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HomeSportWhat it's like to be a girls' and women's football coach

What it’s like to be a girls’ and women’s football coach

Alison Palmer is the girls' pathway co-ordinator at Lewes FC and is passionate about getting more girls into football. She is a football and futsal coach and has worked as a TV producer and professional photographer.

I’ve recently joined Lewes FC. We’ve got 14s, 16s, 18s and the development squad. My job is to think what’s the experience going to be like for a 14 or 16-year-old coming in, what kind of things can they access to help them become a better footballer.

I have quite a holistic approach. We want to support and look at the person first. The most important thing is it’s a young person coming in through the doors of the club, they’re not a ready-made pro player.

Looking after players’ wellbeing

It’s starting to give young players some tools to keep themselves well in terms of their mental health, dealing with anxiety or stress whether that’s from school, home or football-based. We want to be a bit innovative bringing in mental training which is an area I think gets a bit neglected.

Lewes FC (Credit: David Shepard)

That doesn’t mean football isn’t core to this, of course it is. The pathway for us at Lewes is going to be looking at the learning journey for the players. They are going to come in and experience something very different with us. We’re an ambitious club, we want to develop homegrown players who hopefully push through to the first team. And as a club, we want to push through from the Championship into the WSL (Women’s Super League).

Not every player is going to push through to the first team, but maybe we’ll go a little way into improving life skills. They may become lawyers, doctors, musicians, teachers, who knows. It’s important we play a positive part in their journey. It’s exciting.

My love of football

The journey starts with being about aged 10, knocking on the door of my headmistress at primary school saying I can’t handle looking at the boys going out doing their football every Wednesday afternoon any longer, with the girls staying in sewing. I asked: “Please can the girls have a football team.” And brilliantly, as we’re going back in the day, she said yeah, I agree, and she organised the girls’ football team.

Read more: Women’s football: How I made a career out of the sport I love

Lewes Football Club – flying the flag for equality in football

My dad coached and football was always in the house, it was always around me. But I didn’t know you could make a career out of it. So I went into media and worked in television for 10 to 15 years in documentaries and production. But wherever I was I was setting up football teams. It never left me.

Playing again

One of the last jobs I did in TV was When Football Banned Women for Channel 4 before the Euros. I think that reignited my love for it and I just wanted my every day to be football. So I started my coaching badges and started playing again when most people would have hung up their boots.

I quickly found and fell in love with futsal (five-a-side indoor football) and ended up playing quite seriously for three seasons in the national league. We got the FA National Women’s Futsal Cup Final. I was 46, which I feel is quite important as I think women of a certain age write themselves off, saying I can’t possibly compete to a high level, I can’t have those kinds of dreams or ambitions. Yes, you can. Go and do it, get involved.

Alison with her daughter Rosa at the FA National Women’s Futsal Final in 2019

That was important to me because that was something I aspired to and against the odds I was able to do it with a lot of hard work and commitment.

Getting into coaching

The football was always alongside, I was coaching at grassroots, I ran some wildcat sessions (giving girls aged five to 11 a chance to try football for the first time), and I was with a girls development centre for a while.

I was known for being an advocate and champion for girls and women’s football. This is what I’m passionate about, I want to be able to help develop girls and girls football and be part of an overall story that brings more opportunity and more chances for girls to do the sport they love.

But it’s not just about sport for me, it’s trying to help them get equipped for life’s challenges and other futures and other careers.

A new landscape

I lived through an era where it was denied for so long, the access wasn’t there, the opportunities weren’t there which just felt incredibly unjust. When you’ve personally lived through that, you just want future generations not to experience that, to be able to play the sport they love regardless of gender.

Now, it’s a whole new landscape, it’s fantastic. There have been huge improvements, but anyone who is passionate about this would say we’ve got a long way to go. We’ve got inequality. It would be good if resources could be more accessible and shared out across the game in general. We’ve got a big gap between WSL and Championship clubs. We still are on the catch up from it being banned for so many years.

How girls can join a football club

I would advise them to talk to their PE teacher, just start asking questions. If they’re between five and 11 and they love their football you can go and get involved in a wildcat session which is a fantastic starter. They will soon know if they want to carry on playing football and be part of a team and play games. Wildcat is a fantastic introduction.

They get out of it having to mix socially with a different group of young people. If they are very young they are going to be in a mixed group of boys and girls. The more socialising you do as a youngster is fantastic on a psychological level. It’s nurturing all of your interpersonal skills, learning to get on with people, learning disappointment. One of the biggest things you learn on a team you do learn disappointment, you might not score the goal you want to score or your team might lose. That’s a really important experience to go through as it helps with resilience, with how you handle difficult things in life.

But they get so much fun out of it. It’s the friends they make on their team. It opens them up to a whole other level of friendship, sharing, communicating with a group of girls they’ve really got something in common with. Going to a club that they feel where they belong and they are allowed to love football. I think there are huge benefits on every level really. It’s obviously fantastic for fitness, you get encouraged to start thinking about eating healthy from a young age, so it’s tackling obesity which is a massive problem in this country.

My job day-to-day

Day to day I would be checking in with coaches, seeing where they’re up to with their teams. That might be talking about what formation they want to play at the weekend, checking in on injuries, is there anything we need to know about in terms of any of the players, welfare checks. Coaches like to talk about matches coming up so it’s important that we offer the coaches support as well as the players.

Alison Palmer, football coach
Alison Palmer (Credit: Rosa Palmer)

I would be looking at creating our syllabus of what our young players are going to learn in terms of football and how we can enhance their experience. So we’re looking at the moment about our players at Lewes playing at the Junior Premier League rather than the Sussex Leagues because they tended to win everything quite easily last season. My job is looking at whether our players are in the right environment to stretch them, to test them, for them to actually develop.

Talking to the general manager and deputy of the club on recruiting for trials across teams, what links and relationships we want to have in the community, looking at an education side of it. We had an academy team last year where students came to us three times a week for their training but they were doing a BTEC in sports performance and excellence in coaching so we had a link up with an educational institute.

Supporting players through education

As a club, we want to look at how we’re supporting our players in terms of their education as well as their footballing ability. With the under 16s, they are going to be at a really crucial stage of their education so as a club we’ve got to be really mindful of asking them to train twice a week and a matchday when they might be trying to revise for their GCSEs.

We want to work in partnerships with wherever they are going to school so we can work out whether one player needs to pull back a bit so they can focus on studying.

Some can manage their time really well, others it might be causing extra stress and anxiety that we don’t want, so it might be that they drop one training session a week so they can focus on their exams coming up. They have a life outside of the pitch and we want to be a positive in that, not something that causes them stress.

Tips for budding football coaches

We’re still very much at a stage where you do need to put in a few hours of voluntary coaching on the grass. It’s kind of fundamental. Get the experience of working with different age groups.

If you can make a good contact with your local grassroots club, express your interest in wanting to learn and coach. You have to do coaching qualifications, and they are fantastic, but my advice would be take in as much knowledge as you can. There are so many amazing resources online now.

Sussex Schools FA Squad 2019
Sussex Schools FA Squad 2019

Understand that you are going to be coaching an individual and how that individual then fits into the team. It’s about connecting and rapport. If you haven’t the rapport with the players you’re not going to be able to get very far with them as they aren’t going to listen. Find a way of involving your players in decision making. Ask, how can I help you improve, what would you like to get better at? Give the players some ownership.

I would network, make connections with people. It’s a field where people are really happy to share, support and encourage people coming into the game.

Nurturing self-belief

It’s a privilege to work with those young people. You get to know them over time. You become part of their journey.

I coach futsal and run a couple of teams for girls and boys. The girls have played in quite a few tournaments but when we’ve turned up we’re always against under 14 boys and there are no other girls there. For some of the girls, the anxiety kicks in. They get really nervous, they’re quite daunted by it and don’t want to go on. It’s those moments where I feel this is why I do what I do. You just gently talk them through the fact that it’s okay and as soon as they step on and kick that first ball they will be completely fine. You know what they’re capable of, but the self-belief is a tricky one.

It’s happened a couple of times where they’ve felt really out of their comfort zone, but they’ve gone and done it as you’ve been able to give them that support. It’s not about winning the game, it’s about the fact they’ve gone and done it, they’ve overcome that challenge. The smiles on their faces afterwards, they’re just so thrilled they did it. That’s quite humbling.

If you can help them overcome something that’s difficult, you know that you’ve probably helped them tackle something further down the line in their life that they’re going to face. They’ve got that in their locker in the back of their minds, well that was really difficult and I didn’t want to do it but I did it and actually I really enjoyed it and we did really well.

The future of women’s football

We saw the potential with the Tottenham v Arsenal match (38,000 fans turned out to watch the game). We’ve been filling out the traditional men’s stadiums, it shows the appetite is there and people will come. That’s there to be built upon. It’s especially poignant to those coming into the game. There’s that classic phrase isn’t there,  if you can’t see it, you can’t be it. The visibility has massively cranked up to how it used to be but there’s still a long way to go.

Lewes FC (Credit: David Shepard)

Outside of Covid, the future of women’s football is an area of phenomenal growth. I think it could rocket and fly. We’re seeing people really starting to get behind their women and girls teams and starting to turn out to these matches. More than ever we’re going to have such an appreciation now for watching the live game because we haven’t been able to.

I think we’ll find it much more populated, I think we’ll continue on the trajectory of more sponsors coming in, I think we’ll get more broadcast deals, I think the WSL will go from strength to strength.

Hopefully, as more investment comes in, that’ll start to filter down to the Championship clubs and development centres so that the whole structure becomes more robust.

Any young girl showing real promise, wherever she is in the country, her journey shouldn’t be hindered because of lack of investment just because of where she’s playing her football.

I think it will just become a normal part of everyone’s life. We won’t be talking about it as women’s football, it will just be part of football.

We’ll see more female coaches going into the men’s games, I’d actually like to see a female coach take over the Lionesses, I’d like to see more women coaching across the board really.

What I’d tell my teenage self

You can have a career in football so your instincts are spot on. The passion that you feel for something is the best guide to listen to. Trust yourself.

Alison Palmer has created a series of portraits of the women’s England squad, the Lionesses. To view the collection, visit: www.alisonpalmer.co.uk

Bex Bastable
Bex Bastablehttp://bexbastable.co.uk
Bex is a journalist and the co-founder of The Women's Work Collective.


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