annan was the sole flag-bearer for female head coaches at the top of the global game as the head coach of the Netherlands women who rank number one in the world. She has a slightly different opinion of the situation.

“You cannot just flood the market with female coaches, they have to have the right qualities and the right skill sets.”

“I think there may be reasons to run women-only coaching courses, which address some issues women have,” she says, “but there are already some very good female coaches out there in some of the lower-ranked national sides. A little support via FIH coaching courses will help to break down some barriers to female coaches.”

The point that all three of the coaches interviewed seems to overlook however is the element of insider access; for Brown and Schopman, even as they were playing, they were also coaching, either in schools or with junior club sides; Annan was quickly snapped up as a club coach when she finished her playing career.

Gaining entry into coaching without having previously played is exponentially more difficult.

Schopman explains that coaching is something she’s done since she was a teenager — informally on the field — but she always had ambitions to become an international head coach some day. She says her own ambition was at the forefront of her mind, not her gender.

“I started coaching when I was 18, but I retired from international playing when I was 33,” Schopman says. Coaching is part of my life and something that I love to do. For me, being a female coach was never the challenge. When I was a player, I did have teammates who used to say they preferred to be coached by a man rather than a woman, but when I asked ‘why,’ they didn’t really know, it was just a ‘feeling’ they had.”

Gender inequities is a subject that Schopman doesn’t devote too much time dwelling upon — personally or societally — although she does concede that there are issues in some parts of the world.

“I am not that qualified to talk about it, but I would say that in Asia, culture plays a big part and a woman would struggle to reach a head coach position,” she laments. “But, in other parts of the world, I don’t know why there aren’t so many women. I think it comes down to personal choice. Certainly many of the players I know just want to follow another career when they stop playing.”

When it comes to whether male and female coaches differ in the way they operate, Schopman is equally reticent; she insists it’s unneccesary to traverse the arguable differences in gender, but rather focus on the game itself and the individuals comprising the team.

“Of course there are some differences in the way men and women coach, but I think the bigger difference lies between coaches of either gender and whether they prefer to coach men or women. It is the nature of the group being coached rather than the style of the coach where the bigger difference occurs.
As a female coach you might have an advantage because you understand women a little better. Equally a male coach might understand men better. But I don’t think you need to ‘understand’ necessarily how men and women are thinking, you just need to coach them and get the results.
I think as a player I just wanted the best coach, male or female. I just wanted them to show me how to do things and explain why I was doing them. Knowledgeable was the important thing for me. That is what I want to pass onto my players now.”

Alyson Annan echoes some of Schopman’s thoughts, but still believes there is something undeniably different about interfacing with male and female athletes: “I found that when I coached men, they would do the exercise or drill as requested. When I coached women, I had to explain why we were doing a certain exercise. There had to be understanding. There is definitely a difference when you are coaching men to when you work with women.”

Tina Bachmann is a former German international hockey player, who is now coaching in the top German national league. She agrees with Schopman wholeheartedly: “I have never felt that my gender was an issue as a coach, I do coach men differently to women, but not drastically so.”

Within the USA, field hockey is in a unique position as many of the college teams do have female head coaches. This figure sharply contrasts with college sports; reports from the Women’s Sports Foundation showed that only 23% of teams across all sports had a female head coach.

I don’t think you need to ‘understand’ necessarily how men and women are thinking, you just need to coach them and get the results.

Schopman feels that field hockey’s good showing among these figures relates to the fact that the sport in the USA is predominantly a female sport, and that there is a clear pathway for women to move from playing to coaching.

On her appointment to head coach role, Schopman is far more forthcoming and she bristles with positivity: “It’s a great honor for me to be appointed as head coach, it was something I always dreamed of after I retired as a player and, yes, it is a great opportunity for me at this time.”

Schopman’s apprenticeship for the role was three years as assistant to Craig Parnham, a former Great Britain field hockey player and coach who joined the USA set-up in 2012. Between them, Parnham and Schopman helped USA move up the rankings to fifth in the world; win gold medal at the 2014 Champions Challenge; a gold medal at the 2015 Pan American Games — a match in which they beat the world number two side, Argentina in a thrilling encounter — and nab a bronze medal at the 2016 Champions Trophy. On each occasion the team punched above its weight and beat higher ranked opposition.

“I learn everyday from people around me,” she says. “It was great to be around Craig, he was very easy to talk to and I felt like I could always walk into his room and ask him a questions or give a suggestion. That is something I definitely want to achieve as head coach. I would like people, whether they are staff or players, to feel they can voice their opinion freely.”

And while there is a depressing lack of females at the top presently, there are plenty of reasons to court optimism.

A recent course held during the Hockey Champions Trophy In London — where USA led by Schopman and Parnham won their first medal in the event — brought together a number of female coaches, all with high aspirations to lead national teams. The female coaches I spoke to are all heavily involved in coaching and are hugely enthusiastic and passionate about reaching the very top of the coaching tree.

Jen Wilson, former South African player and Olympian, is head coach at Sevenoaks Hockey Club in Kent, England and is also assistant coach to the Scottish women’s team based at the other end of the UK. A seemingly difficult dual role is just worked out logically — with Wilson fitting her international duties around her domestic ones.

From talking to the female coaches, it seems that many of the arguments or reasons given for a lack of females at the top of the coaching tree can soon be dismissed in the face of determination, will, and a readiness to change the system to accommodate lifestyle a little more. Alyson Annan, for example, has two children but manages to fit “mum” time around her international duties, by ensuring that her time away from the team is spent wholly with the children.

One major reason used to explain the lack of female coaches is the dearth in role models, but many of the up and coming coaches are role models in their own right. Two of Argentina’s Las Leonas — Jorgelina Rimoldi and Laura Del Colle — were in London for the coaching course. Both are Olympians and both are actively coaching across a range of abilities. The Pan American Hockey Federation paid for the two coaches to attend the course, the payback is that they will continue coaching, not just in Argentina, but across neighboring Pan-Am countries.

Jorgelina is heavily involved in hockey development through her work at San Fernando Hockey club, where she coaches several teams, as well as her work as a development officer with the national hockey federation. Laura, who lectures at Rosario University, coaches her students, shows school teachers how to coach hockey and is running a goalkeeping academy. Both women have also coached in developing hockey nations such as Guatemala and Peru, and will continue to do so.

Theirs is just one instance of women working their way up the system. Maybe Schopman and Brown are right to insist that all barriers are conquerable if you really, really want to reach the top.

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