In a $2.7m pilot project to help balance gender equity, female coaches and leaders have been injected right into the high performance heart of New Zealand’s top sports.

When former New Zealand cyclist Michelle Wood went to apply for a job at Snow Sport NZ, she felt uncomfortable putting her name forward for a role specifically targeted at women.

“The competitive, proud side of me was saying ‘I don’t need men taken out of the equation. I can get a role fair and square’,” she admits.

But now that she’s in that role of performance services manager – a position funded by a new High Performance Sport NZ (HPSNZ) initiative to help more women into leading sports roles – Wood can see why it was ‘women only need apply’.

“The more I get into it, the more I understand why we needed to do something drastic to make change quicker,” she says.

The change Wood refers to is having more women in coaching and leadership roles in high performance sport in New Zealand.

The statistics driving this change are damning. Across 28 targeted sports in New Zealand, there are only four women appointed as high performance directors or managers.  And less than a quarter of the country’s 114 carded coaches (who get support from HPSNZ) are female.


Last October, Sports Minister Grant Robertson announced a $2.7m pilot project, Women in High Performance Sport, aimed at creating the right environment and opportunities to get more women in leadership and coaching positions at the pinnacle end of sport.

It was another prong in the government’s strategy to improve gender equity in sport in New Zealand.

Through that pilot project, there are now eight female coaches and leaders who have been placed directly into the high performance programmes of national sports organisations.

And another 12 emerging women coaches will be paired up with experienced mentors as part of Te Hāpaitanga, a development project to expand the female coaching talent pool.

Sonia Boland, HPSNZ’s Women in High Performance Sport project lead. Photo: supplied. 

The woman leading the Women in High Performance Sport project, Sonia Boland, says there’s no shortage of talented and capable females wanting a career in high performance sport, but there is a failure within the system to support their progression through the ranks.

“We need to look at what, as a system, needs to change, not to only attract women into high performance sport but also how to keep them there, which is really critical,” she says.

“The challenges for women getting into coaching roles – and staying in them – are really complex. There are things around societal expectations, how do you raise a family and work as a high performance coach? And there’s the shoulder tapping and the ‘old boys’ culture that’s endemic.”

Michelle Wood has one of the eight residency positions funded by HPSNZ for 18 months.

Once her elite cycling career ended, Wood moved to the United States to do her Master’s degree in physical education at Indiana State University. She became a volunteer assistant coach of the track and field squad (she was a New Zealand junior 400m hurdles champion before taking up cycling).

Back at home, she spent almost a decade with Athletics NZ, first with the athlete performance support programme and then as high performance coach manager.

“I’d started thinking maybe post-Tokyo [2020 Olympics] I’d look around and see what else was out there for me. When the role at Snow Sports NZ came up, I thought if ‘I’m going to leave athletics, this is the role I’d do it for’,” she says.

The performance services manager position was created with the help of the Women in High Performance Sport residential fund.

“We wanted national sports organisations [NSOs] to come to us with proposals,” Boland says. “So we assessed the need, the potential for growth in the role and the ability for that sport to support and nurture the development of a female colleague.

“We then asked the NSOs to do a recruitment process. You can’t just shoulder tap for these roles; we wanted women to be competing for it.  Women don’t want a handout – they want a hand-up.”

Michelle Wood in her new role as performance services manager at Snow Sport NZ. Photo: supplied

The job was to be at Snow Sports NZ’s Wanaka base, but Wood – who lives with her young family in Auckland – has been able to do it remotely since she began in January.

Her role is leading athlete performance support – “linking support staff with the coaches and making sure everyone is clear on their roles and where they can best have impact,” she explains. It extends through to the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics.

She loves the job, but the “bonus” has been connecting with the other four female leaders in the residential project. They meet virtually each fortnight: “We never set an agenda, the conversation just flows,” Wood says.

“We’ve all got similar issues we’re working through. I’ve never had a group to share that practical on-the-job stuff with before. We bounce ideas off each other in a safe, non-judgmental environment, where you can ask questions and show vulnerability.

“There are so many awesome women in New Zealand sport already – some in leadership roles, some on a pathway to that. I think we need to do more to help them feel confident to apply for roles as they come up, rather than female-specific roles.”

Boland is excited to see Wood take her cycling and athletics knowledge to another sport.

“There’s so much potential for that in New Zealand – working across multiple sports and applying your knowledge and experience in a new setting. Being a small country, that’s part of New Zealand’s advantage – cross-collaboration,” she says.

Te Hāpaitanga, the other stream of the pilot project, also encourages cross-code alliances.

All 12 coaches from nine sports are already on a performance pathway and will connect with each other at five workshops over 18 months (the first, pandemic permitting, is in Gisborne in November).

They will all be partnered with mentors – coaches “who have done the hard yards” in a different code, Boland says. In most cases, they are female, like Silver Ferns assistant coach Debbie Fuller and Athletics NZ coach and Commonwealth Games javelin silver medallist Kirsten Hellier.

Each coach receives a $15,000 scholarship – to supplement their salary, or further their coaching experiences or qualifications.

Olympic sailing gold medallist Jenny Armstrong became part of the Te Hāpaitanga project after Yachting New Zealand encouraged her to apply.

Until then, she was “a hired gun” – coaching New Zealand youth teams on a casual coaching basis. Last year, Armstrong coached Seb Menzies and Blake McGlashan to successfully defend their 420 world champions title in Portugal.

Jenny Armstrong coaching at last year’s 420 world champs in Portugal. Photo: supplied.

“But it wasn’t really an ongoing thing; I wasn’t involved in their coaching development programmes,” she says. “This [project] formalises their commitment to me, and my commitment to them. It means I can do a better job because I’ll have a better relationship with the sailors, parents and coaches, rather than being thrown in at the deep end.”

Armstrong has had a fascinating career – she sailed for New Zealand at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, finishing fourth in the Europe dinghy. Eight years later, she won gold in the 470 at the Sydney Olympics – sailing for Australia.

She coached in Australia and Canada, before moving home to Dunedin with her husband and two children. She loves working with youth sailors – “developing them as athletes and feeding them through to the Olympics”.

What excites her most about this project, she says, “is meeting other high performance coaches, to see if what they know can cross over to sailing. And maybe we will have similar issues that come with being a female high performance coach.”

The eight women in residency positions are: Sarah Blake – Cycling NZ (high performance programmes lead); Kari Carswell – NZ Cricket (head coach women’s U19, White Ferns assistant coach); Rosie Chapman – Yachting NZ (women’s sailing manager); Tanya Hamilton – Surf Life Saving NZ (high performance manager); Melinda Hodson – Basketball NZ (high performance programmes manager); Natalie Lawrence – NZ Football (women’s U20s assistant coach, Future Ferns assistant coach); Esther Molloy – Netball NZ (high performance programmes manager); Michelle Wood – Snow Sports NZ (performance services manager).

The 12 coaches in Te Hāpaitanga are: Jenny Armstrong – yachting, Temepara Bailey – netball, Mel Bosman – rugby, Lizzie Green – equestrian, Jonelle Quane – surf life saving, Whitney Hansen – rugby, Gemma Lewis – football, Kim Mickle – athletics, Palesa Semu – netball, Hannah Starnes – rowing, Laura Thompson – para-cycling, Maia Vink – football.

Suzanne McFadden, the 2021 Voyager Media Awards Sports Journalist of the Year, founded LockerRoom, dedicated to women's sport.

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