Two very rare events occurred in professional sport in the last few weeks: a woman was appointed head coach of a professional men's football team in France's Ligue 2 and a high profile male athlete appointed a woman as his new coach. Of course, I'm referring to tennis' Andy Murray's announcement that former Wimbledon and Australian Open champion Amelie Mauresmo would be his new coach to replace Ivan Lendl. While such appointments should not make headlines or generate the comments and press coverage they have, the furore that the news created is indicative of the 'abnormality' of such a turn of events even today. While women now enjoy the most athletic opportunities we have ever had (for example, the London 2012 Olympic Games saw almost equal participation of male and female athletes), the same progress in sports coaching has not been made and is disappointingly, not even close. In this blog, I wish to briefly focus on the Murray / Mauresmo partnership and review some of the comments made in the press by former and current players, coaches and tennis observers to highlight that while people still claim the gender of coach is irrelevant, their responses to Mauresmo's appointment was anything but un-gendered.
It was Saturday 8 June and Andy Murray announced that his new coach, albeit initially for the grass court season, would be a former world number one and two-time Grand Slam winner. Nothing unusual there. Except, this former champion would be a woman - Amelie Mauresmo, the ex-French tennis star. Cue mass press coverage and countless responses by various individuals within the elite tennis world all putting forward their opinion on this unprecedented appointment. What I found most interesting whilst reading these comments is that while many of these responses claimed, rather defensively, that the gender of Murray's new coach was not important as long as the relationship was effective, analysing their words revealed that perhaps their sentiments were in fact, the opposite.
Much of the analysis of Mauresmo's appointment has rooted Murray's decision to ask Mauresmo in his early coaching experiences in that he had formerly been coached, as a young player, by his mum - Judy Murray. Andy himself also partly attributes his decision to contact Mauresmo because of his enjoyment of being coached by Judy and on his recognition that women bring particular skills to coaching, as women, that he feels enhances his playing. So far so good. However, less pleasing is the mixed reception to Murray's new coach from various tennis pundits. While some responses appear at first positive, the inferences that can be made suggest otherwise. Boris Becker had already criticised the presence of Judy Murray at her son's games and suggested she travelled less with Andy. In response to Mauresmo's appointment, former Australian tennis star Pat Cash expressed his surprise and stated that it would raise eyebrows, questioning how the relationship between coach and player would work if Mauresmo could not enter the men's changing room. A valid point perhaps, but not a point ever raised when a female player appoints a male coach. Other comments by Sam Stosur (current Australian player), Heather Watson (current British women's number two), Annabel Croft (former British number one) and Jim Courier (former world number one) all expressed their shock and surprise at such an announcement, with Croft and Courier in particular demonstrating a sense of amazement at the news a woman had been chosen by Murray. Courier went further to add that because of the influence of Judy on her son's early playing career, this must be why Andy is 'comfortable' listening to women.
Current Australian male player, Marinko Matosevic went even further and even less subtle to directly criticise Murray's choice of coach and asserted that he himself would never appoint a female coach because he does not hold the women's game in high regard. While others have been more positive, such as John McEnroe and Roger Federer, the overwhelming amount of 'surprise' that has been expressed is evidence of the frequency with which a woman is appointed to coach men or boys. In two words, hardly ever. Heather Watson and Billie Jean King added that the gender of the coach is irrelevant as long as the coach-athlete relationship functions. While this may be true, it is dangerous and detrimental certainly for women, to look at the coaching profession with gender-blind eyes. It is gender blindness that allows opaque, informal organisational practices to continue that ultimately marginalise and exclude minority groups from sports leadership by allowing discriminatory practices and attitudes to thrive, unquestioned.
While I am pleased that at last, a high profile male athlete has stood up for women and appointed a female coach, I am disappointed to have to applaud such a 'bold', unusual turn of events. Why can this not be the norm? What we can learn from this story is that to improve the representation of women as coaches, we must promote women's leadership skills and abilities and we must increase women coaches' visibility to children and young athletes in order to normalise being coached by a woman, rather than it being an anomaly. Murray choose to approach Mauresmo because he knew women can coach through his early experiences; he had no doubts about women's abilities. There is an important lesson to be learnt from this and one that needs to be learnt urgently in order to change the (White, male) face of the coaching profession.