The Pan American Hockey Federation (PAHF) got off to a flying start to 2021 with a gender equality webinar that sought to bring issues of equality to the fore and offer some potential ideas to make our sport more accessible to everyone.

With all continental federations planning some activity around this important topic, PAHF is ahead of the curve as the first continental federation to start discussions. In total, 28 national associations joined the webinar, and the 45 participants represented all five continents, with guests joining from Zimbabwe, New Zealand and Wales. The webinar was introduced by FIH Executive Board member Marijke Fleuren, who also chairs the FIH Women in Sport Committee. The FIH Academy, with technical support from Coach Logic, hosted the webinar.

Fleuren opened proceedings by congratulating PAHF on being the first continent to organize a webinar exploring the topic of gender equality. Her challenge to the attendees was to take ideas from the webinar back to their own national associations and use them to drive change in equality-related issues.

Next to speak was PAHF Executive Board member Mary Cicinelli. The Canadian explained that the focus of the PAHF webinar would be on female coaches working within the game. Cicinelli acknowledged that there were huge differences across the continent in terms of access, opportunity and appointment of female coaches, but added that the webinar should offer some thoughts and ideas that every national association could take away and incorporate into a strategy for the future.

The webinar took the form of a debate and discussion among four prominent members of the hockey community: Argentina’s Laura del Colle, an Olympic silver medalist with Las Leonas and now a successful and well-known coach and coach educator; Anthony Marcano, who coaches both internationally as a FIH educator and within his own home country of Trinidad and Tobago; Camila Caram of Chile, who is one of the stalwarts of the Diablas and has been behind their rise up the world rankings; and Craig Parnham, an Olympian who played for Great Britain before moving into coaching. He helped coach Great Britain to a bronze at the London 2012 Olympics before becoming first Head Coach and then Director of Coaching for USA Field Hockey.

The four panelists began the discussion by outlining the situation in their own country. Camila Caram, Laura del Colle and Anthony Marcano all offered relatively similar scenarios. Del Colle said that 90 per cent of hockey coaches in Argentina were male, while the small percentage of women who worked in coaching tended to be clustered at the younger and lower ability end of the scale. Both Marcano and Caram agreed that was the case in their respective countries too.

Caram added that many female first team players would coach lower teams within the club in return for a small payment or off-set against subscriptions and match fees.

The outlier was the USA. Craig Parnham explained that the college system for female hockey players was very strong. He said there were more than 280 college programs and the vast majority of coaches on these programs were females – quite often former national team players. He said it was an incredibly strong and well-run program, so conversely the challenge for the national association was how to increase opportunities for male coaches.

All four panelists emphasized the need for role models and peer support. Again, Parnham acknowledged the abundance of female role models within the USA system and added that a coaching community or informal gathering of coaches was a way that female coaches could interact, support and learn from each other. Over the pandemic, many of the coaches, working at all levels of the game in the USA, had held a regular online Coaches Coffee Club.

Both Caram and del Colle voiced frustration that there was such a lack of role models within their own community. Del Colle is one of the very few women coaching at the higher level of the game and she said that within the national youth coaching set-up – where she works with the U18 boys and girls – there are 10 coaches, of which only two are women.

When it came to opportunities to progress along the coaching continuum, Chile and Trinidad and Tobago followed very similar routes. Marcano and Caram said that at Level One, the courses tend to be free to participants. As Marcano explained: “We want to make sure that people who are coaching groups have a basic knowledge of coaching and how to run sessions safely.”

For coaches wishing to increase their skills and knowledge with a Level Two course, the courses have to be paid for by the individual. “It is like any other career path,” said Caram, “if you want to improve yourself, then you need to invest in your own professional development. That is the only way coaching will gain respect as a profession.”

For coaches with the ability and drive to become national level coaches, the national associations of Chile and Trinidad and Tobago would support the coaches on that path.

In the USA, individuals take responsibility for their own learning but with additional support. Mentor provision or access to specific courses, such as leadership skills, were offered to coaches by the national association.

Del Colle explained that in Argentina there was very little in the way of national association financial support for coaches. Aspiring coaches had to pay for any qualifications themselves. To a far greater extent than the other three nations, in Argentina, players tended to move into coaching without doing many formal courses.

Paying for at least some element of their coach development was universally approved by the panelists. “If people pay for their courses, they are far more likely to take a professional attitude,” said Caram. Marcano agreed: “If you run a free course, you will get 100 people on it but very few will go on to become coaches. If you run paid-for course, a far greater percentage of those coaches will continue to use the knowledge they have acquired.”

In answer to a question from a webinar participant, Parnham said that Field Hockey USA had run some women-only courses for aspiring coaches. The next stage of the pathway was to introduce mixed courses as the female coaches grew in confidence. For Del Colle, the idea of women-only courses was mis-judged. She felt that courses should be 50:50 ratio. The panelists agreed that a mix of options would be best, as some women starting out on their coaching career may feel more confident in a women-only space, where others would not be fazed by a mixed environment.

The final major point raised during the discussion was the opening of opportunities afforded by online courses. Del Colle has run a number of online goalkeeping courses very successfully and, while she is adamant that nothing can replace face-to-face learning, she said she had managed to share a huge amount of knowledge via online courses.

For Marcano, the ability to reach people from across the Caribbean via online learning has been invaluable. During the pandemic he was able to work with coaches from Jamaica and Barbados in a way that hadn’t really been considered before. The coach did add however, that online learning had to be used intelligently as not every player or coach responded in the same way.

As a player, Caram said that online conversations and sessions with her coach and team mates had allowed the squad to develop other skills and behaviors that simply were overlooked in the normal course of training.

“When you have a two-hour training session on the pitch, it is all about the hockey skills,” said Caram. “During the pandemic, we were able to think about a lot of other things around the game and, I think that has made us better for it.”

Parnham said that the advent of increased online learning would enable a blended learning approach of online and face-to-face sessions, which was hugely exciting for the game. He also added that USAFH would be happy to share learning with other national associations via online webinars and workshops.

As she wrapped up the discussion, Mary Cicinelli said that the webinar had unearthed a lot of thinking and ideas that all the PAHF nations could tap into. And, she added, much of the debate and discussion had also highlighted a surprising amount of homogeny across nations, in both outlook and aspirations, when it comes to the important issue of gender equality.