Removing barriers for female coaches

“It’s incredible to watch other people thrive through sport, especially football,” Sarah Nickless tells me. “it’s such a powerful tool.”

And Nickless sees many benefit from the power of sport in her role as development officer at AoC Sport, an umbrella membership group for colleges in England.

Her role centres on developing the next generation of leaders, and she has previously worked in a similar role for the FA.

In the week we celebrated International Women’s Day, SCW caught up with Nickless to get her thoughts on how more young women can be brought into coaching, what the potential barriers are and the benefits of the FA’s Women’s Football Apprenticeship Programme…


SCW: What can clubs and organisations do to encourage more young women into coaching and leadership roles?

SN: “I think sport itself can be the barrier. That sounds a bit daft, but people can forget that coaching is just people and relationships. If you get that bit right, you can almost forgo the technical knowledge.

“Sometimes we get caught the other way around, thinking we need to know everything about the game before we can help anybody, when, in my opinion, the opposite is true.

“There are so many incredible young females coming through in sports who have the ability to connect with others, to make people feel important and valued, and to create an environment where people can thrive as human beings.

“If we put them in a sporting context, it can completely change a young person’s life and trajectory.

“I think the role we can play is to try and not scare people off – not to start with the qualifications and the red tape, and think about how we can help people be better.

“If someone wants to get involved, we should be doing everything we can to make the pathways as clear as possible, like giving females who are currently playing an opportunity to coach younger age groups, where it’s not really ‘coaching’.

“When you’re coaching five, six or seven year olds, that’s creating an environment where kids can have fun – not about an offside trap or taking it into the corners.

“What are the different environments that young coaches want to be in? It’s not about thinking, ‘I’ve got a coach for my under-9s, that box is ticked’. It’s a much bigger conversation, but it starts with people.

“We can perhaps sell the opportunity differently, because it’s to a different audience who maybe don’t see themselves as a ‘sports coach’. There’s elements we know are so important that can be found in different places.”


“Sport itself can be the barrier. Coaching is just people and relationships…”


SCW: Is there a cohort, then, of people with natural social and teaching skills, who can engage with people but perhaps don’t want to go down the formal route of badges, who can play a part in developing at least the very youngest players?

SN: “Yes, absolutely. I think sometimes we get a little bit lost in the qualification thing.

“There’s always a necessity for qualifications and technical knowledge, and I think the FA have done really well in terms of rolling out the FA and BT Playmaker, an online six-hour module course, which can be done at your own pace.

“It completely removes the need for giving up a week, or three weekends, to do a Level 1. It’s really creating a way for young people to engage in football in a way we haven’t been able to before.

“This is what will help us grow the number of people who are coaching, and also the diversity of those individuals, recognising the qualities and skills they have as a human being before the coaching ability.

“That’s the bit we need to get past – rather than ‘Hi, I’m Sarah, I’m a Level 2 coach’ it should be ‘Hi, I’m Sarah, I’d like to coach you to be better’.

“If we want a different makeup of staff in our game, we probably need to change the language around some of what we do.

“It’s not disowning language or removing certain words. it’s just a recognition that sport as a whole has moved on and people’s reasoning for being engaged in sport have changed.

“The way we talk about it needs to change if we want to stay current and keep it moving forwards with people coming in at the appropriate times.”

Sarah Nickless, now with AoC Sport, was chair of the FA Youth Council between 2017 and 2019 and later responsible for building the FA Youth Leader Mentor Programme

SCW: What are the other big barriers to females entering coaching?

SN: “There are so many factors, culturally, socially and economically. What does it look like to be a coach? Can they see themselves in that environment or is the imagery majority male?

“How easy is it to find information to become part of that environment? If you’re not in the football world, do you know what you need to have or is it a real closed shop?

“In research, ‘am I good enough?’ comes up a lot, certainly for females who perhaps won’t put themselves into positions unless they know they’re going to be successful.

“We need to be challenging some of that, creating the space and opportunity for young people to experience it in a different environment before they go into clubs.”


“I’m privileged to be around young people and know what I do could impact lives…”


SCW: AOC Sport runs the FA Women’s Football Apprenticeship Programme, where each apprentice is tasked with engaging female participants in colleges [ages 16-18 in England]. How does that develop the next generation of female coaches?

SN: “It’s such a powerful programme for young people who perhaps don’t want to go straight into work, but have a real passion for football and need some help in that step between education and their career.

“Over the last couple of years, individuals who have been in those apprenticeship roles have been able to gain so much experience from the world of football in all directions.

“A number of our apprentices are of similar age or just a little bit older than the students they’re supporting. They really understand what would work to engage with females on a day-to-day level.

“The apprentices are employed in their colleges to engage females either to play or volunteer, or see sport as something they can learn from.

“We also have a really strong personal development program so that when they are engaging with their peers, they are a little bit better with the ‘soft skills’.

“We know if we get that right, they will feel confident, supported and empowered to go into environments to engage females in school or college and allow them to see that sport could be for them.”

Sarah with Baroness Sue Campbell, director of women’s football at the FA

SCW: We need more people inspiring others don’t we, especially at grassroots level?

SN: “I remember the teachers and coaches that made me laugh, who made me feel safe, who allowed me to be myself.

“I also remember the ones that didn’t and there’s a grey bit of lots of people that were okay, but I don’t remember them.

“I’m so privileged to be around young people, and to know that what I do could impact the way someone sees the world and lives their life.

“That, for me, is enough motivation to want to keep doing it and to find ways to drip that in.”


“A large part of what I did, just purely by being there, was showing what can happen when different people are given a voice…”


Share this
Follow us