Women in Coaching

A small group of female coaches are starting to make their mark on the sport in New Zealand. We chat to a trio of emerging coaches to find out more of their journey and why they would encourage other women to make the same step.

Tilly Pritchard

Tilly Pritchard has never been one to let the grass grow  under her feet. Starting out as a paddler at the age of ten, she made her international debut aged 14 and just one year later the naturally “inquisitive” Tilly took the plunge into coaching.

Motivated to share her experiences and knowledge she began her coaching journey assisting Paul and Dayle MacKenzie at the Arawa Club in Christchurch.

Tilly, who last year competed for New Zealand at the World Junior Championships, continues to paddle, although the talented teenage performer admits the role of coach is quite different to that of an athlete.

“As a paddler you learn a lot about your own head space, how to paddle and how you deal with pressure,” explains Tilly, 18. “When you begin coaching you have to relate those experiences to a diverse range of paddlers and personas. Every paddler is different so you must first get to know them, find out what makes them tick and then experiment and try out different strategies to help them on their journey.

“This is challenging because I’ve worked with a range of paddlers, many younger than me. Each of them have different levels of understanding and different values, so you have to pay extra attention to how you relate and explain to match their level of knowledge, and also in a way that appeals to them.”

A key strand to Tilly’s coaching philosophy is to emphasise the importance of “process thinking rather than outcome thinking” to the athletes she coaches. She preaches the importance of paddling for fun and also encourages the athletes she coaches to pursue other sports and hobbies besides kayaking.

“Research supports that it is beneficial for younger athletes to be exposed to a variety of non-competitive sports/activities to ensure longevity in sport,” she explains. “You need to remember the vast majority of athletes you come across won’t become professional athletes. So the skills you equip them with should be skills that are transferrable and are going to help them in everyday life.”

Tilly loves to share her knowledge and experiences as a coach and enjoys helping an athlete reach a long-term technical goal or equipping a paddler with the skills to serenely cope with the “mental chaos” of competing at nationals and to have fun.

Focused on university life at the moment she is prepared to put her longer term coaching ambition on hold until graduating but she would definitely encourage other female paddlers to step into the coaching realm.

“Women generally have high levels of empathy and can be great critical thinkers,” adds Tilly. “These qualities, being good at problem solving and also being very considerate and understanding, make them a great addition to a technically advanced sport like canoe sprint. 

“Women have strong intuition when it comes to understanding a developing female athlete, especially through adolescence. This can add an extra layer of understanding in a coach to a female athletes relationships, forming a strong bond.”

Emily Willock

A call out of the blue from Alan and Liz Thompson to coach at the Poverty Bay Kayak Club last October acted as the unexpected spur Emily Willock needed to move into coaching.

Emily, now aged 33, had enjoyed a proud record as a paddler, competing at the World Junior Championships and at the World Marathon Racing Championships but quit the sport ten years ago.

However, Emily says the call from Alan and Liz proved irresistible. 

“Alan and Liz said they wanted me to lend a hand and support their crew of young up and coming kids,” explains Emily.

“I’m a school teacher and I’d done quite a bit of coaching through this role, particularly with hockey. It took a bit of time to consider because I knew the extra role would require  a lot of my time but I know Alan and Liz had done such an excellent job at the kayak club, so I decided to take up their offer.”

Focused on coaching the development squad and kids aged 14 to 18, Emily started working with the group at the beginning of the year in preparation for the 2020 NZCT New Zealand Championships.

Coaching the group six days a week, Emily has been a steep learning curve in her coaching role.

“The main challenge has been getting to know the paddlers and what makes them tick,” she explains. “It has also taken time to set up the group structure to best set the paddlers up for success.” 

Drawing upon Liz and Alan Thompson’s “wealth of knowledge” to improve her coaching skills and also receiving welcome advice and assistance from CRNZ Development Coach Craig Mustard she is not short of options to further her coaching education.

So has she adopted a particularly coaching philosophy?

“I go with a similar mentality to when I’m teaching; I am available to help you achieve your goals,” she explains. “As an athlete you have to want to be there. Kayaking is a hard slog of paddling many kilometres. It requires a tough mindset. I’m there as the facilitator to help best set the paddler up for their own version of success.”

Emily does not have any clear long-term coaching ambitions but she would encourage others to take the same step.

“The sport needs as many paddlers as possible and giving back is the only way that the sport will continue to grow,” she adds. 

Danika Mowlem

For Takapuna Boating Club event manager Danika Mowlem – the decision to start a paddling academy for youngsters prompted her move into surf ski coaching.

Danika, a long-time sailing coach, ventured into surf ski paddling several years ago. Fuelled with an enthusiasm to help the sport grow she was more than happy to step into the role and help out with coaching.

“I love teaching the younger kids how to learn to sail and it is similar with the surf ski paddling,” explains Danika. “You will often see the kids struggle at first but then you start to see it click, it is such a buzz.”

Danika emphasises she is no surf ski paddling coaching expert but she is enjoying the experience of making the sessions fun for the kids.

However, dealing with novice surf ski paddlers has presented its challenges and forced her to be adaptable.

“Some kids like to like to go fast while others just want to meander around chatting to their mates,” she explains. “It is important to keep the kids happy because sometimes after ten minutes some are complaining their arms are sore. But it is really important to remember to keep them enjoying what they are doing rather than enforcing military-style training.” 

Danika, who has re-start the academy now that New Zealand is at an alert level one, says she would not hesitate recommending other women follow her lead and start coaching.

“If you want to get more girls paddling having more female paddling coaches is a good starting point,” she adds. “I think girls maybe respond a little better to a maternal approach. Sometimes you are pushing the paddlers into demanding situations and perhaps a comforting approach works better.”

For the future, Danika hopes the academy will grow and more youngsters will be attracted to the sport of surf ski. 

However what is it that Danika most enjoys about her coaching role?

“When the kids starting getting to know the boat and their confidence starts to rise is lovely,” she adds. “I had one of the parent’s say this was the best activity that their children had done, which was cool and very rewarding.”