I love American football. If you’re reading this you probably already know that. But some of the most narrow-minded, bigoted, and anti-progressive people I’ve met are American football coaches. A lot of them are here in Europe, but I’m confident this is an intercontinental issue. Sorry to be so blunt at the beginning of, what I hope will be, a very helpful article. But it’s important to set the record straight from the get-go. I’ll return to this later.
Our game has been male-dominant for quite some time. A long time really. A really long time. It can be debated when American football truly began, but let’s use 1869 as a benchmark. On November 6th of that year the very first college football game was played between Rutgers and Princeton. The first known professional league began in 1902 comprising of teams only in the state of Pennsylvania. Only men were allowed to play, and only men were allowed to coach.
Women’s rights were scant in those times, and gender equality was not even in circulation in the English vernacular. Women playing? No. Women coaching? Definitely no.
In fact, the very first female coach in the NFL was Jen Welter, whom the Arizona Cardinals hired in 2015 as an assistant coaching intern for training camp and the preseason. That means there was over one hundred years of only men roaming the sidelines in professional football. Even more recently, Heather Marini made college football history in early 2020 when Brown University promoted her to quarterbacks coach, making her the first female position coach in Division I history (she had served as a quality control assistant coach the year prior).
So what took so long? Why have we just come to realize that women ***gasp*** can be capable members of a coaching staff?
To start, let’s revisit the notion discussed in the first paragraph.
Many coaches in Europe are former players. And as a player they might have been taught to play football one way, meaning there were no alternatives in how to do things. This is how you run inside zone. This is how you tackle. This is how you run a practice. Times have changed but their beliefs likely haven’t. Many are just antiquated, outdated models trapped in a progressive, evolutionary game such as American football.
And if a lot of coaches are so antiquated and outdated, why on earth would they do something so asinine like bring a female into an all-male coaching staff?
Garren Holley tested it out.
In 2018, the Munich Cowboys made waves in Europe by hiring Nadine Nurasyid as defensive backs coach, making her the first female assistant in the German Football League. Garren, who has been the head coach in Munich since 2017, has known Nadine for several years dating back to his first stint in Munich as defensive coordinator in 2013. For Garren, it really came down to finding the person best suited for the job.
“The fact that she really knows her stuff and our players recognize that she can make them better is all it takes,” Garren says. “I have known Nadine for a long time now so I know the type of dedication she puts into this. She is extremely intelligent. She’s constantly looking for ways to improve and I think that is a big thing that separates her from others.”
When asked to elaborate on the role of women in American football, Garren mentioned that, “Most of our authoritative figures growing up are women (teachers) so it makes sense to have a female coach as well.”
A Lifelong Learner
Prior to her role in Munich, Nadine served as the defensive coordinator for the Straubing Spiders in the GFL2, where she coordinated a defense that finished first in the league in red zone defense and third in the league in overall defense. Nadine, who has a Bachelors degree in Education, a Masters degree in Sports and Exercise Science and another Masters degree in Health Science, feels that her academic background prepared her well and positively affected her ability to teach and coach.
“It’s definitely helped me a lot. I worked as a lecturer for undergraduate sports science students and also was a group fitness instructor. I read so many books and am a perfectionist when it comes to teaching. I wanted to know everything so my students could know everything. It’s the same for me as a coach in American football. I never want to feel unprepared when players approach me with questions, so I try to learn as much as possible so they can know as much as possible.”
Imagine a GFL player, a defensive back let’s say. And imagine he comes to the first practice of the year, only to find out his new position coach is female. “Wouldn’t that be weird?” you might ask.
“I haven’t really experienced anything unusual or strange, nobody ever questioned my ability,” Nadine says. “If they came to a practice and worked with me, they realized I knew what I was talking about and I could help them become a better player, so the relationship had a good foundation from the beginning.”
Sometimes it can be challenging for females to get their foot in the door in a male-dominated sport like American football. Nadine offers some helpful advice for females that love the sport and want to pursue coaching.
“Go learn as much as possible. Continue learning and be confident that you can do it. I never felt wrong or out of place as a female. I feel like a coach. Go find a mentor. It’s easy to see a million different coaches and observe them and not really have a sense of direction. Find someone you trust and use that as a foundation.”
A Pioneer Blazing a New Trail
Phoebe Schecter is a recognizable, trusted figure in the European realm of American football. Many know her success story and journey that has taken her from England, to small college football in the States, to the Division 1 level, and, most recently, to the NFL. You might think that, especially at the NFL level, players would have a difficult time adjusting to a female coach. But having coaches and management that embrace diversity proves otherwise.
“The players were fine with it, but we also had a female owner (Kim Pegula) and our head coach (Sean McDermott) really promoted a culture of innovation and diversity and the players bought into it,” Phoebe recalls of her time with the Bills. “We actually put together a highlight reel of me as a player, and I think the players kind of bought in there, too.”
“But I was very honest with what I didn’t know, I was never bashful or shy about it. I made that clear and transparent and they respected that. I came from playing ball in Great Britain so sometimes the terminology they were using was so foreign to me that I felt like I couldn’t even ask an intelligent question sometimes. But I kept studying, learning, staying curious and engaged, and eventually learned quite a bit.”
Oftentimes people envision an American football coach as a brute, vehement hell-raiser who epitomizes a man’s man. Or sometimes it’s the wise elder statesman who’s been coaching longer than you’ve been alive. What would attract one of these stereotypical male figures to hire a female?
“Females tend to have good organizational skills, interpersonal skills,” Phoebe mentions. “In Buffalo, one of our players was struggling and I was actually the one he opened up to. Something about women makes the players comfortable. The staff, and the head coach specifically, reflects that, so if you have diversity and a staff that truly promotes that, it can be a really healthy thing.”
So, in response to the positive attributes a female coach might bring to the table, I asked Phoebe a simple, poignant question regarding gender bias in American football: “Why do you think females don’t get the same opportunities as males?”
“People tend to not like people that are different from them,” Phoebe responded. “It’s natural for us as humans to innately believe that. You tend to gravitate towards people who look like you. If a lot of people haven’t done something, no one wants to be the first, because it might fail miserably. But if it’s a success, it can be revolutionary.”
A Female Surrounded by Males
The Professional Footballers’ Association of Ireland is the players’ representative body for professional soccer in Ireland. As the Player Development Manager, Dr. Emma Burrows provides personalized career and well-being coaching to over 200 players, all of whom are men. All but one of her colleagues are also men. In fact, there currently isn’t even a players’ union for women’s soccer in Ireland.
Emma is a woman, surrounded by men, every day.
Additionally, Emma is involved with American football in Ireland; she serves as the assistant head coach for both the South Dublin Panthers (men’s club team) and the Irish Wolfhounds (men’s national team).
Many coaches in Europe, if asked, would probably be fine if a woman wanted to come shadow or watch a practice; few would be opposed to that. But there’s a difference between allowing women, and inviting them in.
Simon Sinek, author of Start With Why, once said that “the role of a leader is not to come up with great ideas. The role of a leader is to create an environment in which great ideas can happen.” And I would add that great ideas can come from anywhere, or anyone. Emma offers a similar sentiment regarding female coaches in American football.
“I think what needs to happen is for clubs to create an environment where women can learn and grow. Don’t just leave the door unlocked for women, invite them in. Make them feel welcome. You might be surprised with the value you get in return.”
In Europe, and perhaps around the world, there can be a lack of female role models in American football. Not because of quality, but quantity. The number continues to grow each year, but not every club (or country) has a female coach for others to look up to and be mentored by. According to Emma, that’s no excuse.
“I’m very aware that I’m the only female coach in Ireland,” says Emma. “Sometimes young girls don’t have any local female coaches to look up to. And I think about myself and ask ‘who did I look up to?’ Why don’t young girls look up to male coaches? You shouldn’t just want to exclusively look up to women, but find the best coach, which could be male, and look up to them. Learn from the best and be better because of it.”
One final to-the-point question I asked Nadine, Phoebe and Emma was this: “What is one piece of advice you would give to females that love American football and want to pursue coaching?” A common theme seemed to permeate their answers.
“Be more self-confident. Study your stuff and be confident in what you know,” says Nadine.
“Know your value. That, for me, took the longest time to figure out,” says Phoebe.
“Assume your opinion matters and has weight. That’s something I wish I learned earlier,” says Emma.
Where Do We Go From Here?
As a coach, your primary objective is to win. And if your primary objective is to win, you should want to hire the best. And if you want to hire the best, why would you limit yourself to half of the population? The numbers just aren’t in your favor.
Why You Should Hire A Woman To Your Coaching Staff is actually a misleading title. I know, I know, I know. Go ahead and yell at your screen. “Spencer why would you do that?!” “It’s just clickbait!!”
Fair enough. But now that I’ve got you here, I urge you to keep something in mind.
You should never hire a woman to your coaching staff to make a statement. You should never hire a woman to your coaching staff for more publicity or better exposure. You should never hire a woman to your coaching staff because you think it’s a nice gesture.
Hire a woman to your coaching staff because she can help you win. Hire a woman to your coaching staff because she provides exceptional value. Hire a woman to your coaching staff because she’s earned the right to be called Coach.
If a female coach is the best candidate for the job, hire her. If she’s not, move on. But let’s vow to take the word ‘female’ out of the equation. If the coach is the best candidate for the job, hire them. If they’re not, move on.
If you cast your net wide enough and let go of your gender bias, you might be surprised with what you find.