Janneke Schopman

The coaching team led by Craig Parnham and Janneke Schopman took the U.S. Women’s National Team from a dismal 12th place finish at the London 2012 Olympics through to a fifth-place ranking, bragging rights over Argentina at the 2015 Pan American Games and a bronze medal at the 2015 Champions Trophy. Not bad for just over three years of work.

Now Parnham has moved on and Janneke Schopman, the straight-talking Dutch Olympian, has taken over the helm. She is determined that the very thing that Team USA has become renowned for – namely never giving in – will continue to be the bedrock philosophy of her team, despite a few personnel changes within the ranks.

But another role that Schopman has taken on, albeit not by choice, is that of role model for women wanting to get into high performance coaching.

Among the top 20 women’s national field hockey teams there are just three female head coaches and a scattering of assistant coaches. Of the top 20 men’s field hockey teams there are no female head coaches and no female assistant coaches.

Three is an improvement on things from even a year ago. At the start of 2016, former Australian international Alyson Annan was the sole flag-bearer for female head coaches at the top of the global game. She is head coach of the Netherlands women – the world’s number one team. She has since been joined by two Dutch Olympians, Ageeth Boomgaardt, who coaches the Belgium Red Panthers and Janneke Schopman, head coach to the U.S. Women’s National Team.

It is the newest recruit to the elite club of female head coaches, Janneke Schopman, that we spoke to about what it means to be a head coach and why she feels there are so few female coaches in that role. 

Schopman was part of the Netherlands hockey team that won Olympic gold in 2008 and gold at the World Cup in 2006. She was appointed assistant coach to Team USA in 2013 and was promoted to head coach at the end of 2016. As she explains, coaching is something she has always wanted to do and even in her teens she had ambitions to be an international head coach someday.

“I started coaching when I was 18 and I retired from international playing when I was 33. Coaching is part of my life and something that I love to do. For me, being a female coach was never the challenge. When I was a player, I did have teammates who used to say they preferred to be coached by a man rather than a woman, but when I asked ‘why’, they didn’t really know, it was just a feeling they had.”

Although Schopman didn’t delve into the specifics of gender inequities in field hockey coaching, she does concede that there are issues in some parts of the world.

“In other parts of the world, I don’t know why woman would struggle to reach a head coach position. I think it comes down to personal choice, certainly many of the players I know just want to follow another career when they stop playing.”

Schopman explains that although male and female coaches differ in the way they operate, when selecting a head coach the focus should be restructured to account for the athletes’ preferences. “Of course there are some differences in the way men and women coach, but I think the bigger difference lies between coaches of either gender, and whether they prefer to coach men or women. It is the nature of the group being coached rather than the style of the coach where the bigger difference occurs.”

She expands this point: “As a female coach you might have an advantage because you understand women a little better. Equally a male coach might understand men better. But I don’t think you need to ‘understand’ necessarily how men and women are thinking, you just need to coach them and get the results.

“I think as a player I just wanted the best coach, male or female. I just wanted them to show me how to do things and explain why I was doing them. Being knowledgeable was the important thing for me. That is what I want to pass onto my players now.”

Within the USA, field hockey is in a unique position as many of the college teams do have female head coaches. This contrasts with college sport generally where figures released last year by the Women’s Sports Foundation showed that only 23 per cent of teams across all sports had a female head coach. 

Schopman feels that field hockey’s good showing among these figures relates to the fact that the sport in the USA is predominantly a female sport, and that there is a clear pathway for women to move from playing to coaching. 

On her appointment to head coach role, Schopman is far more forthcoming and she bristles with positivity as she says: “It’s a great honor for me to be appointed as head coach, it was something I always dreamed of after I retired as a player and, yes, it is a great opportunity for me at this time.”

Schopman's apprenticeship for the role was three years as assistant to Craig Parnham, a former Great Britain field hockey player and coach who joined the USA set-up in 2012. Between them, Parnham and Schopman helped USA move up the rankings to fifth in the world; win gold medal at the 2014 Champions Challenge; a gold medal at the 2015 Pan American Games – a match in which they beat the world number two side, Argentina in a thrilling encounter – and nab a bronze medal at the 2016 Champions Trophy. On each occasion the team punched above its weight and beat higher ranked opposition. 

“I learn every day from people around me,” she says. “It was great to be around Craig, he was very easy to talk to and I felt like I could always walk into his room and ask him a questions or give a suggestion. That is something I definitely want to achieve as head coach. I would like people, whether they are staff or players, to feel they can voice their opinion freely.”

After interviewing Janneke Schopman, the over-riding impression is of a woman for who life is a series of black and white answers. She admits at times she can be impatient, “I do try to work on that”, and despite constant attempts to get her to admit that there were gender inequalities in coaching, her take on it is simply based on her own experience – it is not a problem she has encountered and so she has not formed any opinions either way.

What is clear is that she will continue the tradition of Team USA being a hard-working, honest hockey team. It is an ethos that has won them friends all over the hockey world and it is not something that will change during Schopman’s reign.

That is not to say that the next few months will not be challenging. For a start, some of the team stalwarts retired after the Rio Olympics, notably team captain Lauren Crandall and world class defender Rachel Dawson, and Schopman says that is likely to cause some headaches.

“There have been retirements which will give us some challenges in the near future as we currently don't have the depth within our squad to deal with that,” is her honest appraisal.  “There is talent in the U-21s knocking on the door but in terms of depth in the squad we probably need some time. But you always know that the USA is a team that will always fight for every meter they can on the field and will bring that to every team they face.”

While Janneke Schopman may not be beating the drum for more female coaches, in her own highly professional way, she has become the walking embodiment of a role model to any aspiring coach.