By Isabelle Westbury
In January this year, Durham-born John Herdman was appointed head coach of the Canada men’s football team. In doing so he became the first person to take charge of a men’s national team having previously been the women’s head coach. In fact, almost his entire coaching experience has been in the women’s game.
While women’s sport continues to make strides on the field, it is the off-field roles – in its administration, media coverage, coaching – which are often viewed as inferior to those in the men’s game. A stepping stone, if we’re being diplomatic. Herdman’s move, from coaching the world’s fourth best women’s team to the 80th best men’s team, might be seen as supporting that notion.
Not according to Herdman. He believes instead that this fluidity across teams, across genders, shows that women’s sport is being taken seriously. “I don’t think it’s a massive difference (between genders),” said Herdman in an interview with The Independent. “These millennials, this young generation of players, don’t see a huge difference between male and female.”
Most switches have been in the other direction; Phil Neville was appointed coach of the England women’s football team with no experience of the women’s game, but a lifetime in men’s football. Neville’s cricketing counterpart, Mark Robinson, is also a product of the men’s game, having previously been head coach of Sussex men.
Robinson’s experience of professional men’s sport is credited for much of his success, alongside his ability to transfer those skills to the only fully professional women’s team in the country.
Last year, following England’s World Cup win, Robinson and his assistant coach, Ali Maiden, were invited to spend time shadowing the men’s coaching staff. Perhaps it should have been the other way around.
Despite Herdman’s insistence that men’s and women’s sport have more in common than not, there are differences, and there is a lot that coaches in men’s sport might learn from women.
Whether it is an assumption of women’s characteristics or because there are real biological differences (of which undoubtedly there are), Robinson has proven to be a coach of real empathy, able to understand and react to different characters. No doubt these traits existed when he worked in the men’s game, but they have evolved greatly in his current role.
Unlike his predecessor Paul Shaw, Robinson, quiet and observing, has developed a compassion for his players, understanding the subtleties of the different characters within his squad.
Two of that number, Sarah Taylor and Kate Cross, suffer from diagnosed anxiety issues, yet both have spoken encouragingly of the support that Robinson and his staff have offered.
He appears to have a knack of keeping each player on their toes, fighting for their place, while never suffering the insecurity and jealousy that so often blights professional sports teams.
A stiff sea breeze might have something to do with it; empathy appears a characteristic shared by Robinson with Jason Gillespie, the current Sussex men’s head coach. Gillespie, an articulate and worldly former international, is also a vegan.
His veganism might be irrelevant, but his willingness to treat players as intelligent adults and not primal beasts marks him out from many of his contemporaries.
Former England captain Michael Vaughan may be pointing out the obvious when he says that more versatile, tactful coaches are needed in the modern game, but it’s a point worth making. “When you are managing people, I think you’ve got to really know the people you are managing. There are some that need an arm round them and some need a rocket,” he commented recently on the BBC.
The farcical demise of Kevin Pietersen’s international career in 2012 was a prime example of a coach and captain unable to adapt to different personalities.
A coach’s role has evolved tremendously since Ian Chappell famously dismissed any coach as simply the vehicle which “takes you to and from the ground”. In part this is due to the sport’s increasing professionalisation, in part due to the rise in shorter formats. More formats, with a coach often juggling three separate teams, demands versatility.
The more one-dimensional hard-nosed coaches in the guise of Australia’s Darren Lehmann, recently departed in the wake of the ball-tampering affair, are of a different era. Steve Rhodes of Worcestershire, widely lauded for his side’s on-field success last year, has learnt the hard way that his remit as coach goes far beyond his on-pitch duties; he was sacked earlier this year for failing to report the arrest of one of his players on a rape charge.
Modern coaching is an all-encompassing role. Chelsea manager Antonio Conte is a notorious workaholic. Sir Alex Ferguson apparently similarly so. To rise to the top, the work never stops – on any given day they are the first in and the last out, dealing with issues which might include not only the development of on-field skill, but of pastoral care, financial negotiations and even public relations. It is a gruelling job and only slowly are we, the public, and the coaches themselves, grasping that fact.
It was notable, for example, that the new Arsenal appointment of Unai Emery was for head coach, not manager per se. As manager, Arsene Wenger had handled transfers, scouting, coaching and the general running of the club – it appears Emery’s role will be more restricted.
Recently the weight of such demands has been evident on England coach Trevor Bayliss, who commented that he had only had one day off between November and April, during England’s winter tours. Perhaps it should not be surprising how far removed, almost disinterested, Bayliss appeared after his team’s Test routing at Lord’s earlier this summer.
“The messages haven’t changed. We’ve been working on the same things,” he shrugged in a post-match interview, comfortable in admitting he wasn’t sure what else to try. Or that he didn’t want to.
“I suppose we’re looking for who might be the best in each of the positions,” he continued, revealing a lack of preparation for the summer’s first Test, a stark contrast to Pakistan’s efforts.
The calls for England’s head coach to become split roles have been growing of late, but mainly for reasons of specialising according to skill. These assertions are justified, but should instead be on the grounds of workload and the variety of different personalities under a coach’s stewardship.
Robinson has 19 contracted England players across the England women’s squads, Gillespie just 20 for all formats with Sussex. The way the game is going at its highest level, Bayliss, by contrast, could very soon have three sets of 15 (or thereabouts). That is a lot of different characters to adapt to, however empathetic a coach might be. Too many, I’d argue.