As part of Female Football Week, Football Australia held the first of three webinars focusing on the stories of women in football.
‘Women in Coaching: From Grassroots to Matildas – Creating an Environment for Female Coaches to Thrive’ highlighted the stories of four coaches and their footballing journeys from playing in the backyard with their families to mentoring the next, and current, generations of CommBank Matildas.
The coaches featured were Mel Andreatta, Rae Dower, Kelly Stirton, and Mikayla Lyons.
“My journey started like many of you, no doubt, playing football in the backyard as a youngster,” CommBank Matildas assistant coach and u23 head coach Mel Andreatta said.
After featuring as a goalkeeper in futsal and a midfielder for Taroonga Rovers, Andreatta’s leadership aspirations really began to take hold as a player at The Gap FC under Rob Askew. She finished her playing career as a player-coach in her late 20s, and started her PE Teaching degree around the same time.
It was when she began working with the Football Academy at West Moreton Anglican College that the coaching bug really took hold.
“I really got the hunger to see where I could go with coaching,” she explained.
“Any time an opportunity came my way, I would just say yes.”
Andreatta provided a quote that dictates the way that she approaches her coaching career – “inspire before you expire.”
“Firstly, it’s not actually my quote!” she laughed.
“It’s pinned on my board at the moment and it’s from Jill Scott who’s recently retired from the Lionesses. I was listening to a podcast of hers and she mentioned it... I think she’d borrowed it from someone as well!
“The key thing is, we only have a short time… the inspiring part is encouraging as many girls, women, to get in the game or stay in the game, to give their experiences, share their passion and their insights for the game with everybody else.
“I think it’s energising… you can bring people together, and help them achieve their goals.”
Rae Dower’s coaching career grew out of a lifelong love for the game. She had to bide her time for paid opportunities within football, but when it first came at the age of 43 – after two different careers as a teacher and as a police officer – she took it with both hands.
The former CommBank Matilda explained that football was always a constant.
“I continued to play for as long as my body would allow me to and I then coached in some club teams in and around Brisbane, and then found myself for a decade as the u17 coach of the Football Queensland team at national championships,” she said.
“That grew into, at the ripe old age of 43, an opportunity to work full-time in football. So I gave up my career and moved states from Queensland to Canberra to work in the W-League for $5000. That was a decade ago.”
She made the point that while she is now the Technical Director of Women’s Football at Football Australia, and also the Young Matildas coach, for most of her coaching career she has been a volunteer.
“It’s important that we understand that there are so many coaches, not only around Australia but all around the world… who are doing it as volunteers,” she said.
“We’ve been slow as a country to provide opportunities for more paid roles, not only for women but for those semi-professional or professional roles.”
CommBank ParaMatildas head coach Kelly Stirton's coaching career is only five years long, but it grew out of a passion for both football and helping out in the all-abilities sporting space.
Five knee reconstructions – two of which were before the age of 16 – and two ankle reconstructions meant that her playing days were over. However, she maintained a love of the game, and knew that she wanted to stay involved in some way.
After caring for her sport-loving father after a diagnosis of motor neurone disease, and also having a niece with cerebral palsy, she began to look at what she could do in the all-abilities space.
“I reached out to a couple of people at Capital Football and they started up the power chair team there, so I jumped in,” she said.
“We got backing from Capital Football Board, which was fantastic, to start the first ever all-abilities academy under an A-League name – Canberra United all-abilities academy – and we had 19 players come through there with a few females, which is fantastic.”
“The ParaMatildas came along and I was fortunate enough to be named head coach last year… we had six weeks to build a team and go to a World Cup.”
Mikayla Lyons was unfortunately unable to contribute to the discussion due to a faulty internet connection. She is a sports scientist and sessional lecturer who works closely with Rae Dower in the Junior Matildas set-up.
While she couldn't contribute directly, Dower pointed out at the end of the webinar that Lyons' contribution proves that there is more than one way to be a coach. You don’t have to contribute to the tactical side of the game, you can contribute in a science-based way as well.
The first question asked was whether the panellists could have envisaged working full-time in sport when they first left school.
“Did I ever think I would be able to work full time in football? At that stage, no. There were very few opportunities, even for players,” Dower explained.
“I wanted to be a PE teacher or a police officer. I did teaching, then became a police officer, but at the crux of all of that was being madly, passionately in love with football.
“When the opportunity came about in 2013 [to coach Canberra United], I thought as a 43-year-old woman, if I don’t take this opportunity now it may never present itself again.
“I think for girls leaving school now, it will be a very different outlook and a very different perspective about where they can possibly end up.”
Andreatta echoed that passion, and the challenges that she faced pursuing it.
“I always felt like there was a hope and a dream that I would be involved in sport professionally or full-time at some point,” she answered.
“The hope was often challenged but I think because that dream was so deep within me and the fire burning so strong that I don’t think anything really would’ve stopped me from getting there one way or another.”
Stirton agreed. “My parents were very much challenged with me not wanting to do any other job but sport,” she laughed.
“I was lucky enough that Heather Reid was at Capital Football and she provided me with plenty of opportunity to help out in that space.
“After finishing school it was always sport. There was no doubting that.”
Dower doesn’t believe that she would have done anything differently had she had her time again as a youngster. She said that the skills that she acquired as a teacher and as a police officer perfectly set her up for coaching.
“It was something that naturally drew me into coaching that I had that ability and that fondness for helping others to realise their potential,” she said.
All of the panellists agreed that connection and common purpose were the key to getting the best out of the players that they coach.
“For me, human connection is key. Embracing and valuing everyone’s contribution and the different things that they bring to the team,” Andreatta explained.
Dower concurred, adding that “the biggest advice I give to players all of the time is just to be their authentic selves.”
With the upcoming FIFA Women’s World Cup beginning on 20 July 2023, the panellists were asked what they hope the biggest legacy will be.
“The biggest hope for the CommBank Matildas post the World Cup, is more opportunity for young girls to be the footballers that they want to be, or for women to be the athletes and mothers that they can be,” Andreatta explained.
She went into how the books that players write, the way that they play their football, and the recent documentary on Disney+ gives an insight into what the team stands for.
“They really just want to play the way they want to play and make everyone proud,” she said.
Dower said that most Australians don’t understand the impact that the tournament will have on the nation. With games broadcast at prime time, and stories front and centre of every news bulletin, women’s football will be the most talked about sport in the nation for those 30 days.
“It will catapult our game and the CommBank Matildas into the hearts and minds of all Australians,” she said.
One of the key themes running throughout the webinar was about taking the opportunities when they are offered. Many of the attendees are coaches themselves throughout Australia, and many have aspirations to work full-time in the sport as well.
Stirton answered the final question about reaching the next level in your coaching career emphatically.
“Put yourself out there. You’ve got to be able to lead the way, and face your fears,” she said.
“Go out there and make a difference. That’s all you’re doing. You’re making a difference to everyone’s lives out there, whether it’s able-bodied or for a disability athlete. Just go out and enjoy yourself and take it in your stride.”
Football Australia is hosting two more webinars for Female Football Week.
On Wednesday 24 May 2023, 8pm, it is all about the referees. You can sign up to hear stories about the career paths of successful female referees HERE
On Sunday, 8pm, there will be a celebratory webinar with current and former CommBank Matildas and A-League Women’s players. You can sign up HERE