Coaching Women: Same…but different

In this extract from his warm and witty sporting memoir, The Mighty Bras, now available on iTunes [], Paul Connolly reflects that a non-confrontational approach is more likely to get the best out of his team of veteran Zebras, or Bras for short.


Gently, Gently


Round 8, v Keilor Park, away


In Round 8, with a growing injury list, we are rolled 5-2 by a fine Keilor team led by three teenagers with blistering pace and a wonderful understanding of each other’s game. But it’s not getting soundly beaten that concerns me; it’s that the Bras looked like they’d rather be somewhere else today. Considering kickoff was 3pm on a cold, windy Sunday afternoon, that place would probably have been the couch, or the warm, hops-scented embrace of a Brunswick pub.

According to Anson Dorrance, who coached the USA women’s team to World Cup glory in 1991, one has to be ‘overwhelmingly positive’ in order to get the best out of a female athlete. Whereas men are more likely to lift their performance when screamed at by their coach (their irritation at the criticism feeds their adrenaline, he said) women respond better to a gentler approach.

‘[Generally]…you can’t afford to criticize any of them until they trust you,’ he said in a 2006 sport journal. ‘And then a part of the criticism has to be constructed in a way where they have to feel like you care about them at the end of it some way, otherwise they are not going to be listening to it.’

(While we’re at it, the same journal article claimed that when a group of female athletes are told by their coach that ‘some of you are not trying hard enough’ each woman assumes the coach is talking about them. When a team of men hears the same thing each man assumes the coach is talking about the bloke next to him. Says a lot, really.)

Now Dorrance doesn’t quite need my endorsement (his World Cup win and 19 US national collegiate championships as coach of the University of North Carolina marginally shade my achievements in Melbourne’s North-West divisions) but I must agree with him. I too have observed the different motivational and emotional needs of women on the sports field, and consequently I’ve become an expert at constructive criticism and finding a light in the deepest darkness.

Some coaches I expect would drag their team over the coals after such a distracted, disinterested performance as we showed against Keilor, their dressing-down creating a fine mist of saliva that would drift over nearby players like the wet exhalations of an ocean blowhole. Not me. ‘Well, we certainly weren’t at our best today,’ I say at the end of the match and they look at me with kindness and, perhaps, a little pity. ‘We seemed tired and disinterested. I’m a little disappointed, to be honest with you. On the bright side, look how clean your uniforms are! And nobody suffered an asthma attack. So well done for that!’

That I adopt this spoon-full-of-sugar approach has not come from any harsh lesson but through intuition, observation and, I have to say it, common sense. The expression ‘horses for courses’ comes to mind. If I were to vent my spleen at a professional footballer for, say, failing to control a simple pass or missing a gilt-edged chance on goal, he’d expect it. And he’d deserve it, too.

On the other hand, aside from the fact I can’t scream at anyone without feeling self-conscious, self-indulgent and theatrical, it would be awfully unfair of me to berate a Bra from the sidelines for similar offences.

Don’t get me wrong, I often fantasise about giving the Bras a spray– and one fantasy sees me thrashing the backs of their wintry thighs with reeds I’ve pulled up from the banks of the Merri (a fantasy that ends badly with me being lit up by the flashing lights of approaching police cars). But when push comes to shove, I take the less confrontational path.

As I constantly remind (and sometimes berate) myself – usually in the moments after I instinctively grimace and groan over a mistake, as I would watching a favoured professional team – the majority of the Bras are relative newcomers to the game, and most of them, in a manner of speaking, are not as young as they used to be and, worse, seem to be getting older by the second.

It helps, I suppose, that I don’t need to scream and shout to get my feelings across. Football players know when they’ve made mistakes and the Bras can read me well enough to know what I’m thinking and feeling without me having to subject them to a rant. I dare say it helps that they’re women and, generally speaking, women are more attuned to shifts in emotional landscapes than men. So when things go pear-shaped they notice the slump in my shoulders and the erratic twitch in my eyes. And if they are close enough they may even spot the silent rain of a few more hairs from my scalp, falling miserably to the ground.

What would happen if one day I unloaded on them, giving them both barrels and my spleen while I was at it? Well, if they didn’t just laugh, there’d possibly be tears from one or some. Almost definitely there’d be a few shattered confidences and the likelihood of even more mistakes. And quite likely there’d be a full-scale revolt and walkout.

A few years back, hearing a rival coach bark at his right-back to ‘get her lazy arse back in fuckin’ position,’ my fullback Jenna, who was on the bench with me at the time, summed up the team’s attitude when she said, ‘If any coach ever spoke to me like that I’d just walk off. It’s so disrespectful.’

I looked even better on another day when the opposition coach yelled at his team, virtually without pause, from the opening whistle to the closing one.

Not necessarily abuse (though there was plenty of that, as there was clipboard- throwing when he didn’t like a decision), but also incredibly detailed instructions. It was as if all his players were blind and almost deaf, meaning that in lieu of a ball with bells inside it the only way they could possibly know where to stand and where the ball was at any given time was if he told them in the kind of voice you’d use to alert a loved one about a truck bearing down on them. The Bras were horrified at his attitude and antics, and felt desperately sorry for his players, wondering why on earth they put up with him. I felt the same but mostly I just wanted him to shut the hell up because he was driving me barmy.

So there’s no doubt the Bras are very mindful of how they are spoken to. In fact, the only times we’ve had anything resembling tension within the ranks is when someone has taken offence at another’s on-field advice they’ve considered a little too pointed. There were dramatic halftime tears at one game in Maribyrnong in 2006 when Deb stormed out of the halftime huddle because she didn’t take kindly to the positional suggestions of a defender. And I recall Marian stomping off the field at halftime one day muttering darkly under her breath, ‘Tell me what to do. Get your own ship in order…’

Noting her pursed lips I stayed well away.

But considering former Newcastle United teammates Lee Bowyer and Kieron Dyer once traded punches during a Premier League match (both were sent off) such minor spats are barely worth mentioning.

If intuition, observation and common sense have played a part in shaping the way I deal with the Bras, so too has my own experience. As a player I was always more likely to respond to a kind word and gentle encouragement than a boot up the arse. If that makes me less of a man then so be it.

My first soccer coach John, for instance, had a gentle way about him. I knew almost nothing about him at the time, other than he had a moustache, smoked like a crematorium and drove a diarrhoea-coloured Datsun 120Y. But when you’re six what do you need to know about your coach? Was he an axe murderer or, worse, a casino owner? Who knew? What I did know was that John would always find space in the back of his bomb to give me a lift to a game if need be; he’d douse my bloody knee with the magic sponge when required; and he had a way of tousling my hair that brought out the best in me. John would be my coach for a number of years and I came to adore him.

At the other end of the spectrum was the coach I had in my late teens. A powerfully built centre-half who’d played in the National Soccer League, he had calves like suckling pigs and lungs the size of Queensland. He was the archetypical Anglo footballer, could run all day and would rather do it through someone than around them. He had the kind of big game temperament that could turn a spot of beach soccer into the Battle of the Somme. I found his competitiveness oppressive and it leached the enjoyment out of the game for me. I was all for winning but I didn’t think, even then, you had to be a hard case to achieve it.

‘Let’s put it right up these fuckers,’ he’d bark in the dressing room before a game. ‘And don’t let any of these pricks push you around. If we’re gunna win this one you need to let ’em know you’re not going to lie down. For fuck’s sake, don’t pull out of tackles.’

Oh God, I thought, I don’t want to put it up anyone, whatever ‘it’ is. And how does he know they’re pricks? I mean, they probably are, but how does he know? Anyway, isn’t this meant to be fun? I’m not feeling the fun, I’d think while so many of my teammates foamed at the mouth.

There’s no doubt some players respond well to his brand of motivation – like most of the players who reach the top, I’d guess – but not me. I always felt I had the talent (and the older I get, the more talented I think I was) but I never had the desire to endure the tiresome machismo and petty thuggery out on the field. Or in my own dressing shed. A critic would say I didn’t have any ‘bottle’, the willingness to fight and scrap. Perhaps they are right.

When my team-mates stood around slapping each other on the back and screaming ‘C’mon!’ after one of our coach’s preposterous pre-game speeches I felt I was in a gorilla documentary right at the time they start fighting each other to see who gets to lead the tribe and shag whomever they please.

Such a feeling was only heightened in the communal showers after the game when some of my teammates would delight in pissing on each other. For a laugh.

As far as I’m aware, none of the Bras has ever pissed on another. They’re a gentler mob, and I’m okay with that.


  1. A great read, Paul. Loved the thoughts of Anton Dorrance. And why do men piss on each other in the shower? Used to happen at my old footy club too.

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