How do you cope as a coach when you are working with some players who arrive at training after an eight hour day at work while others in your team are full-time professional athletes who have time built into their schedule for training, treatment and rest? It is the conundrum facing High Performance Coach Sofie Gierts and it is just the sort of challenge the aspirational leader thrives upon.
The former Belgian international is coaching Royal Antwerp Hockey Club, one of the top Belgium clubs. Elite hockey in Belgium is currently developing at considerable pace thanks in part to the impressive club structure in place.
"It’s a group that’s in full development and my biggest challenge is dealing with the diversity among players," says Gierts. "Combining the demands of professional hockey players, players in full-time work, very young players just coming through or a world class player such as Maartje Paumen in our team demands more than just expecting hockey performances. And that’s the beauty of it."
Gierts is a rarity – she is a female coach working at the top level of the game. But, the International Hockey Federation (FIH) and its Continental Federations are working hard to redress the gender balance and, while progress is slow, at least within hockey things are moving in the right direction.
"Unfortunately, the world is running behind in gender equality in too many areas," says Gierts. "It’s great to see more and more female coaches coming through and I am very positive about the future. More retired players are shifting to coaching jobs, and that is a very good evolution. But not every sports federation is following the FIH gender equality example."
Gierts was one of several women who participated in FIH Hockey Academy Coaching courses over the past year. Eight courses, run by the Academy in coordination with Continental Federations, have taken place alongside major events, catering for a range of coaching levels. In total, 28 female coaches at various levels of proficiency were involved.
Sofie Gierts has been inspirational both in the classroom educating coaches and on the sidelines developing athletes
European Hockey Federation’s (EHF) Education and Development Manager Norman Hughes is emphatic when he says: "There are still nowhere near enough female coaches in the game. We must generate female role models if we are to attract more female coaches."
Former Great Britain and England captain Kate Richardson-Walsh (who has recently been inducted into the EHF Hall of Fame in recognition of her outstanding performances on the pitch but also as an incredible ambassador for hockey off the pitch) is also hopefully joining the TCP and ‘this will send out an important message to all female coaches,’ says Hughes.
The aspirations of the EHF match the FIH’s own ‘Equally Amazing’ philosophy, which stresses the importance of hockey being a sport where equality is a given.
Another aspiring coach from the EHF/FIH coaching course that ran alongside the EuroHockey Championships is Karolina Krizenecka of the Czech Republic. She is player/coach for club side 1972 Rakovník, who finished second in the league last year, and since September she has worked as Assistant Coach for Slavia Prague, the best women’s team in Czech Republic. Krizenecka is a busy coach, she also works with the SK Slavia Under-8 team and is Head Coach of the national women's Under-21's.
Krizenecka has her own theories on why there are so few female coaches at the top level. "In the Czech Republic there are very few female coaches and we mostly find them in children's categories. The higher the level, the lower the number of women. I see a few reasons."
"Given that in the Czech Republic the trainers are amateurs, they have their usual occupations and hockey is in their free time - women are very limited. Most of us have family and children to consider and it is very difficult to combine that with training. When women find time to coach, they usually train their children to spend the time together."
Luckily for hockey in the Czech Republic, Krizenecka has found the time to step onto the coaching ladder. She has a real love of the game and is determined to make the most of her coach education.
"The EHF and FIH courses are a huge resource for me. They provide international know-how, but are also a way of comparing how high-performance hockey is going on in the world. Professional coaches of different ages and experiences are pushing me forward. I would not get anything like this in the Czech Republic. Thanks to the EHF and FIH courses I have the highest level of coaching education in the Czech Republic in the field of hockey, even compared to men," she adds.
For both Krizenecka and Gierts, the FIH Gender Amazing campaign is preaching to the converted but as Gierts says, much of this is in the hands of the participants: ‘I would say that if you are a female coach you can help to play just a small part in this battle. For me it was an easy choice [to go into coaching] and the reward is unbeatable.’
The push towards enhancing hockey's 'Gender Amazing' philosophy is at the heart of the FIH's 10-year Hockey Revolution strategy. Hockey is proud to be gender balanced across many areas of the sport and building on such progress is key to achieving the strategy's aim of making hockey a global game that inspires the next generation.
To find out more about upcoming FIH courses, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Top Photo: Willem Vernes