Where are all the women coaches?

By Lauren Soderberg

In celebration of International Women's Day ( IWD ) this month, I wanted to uncover some of the untold stories behind the scenes of women as leaders in our sport of volleyball!

Being the first female Olympic beach volleyball coach for Australia, and on the professional circuit for nearly 10 years, it has not escaped my attention that there has been a distinct lack of female counterparts in my chosen profession worldwide. I often found myself asking where are all the other professional female coaches?

I was very excited to hear of the appointment of Shannon Winzer (pictured above) as head coach of Australia’s indoor women's national team and the Centre of Excellence based at the AIS in Canberra. Shannon is a naturally charismatic and confident mother of three who chose to relocate her family to Canberra to take on this newly created role.

It’s an incredibly busy role, combining the tasks of U23 Australian head coach, Australian indoor volleyball National women's team head coach, and Centre Of Excellence coach.

Somehow Shannon found a few moments in her busy day to chat with me candidly about making it to the top of her sport, and standing tall in a profession where few women currently do...

As an introduction, can you tell us about your initiation to life as a professional coach in women’s World Grand Prix My first year was exciting and nerve racking all at once. It was a very sharp learning curve coaching volleyball at that level and I’d like to think I learnt a lot in that first year, sometimes the hard way. The biggest challenge was self-doubt which was surprising for me because I’ve always felt like a confident individual, so when I would second guess myself in the beginning I realized really quickly how important it was that I had surrounded myself with people who not only believed in me as a coach but also in the things we wanted to achieve as a team. It’s very empowering having someone telling you to back yourself.

In addition to taking on the professional sporting world you also have three young kids. You’ve mentioned to me previously about the realities of mother’s guilt. Can you explain a little more about that and how you deal with societal pressures of stepping outside the traditional mum role? Every mum would tell you that mother’s guilt is very real. Whether you’re a stay-at-home mum or working mum, the demands are different but equally as tough and mother’s guilt is there every time you think about doing something for yourself. For me it is something I have to deal with on a regular basis as I have to miss dinners, bedtimes, activities and when we’re away for competition I don’t see them for weeks. I put added pressure on myself to fit it all in. The comments from other women implying I do not put my kids first were hard to take in the beginning (yes it’s true, things are actually still said). Then I realized that I’m setting a good example for my children (one girl and two boys) who get to see me work hard to help support the family as well as follow my own dreams, and better yet they are continually surrounded by a group of elite athletes who also happen to be strong women. That’s a great lesson in itself for my kids. So I try to remind myself of that.

It sounds like leading by example is a strong value. What else does good leadership embody to you? Leadership to me is influencing others to achieve more. Having the knowledge and certain skill set is not enough, you still need to be passionate about what you’re trying to achieve, demonstrate belief in the process, the group and the individual... but above all else lead by example. As coaches we demand a lot of our athletes and at times we ask them to make tough choices, but I think we achieve buy-in from a group when they see us alongside them working hard, making sacrifices and committing to the things we are asking them to commit to.

I’ve heard previously that you can be outspoken and emotional by choice in the coaching arena, can you elaborate? When we talk about being outspoken or visibly emotional as a coach it can easily be perceived as being reactive and I think at times that’s an oversimplification. Yes sometimes it’s reactive, but a lot of the time it’s a conscious decision to react in a certain way. There is that split second thinking about how I should respond to something. What will get the response that I want? What will the athlete respond to best? Sometimes that is an emotional response, sometimes that is a quiet response and sometimes it’s no response at all. But the art of coaching is knowing your players, understanding team dynamics and knowing what drives the individual players within a pack. There is definitely more than one way to coach or to lead and I think we lead best when we are true to our own personality.

In the spirit of International Womens Day – what do you think our sport can do to assist more women like yourself to take on coaching leadership roles in the future? I think one of the biggest issues for women taking on coaching leadership roles in the future is the balance between work (sport) and family life and the perceived issues or sacrifices that it would require. Rarely do we work 9am- 5pm jobs so childcare alone is a nightmare.

I feel like there needs to be more support for women with families, but I don’t know what that looks like yet because I’m still finding out for myself. I think it’s hard for women to properly voice their needs because we don’t want it to be seen as asking for special consideration, but the reality is with a family we have different demands on us and balancing it all is really hard.

Thanks so much for speaking candidly about your professional and personal life as a woman, leader, coach and mother. Hopefully you’ve inspired the next of female coaches to follow suit.