Refusing to play the gender card, our emerging women coaches are building their confidence and facing their fears in Te Hāpaitanga – a project to grow the country’s female coaching talent pool. 

Jonelle Quane is at home on the ocean. A national champion surf lifesaver in her competitive days, Quane is still in her element watching the surf roll in at Christchurch’s Sumner Beach.

So when she was told she had to go mountaineering on Aoraki Mt Cook, Quane – in her words – totally freaked out.

“I was an athlete, but I have never been so physically or mentally challenged in my whole life,” she says. “I had to tell myself ‘Jonelle pull yourself together’. I was so vulnerable.”

After conjuring up ways in her mind to wriggle out of it, Quane realised the climb was there to challenge her, to push her outside her comfort zone, and make her a better coach.

Quane is the pool rescue coach lead in Surf Lifesaving New Zealand’s high performance team.

She’s also been one of the first coaches in the Te Hāpaitanga project, created to expand the country’s female coaching talent pool. The mountaineering expedition was one of five residential workshops the 14 emerging female coaches go through over 18 months. 

As Quane scaled part of Aoraki in October, she understood why the coaches have been constantly stretched throughout this pilot project.

“It was really scary. But it took us back to trust, to listening to our guides who know what they’re doing. I thought I could have died, but I was okay. I didn’t fall,” she says.

Te Hāpaitanga coaches climbing Aoraki Mt Cook, from left: Kim Mickle (athletics), Jonelle Quane (surf lifesaving) and Jenny Armstrong (yachting). Photo: supplied. 

“When you’re a coach, it’s a privileged position. You aren’t constantly challenged, and yet you do that daily to your athletes.

“Now I definitely feel challenged again. Now I’m freaked out and vulnerable, I can relate to being an athlete again. And I’m a better coach for it.”

This High Performance Sport NZ initiative has already been deemed a success – 11 of the 14 women participating have either changed roles or taken on more responsibility in their codes since being part of the project.

Olympic gold medallist sailor Jenny Armstrong is one of them – a coaching gun for hire before the project, she’s now Yachting NZ’s manager of women’s sailing and the Laser Radial programme.

Whitney Hansen has just returned from the Black Ferns’ tour of England and France, after she was selected as their Rugby World Cup coach intern.

Footballer Gemma Lewis has become head coach of the Phoenix Women, who play their very first game in Wollongong on Friday (her assistant coach, Natalie Lawrence, is part of a women’s leadership residency project that saw her embedded into New Zealand Football).

Gemma Lewis has made history as the first women’s head coach at the Wellington Phoenix. Photo: Speed Media Australia.

“We’re really pleased with what’s happened so far,” says Lyn Gunson, the former Silver Ferns captain and coach who’s now Te Hāpaitanga programme leader.

In fact, it’s gone so well, a second cohort of 16 female coaches have just been selected. Among them are another former Silver Ferns captain turned Tactix assistant coach Julie Seymour, and triple code international Honey Hireme Smiler, who’s working with New Zealand Rugby League.

Gunson says 44 women applied for the spots: “The need is still there, significantly.”

It’s two years since the Minister for Sport and Recreation, Grant Robertson announced the $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.

At the time, less than a quarter of the country’s 114 carded coaches – who get support from HPSNZ – were female. At this year’s Tokyo Olympics, there were only four women among the 66 coaches in the New Zealand team.

Te Hāpaitanga gives up-and-coming coaches an experienced mentor (from another sport), and a scholarship of up to $15,000 to supplement their salary, or further their coaching experiences or qualifications.

Any coach who applies for Te Hāpaitanga and doesn’t make it can be part of a satellite group – a “no-frills access to learning”, Gunson explains, which gives them the chance to establish cross-code connections with other female coaches.

Four of the women in last year’s satellite group successfully reapplied for Te Hāpaitanga, edition II.  

One of them is former world champion rower Fiona Bourke, who’s now the New Zealand U21 rowing coach.

Bourke decided to try again after seeing the progress of another young Rowing NZ coach, Hannah Starnes, from the first Te Hāpaitanga cohort.

“I saw her personal growth, how much more confident she is in what she’s doing,” Bourke says. “The way Hannah interacts with people and the way she’s coaching has changed in a really positive way.”

Te Hāpaitanga project coaches and mentors at their first residential on Whakatō Marae, Gisborne. Photo: Photosport

One thing Gunson stresses is that the project hasn’t focused on gender inequalities. “We haven’t gone near the gender card,” she says. “What we’ve said is if you’re going to do these roles in high performance sport, you’ve got to understand what high performance is all about and you’ve got to be capable to do the job.

“We’re looking at increasing [the coach’s] capability and their ability to connect and make a difference to themselves, and that will increase their confidence. As soon as that happens, they’ll start doing things – and that’s exactly what’s happened.”

Quane says her confidence and self-awareness has “grown immensely” through the project.

“As coaches we spend most of the time analysing and understanding our athletes, asking them heaps of questions, to create an environment where they can flourish,” she says.

“But in my career, I’d never sat down and said ‘What do you want as a coach? Where do you want to go?’ That’s never been a priority. Rightly or wrongly, it’s been about the athlete.

“Now I have that self-awareness, a clarity around what I want to achieve. I’m definitely going to be a better coach for it.”

Te Hāpaitanga has also given Quane the confidence to coach again. She had taken a step back but was still involved in surf lifesaving as a selector.

“But this project reignited that hunger for me to coach nationally again. I feel more comfortable now to go back into that space,” she says. “It’s given me the confidence to say ‘no’ to things, to question and to have a thicker skin.”

Jonelle Quane (right) talks with her Te Hāpaitanga mentor, Maria Hassan. Photo: Photosport.

What Quane has valued most, though, is building a network of new sporting connections – with the other 13 coaches and her own mentor, athletics coach Maria Hassan.  

“The connections and relationships have been tremendous, and they’re lifelong. I know these women value me, they give a damn,” Quane says.

“It’s a really safe environment to talk about what’s challenging, what’s working well in our sport, and not be judged or criticised. And there’s a lot more sharing of knowledge between codes.”

While there are common threads to their encounters and concerns, each woman’s story is different, Gunson says. “And the new group of coaches are completely different from the first in a number of ways. But that’s the challenge for us.”

And this isn’t a male-free zone. Gunson has made sure men have been involved in the project, like former Football Ferns coach Tony Readings. “In their sporting communities, they have to work with men,” Gunson says. “And they have great skills to contribute, too.”

The new Te Hāpaitanga 2 cohort are: Holly Sullivan (Boxing NZ), Emily Willock (Canoe Racing NZ), Arna Majstrovic (Surf Lifesaving NZ), Fiona Bourke (Rowing NZ), Honey Hireme-Smiler (NZ Rugby League), Julie Seymour (Netball NZ); Tarena Ranui (NZ Football); Leanne Walker (Basketball NZ), Crystal Kaua (NZ Rugby), Tamara Reed (NZ Triathlon), Elyse Fraser (Cycling NZ), Alana Gunn (NZ Football), Angela Winstanley-Smith (NZ Waterpolo), Danielle Cranston (Hockey NZ), Heelan Tompkins (Equestrian NZ), Lucy Brown (Snow Sport NZ).

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

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