NOELLE Morrissey and Lisa Jacob have lots in common.

Not only were they both high achieving Irish internationals in athletics and hockey respectively but they retain endless ambition for other women in sport. They both now work in High Performance sport – one fulltime, one a volunteer – but lamentably,  also have one more thing in common now – they are a distinct minority.

Jacob, the High Performance Director of Hockey Ireland since last Autumn, is one of less than a handful of female HPDs in Irish sport. As a coach Morrissey is a similar rarity, even in a sport as integrated and equal as track and field. She’s just coached Sarah Lavin to a third ‘major’ final in 12 months at the recent European Indoor Championships in Istanbul but noted that, of the 32 entrants in Lavin’s 60m hurdles event, only two had a female coach. “You see a lot of women (working) in international (athletics’) teams but not coaching. Female coaches are definitely a minority,” she notes.

The percentage of female coaches across all sports at Tokyo 2020 improved marginally but was still only 13% so a lot of work is needed to bring more women to the coaching and leadership tables.

Why does such a dramatic gender imbalance in coaching and governance continue?

Neither has encountered any obvious or unconscious bias. Jacob, who coached a top men’s club team in Ireland as well as Irish underage women’s teams, says players, especially, don’t care what gender their coach is once you help them achieve their goals.

“People might say stupid things to you sometimes but I think you get that as a woman in general, not because you’re a female coach,” Morrissey observes.“ I’ve been called a ‘feisty little woman’ and heard ‘Oh, you’re the coach?’ but those things don’t bother me.

“I’ve never been made to feel I don’t belong. Athletics is very equal so I never saw people as men or women, just saw them as athletes and there’s so much mutual respect between all of our athletes.”

Noelle Morrissey
Noelle Morrissey coaching Sarah Lavin

So why not more female coaches then?

Both feel motherhood and the guilt that women often feel when away from their children is a genuine factor.

Morrissey has three children. Her youngest is now 23 and it is only in the last seven years that she’s felt able to give the huge time commitment that volunteering in high performance sport demands.

“I was away for 10 days in January for warm weather training, away for another week two weeks ago, then five days for Istanbul and I’m going to be away for 10 days in April, on top of other competitions. I’m self-employed and if I wasn’t and didn’t have such great family support I certainly couldn’t do this.

“When I got a chance to coach at the World Student Games in 2017 I couldn’t go because of work but my family said ‘no, you will go! We’ll do the work for you.’ You really need enormous support around you.”

“If you have kids and a fulltime job and a family, the time involved makes it hard for women,” Jacob says.

“People will say: ‘But men do it? Why the difference?’ I can’t speak for men but I know personally,  that now that we have a six-month old son I find it more difficult to leave him to coach. You’re balancing time with your team versus time with your child. That’s not easy.”

Both also feel that women fail to recognise their strengths and the contribution they could make as coaches and say their relative lack of confidence (compared to men) often gets in their own way.

“I think you only get confidence by taking action and moving into something that might make you uncomfortable, to see ‘can I?’ Even for my current job I did an interim period to see if my skills matched up to it,” Jacob says.

“But seriously you really have to get yourself educated. Do all the courses, find a mentor, find good S&C and physios and build a great team around you. You need to have confidence to do that but doing that also gives you such confidence.”

Both agree that mentoring is vital for women to progress but Jacob feels “you can’t just parachute a mentor on someone. You have to be very considered about the fit and the mentee needs to have some input.” She also draws a major distinction between education and development.

“A big thing for us in Hockey Ireland now is coach development. Lots of sports offer multi-levelled coaching badges available either nationally or internationally.”

Morrissey freely admits to suffering from imposter syndrome when Lavin, whom she’d coached to a European Junior silver medal, moved into the senior ranks. She genuinely expected to hand her on to a more experienced international coach at that stage.

“I didn’t have the confidence initially to do it but, when it  transpired that I had such a good relationship with my athletes, I had to upgrade my coaching skills to match them.” She turned up in Thames Valley AC in England, asking a coach she didn’t know, to ‘give me all your knowledge.’
“And he still mentors me!” she laughs.

“But there’s a big difference between education and development. When it comes to High Performance especially it’s the scope for development that you provide to people that will create change.
“In HP sport the conversation is not usually about gender but about whether you’re good enough for the job. The problem often is that women just don’t believe they’re good enough to get involved,” Jacob notes.

“You can’t romanticise it. HP sport is a tough business and there is a big leap to working from national level to international level, just as there is when you’re an athlete. “In Hockey Ireland we’re looking at new ways to induct more women to it, to find schedules and formats that work better for them. I’d love to see more women making that leap.”

Morrissey recently benefitted from taking part in the WISH Programme – the ‘Women in Sport High Performance Pathway’ – which the IOC has established at the University of Hertfordshire and to which international federations and national Olympic committees nominate candidates.

“We were all nuts about our sport and all make huge sacrifices for it. To find a group of women who were all of the same mind, all having the same challenges and the same guilt hanging around us but also  who had so much confidence and potential and support for each other, was just amazing. I’d already say I’ve made friends for life from it.”

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