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Women sports coaches close to burn-out, new research reveals


Women sports coaches are having to work hard to gain acceptance and respect in their organisations and they experience poorer work-life balance than other professions, leading to burn-out, a new study by Leeds Beckett University has revealed.

Dr Leanne Norman

Whilst the UK is working to develop the world’s leading sports coaching system by 2016, the system is currently highly male dominated, with women making up only 28% of the profession and very few women reach senior levels.

Dr Leanne Norman, Senior Research Fellow at Leeds Beckett University, led the study, which investigated women’s career transitions, professional identity, and wellbeing at the various stages of their careers as sport coaches.

As Dr Norman explained: “Little is known about why career pathways in coaching are gendered, why there appears to be a glass ceiling that prevents progression to the most senior roles, or how women coaches’ occupational experiences affect their health and wellbeing.   This study aimed to address how the barriers, facilitators and senses of wellbeing change at the various stages of women coaches’ lives and careers.”

The study, led by Dr Norman and consisting of nine members of the University’s Carnegie Faculty, Sports Coach UK and Ord Consultants, involved three stages. Firstly, an online stress evaluation tool was distributed to women coaches throughout the UK and completed by 218 people. This measured job characteristics, physical and psychological health, psychological wellbeing, and organisational commitment.

It was found that women coaches experience poorer work-life balance, job security and work relationships than other professions.

Dr Norman said: “Many of the coaches also reported to not engage in physical activity on a frequent basis – a significant concern considering that this will then impact negatively on both their physical and psychological wellbeing. The findings suggest that, on average, the sample of women coaches are highly engaged with their role and feel a sense of purpose during their coaching practice. Nevertheless, our initial conclusions suggest that many women coaches are close to burn-out and that this is a social problem, rather than individual problem.”

The researchers also found that women coaches require better work-life balance, more job security, and more meaningful relationships with their colleagues. The team recommend that National Governing Bodies should support women coaches in connecting with other coaches, encouraging them to feel a sense of control over their role, and balance their personal and occupational commitments through limiting the duties and responsibilities of head coaches.

Stage two of the study involved interviewing a sample of women head coaches who completed the questionnaire to learn more about how they have experienced life and career transitions, how they experienced their professional identity, their experiences of organisational practices and social relationships, and their experiences of occupational wellbeing.

A major recurring theme was that the coaches have to spend time and energy on gaining acceptance and respect in their organisations and proving their worth as a head coach because they were women. Some coaches do not feel valued by their organisation or that their efforts are duly recognised. Many of the coaches have given up their social lives, have limited family time, experiences of failed personal relationships and have stopped participating in sport and physical activity because the coaching role was the priority.

However, job sharing of head coaching roles, or a team approach to coach programmes, has worked well for some of the coaches. Coaching too has proved to have taken an emotional toll on some of the participants amid reported incidents of bullying, being treated differently to male coaches, being ignored and being marginalised.

For the final stage of the project, the team devised the UK’S first intervention with women coaches on the topic of wellbeing. The one-day development day for women head coaches was hosted jointly by Leeds Beckett University, Sports Coach UK, and led by Marina McGoldrick of Ord Consultants in July at Headingley Carnegie Stadium in Leeds. 

Dr Norman explained: “The day was focused around three topics: improving personal wellbeing, managing relationships, and influencing change. It was great to welcome the head coaches to Leeds and to see them forge new relationships and links with each other over the course of the day. Feedback was very positive and plans are underway to build on this initial workshop with a series of days around wellbeing and to delve more deeply into some of the issues raised by the research.”

As a result of the development day, the research team and Sports Coach UK have worked together to offer the women coaches the chance to apply for a scholarship for a Masters in Sports Directorship at Manchester Metropolitan University. Two of the coaches will also have the opportunity to receive mentoring training in Finland and Cyprus as part of the EU SCORE programme (a European partnership to increase the number of women in sports leadership positions) in 2016.

The research team have presented their findings at the UK Coaching Summit in Cardiff and will be delivering one of the keynote speeches at the annual County Sports Partnership conference in October.

Dr Norman added: “This research demonstrates that this is an urgent issue to address and must be a strategic priority for sporting organisations. Many of the coaches included in the study were close to burn-out and by addressing and improving their sense of wellbeing, it is more likely that coaches will remain and progress within the profession. The average career for a woman coach is currently only five years, representing a poor return on the funding and training initially invested into them by sporting organisations.

“But this should be considered a social and organisational problem, not an individual one. Our findings show that women possess a strong sense of purpose as coaches and represent an engaged, motivated part of our coaching workforce. It is now up to National Governing Bodies and sporting organisations to support women coaches to connect with other coaches, feel a sense of control over their role, and balance their personal and occupational commitments.”

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