When coaching trailblazer Michelle Cowan did her AFL level two accreditation in 2008, she was the only woman in the room, surrounded by 86 men.
Now, 13 years on — as one of only three women to have been head coach of an AFLW side — the 39-year-old is excited about the growing number of female coaches in the league.
“I reflect on doing my level two, being the only female in that room, and compare it to now where it would probably be a majority of females in the room and think, ‘Wow’.
While AFLW doesn’t have a single female head coach this season, there are 28 women in varying secondary coaching roles with the 14 sides. That includes 13 assistant coaches and 15 at the more junior development level.
Across the AFLW coaching ecosystem, 30 per cent of all coaches are now women.
The next generation, which includes a number of ex-AFLW players, energises Cowan, who is now the head of operations and player wellbeing for the West Coast Eagles’ women’s program.
“The interest is there because there’s more opportunities these days,” she said.
Future looks female
Cowan was the first female assistant coach in the West Australian Football League (WAFL) and led Melbourne’s fledgling women’s side when it played historic exhibition matches between 2013 and 2016.
After that stint, she headed up Fremantle’s AFLW side in 2017 and 2018.
She says league-wide and club-based academies and programs are bearing fruit.
The Eagles, she says, are a case in point. This year they boast three development coaches – Kerry O’Sullivan (backs), Pia Faletti (forwards) and Lauren Stammers (midfield) – the most in its short history. The trio make up 50 per cent of senior coach Michael Prior’s team.
“It’s great to see it happening and hopefully we continue to see more female coaches across all levels.”
The league will have at least one female head coach next season, with Bec Goddard to lead Hawthorn, but Cowan is optimistic more will follow.
“The league’s vision for a 50/50 split of senior coaches by 2030 is a strong stance,” Cowan said.
While it won’t be Cowan helming a club – “I’ve been there, done that,” she says – the next wave may come from this year’s group, which includes some well-credentialed former players.
Former AFLW players in the wings
Among those former players is two-time AFLW premiership player Courtney Cramey, who is an assistant midfield coach with her old side the Adelaide Crows, as well as head coach of the club’s girls’ Next Generation Academy.
Cramey – a four-time South Australian Women’s Football League (SAWFL) premiership player who captained her state and went on to play 20 games over four AFLW seasons, retiring at the end of the 2020 season – has been coaching since her early playing days at grassroots club Morphettville Park.
From coaching the under-15 girls there and guiding the state under-18 girls’ side and then men’s and women’s teams at amateur club Glenunga during her AFLW playing days, All-Australian Cramey has done it all.
And now, she’s enjoying her new role working with head coach Matthew Clarke.
“When the club approached me, I was thrilled,” said Cramey, who is part of the 2022 Women’s Coaching Academy.
The social worker fits her role with the Crows around full-time employment.
“Outside that, I have my work as the head coach of the girls’ Next Generation Academy.
Cramey says the gender of players is almost irrelevant when coaching.
“It’s a relationship business and being able to build relationships is the key coaching art.”
Like Cowan, Cramey believes there will be more female head coaches in the AFLW as more and more women are exposed to the elite level.
“I think it’s something that’s naturally going to occur over time.
The idea of being one such trailblazer isn’t on Cramey’s radar just yet.
“When you’re a player your ambition is to play at the highest level, so I suppose it’s a natural question to be asked as a coach.
“But for me right now, my focus is on learning, growing and developing, getting my level-three accreditation and working with the current group of players.
Cramey is one of three female coaches at the Crows. She works alongside decorated SAWFL player Emma Sampson (assistant), former Brisbane and Gold Coast captain Leah Kaslar (development coach), Peter Caven (assistant) and Jack Hombsch, the head of AFLW development.
One of her playing contemporaries, Brisbane Lions premiership captain Emma Zielke, who is also part of the AFL’s Women’s Coaching Academy this year, has joined the coaching ranks too, the first woman to sign as an assistant at the Lions’ AFLW side.
She works with assistants Phil Lovett and Daniel Webster, development coach Damien Richards and specialist craft coaches Simon Black and Clark Keating, under head coach Craig Starcevich.
Having coached at state and club level, coaching was always part of Zielke’s post-playing plan.
“I honestly didn’t think the opportunity to be an assistant at this level would come so quickly, so it’s fantastic, as I’m so passionate about growing the game in Queensland,” she said.
The 33-year-old says the resources being put into the female coaching space would inevitably lead to more female senior AFLW coaches.
She predicts the next batch may come from the existing playing group, who are moving through the coaching accreditation pathway now, rather than waiting until they stop playing.
“The support from other women in the industry is amazing too and the league is getting bigger and better all the time.
Even more special would be a playing AFLW coach.
And that’s not outside the realm of possibility if Port Adelaide, due to enter the league next season, lure two-time WNBA champion and Olympic basketballer turned Adelaide Crows superstar Erin Phillips to her father Greg’s alma mater, where he played 343 games and won eight premierships.
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Erin Delahunty is a freelance sports and feature writer.