Jessica Zelinka was among the finest female athletes on the planet in the heptathlon, an event that requires excellence across seven different running, jumping and throwing disciplines.
Yet, when the head track-and-field coach position opened up at the University of Calgary, Zelinka wondered whether she was qualified.
She reached out to Penny Werthner, a renowned sports psychologist and the dean of kinesiology at the U of C.
“Penny is a big advocate of female coaches. Our initial discussion before I even decided I was going to apply, was ‘I don’t know if I have the credentials, I have my master’s, but I only have five years coaching [experience],’ ” said Zelinka, who has a master’s degree in management innovation and entrepreneurship from Queen’s University.
“Penny said ‘Women downplay their credentials so much. If you were a man in this position, you would be like, ‘I’m the one for the job.’ I thought that’s true. I know I can do this. Why am I downplaying myself? I’m asking her if I should apply instead of just applying, and she said a man would never do that.”
Hesitation about qualification is one of several issues that keep women from coaching. And the lack of female coaches is evident in grassroots sports right up to the international level.
While Canadian women have dominated the Olympic medal podium, that’s not reflected in coaching. Canadian women won 18 of Canada’s 24 medals at the Tokyo Olympics, but of the 131 Canadian coaches in Tokyo, approximately 18 per cent were women. That percentage was down from the 20 per cent at the Rio Olympics five years earlier.
To help give Canadian female coaches a leg up, Commonwealth Games Canada recently announced its six mentee coaches for this year’s Women Coach Intern Program (WCIP).
The group includes Zelinka, who was named the U of C’s head coach in August after a track-and-field career that included sixth- and seventh-place finishes from the 2012 London Olympics, and two-time world mountain bike champion Catharine Pendrel, an Olympic bronze medalist.
Rounding out the group are boxing’s Erin MacGregor, swim coach Sierra Moores, Giselle Delgado in squash, and triathlon coach Lisa Mensink.
This is the second class of interns, who were nominated by their national sport organizations.
The program is a spin-off from the international Commonwealth internship program that began at the 2018 Games in Gold Coast, Australia, and saw 20 women coaches from 12 countries and 11 sports paired with expert mentors and embedded in their national teams.
Brian MacPherson, the CEO of Commonwealth Sport Canada, had the idea to develop a similar program in Canada. Sheilagh Croxon, who led the Coaching Association of Canada’s Women in Coaching program, is the program lead.
“From a young age, if you’re a female athlete, and you’re coming up through the system, and all you see is male coaches at the highest level, you don’t even entertain the thought that it’s possible that you could coach,” Croxon said. “So, we really have to make some interventions if we’re going to change the picture, right? And a picture speaks a thousand words. Change those images that we’re imprinting on young girls.”
Pendrel, a 41-year-old from Fredericton, recently retired after a prolific career that included two world titles and bronze at the 2016 Rio Olympics. Cycling Canada named her a national team coach last month.
Zelinka and Pendrel aren’t new to coaching. Zelinka took up coaching soon after her bid to make the 2016 Olympic team fell short. Pendrel has had her own three-rider team, Pendrel Racing Development, since 2017.
Sport needs more female coaches, Pendrel said, because “you need to have leaders by example out there.
“You need to see that, ‘oh, coaching is a professional option for me,’” she said. “And once you see that that’s a possibility, then it can steer more people toward it. I think men and women can have different leadership qualities, and both are really huge assets in a sport environment.”
Pendrel also talked about the hesitation female coaches face.
“You have that where it’s like, ‘will males listen to me as a female coach?’ ” she said. “I don’t think males ask that question: ‘Oh, will a female listen to me, as a male coach?’ Of course, a coach is a coach, and if you’re a good coach, athletes will listen to you and trust you.”
The WCIP includes six Zoom information sessions. The interns will complete a Myers-Briggs personality assessment to help optimize coaching relationships based on personality types.
It’s still to be determined whether the interns will coach at this summer’s Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, England – COVID-19 could restrict the number of coaches able to travel.
But the WCIP does include funding for international travel, which is key to coaching development.
“To get to a higher level coaching, experience on your résumé is really, really important,” she said. “When you get into that situation where you’re going for a job, people can’t say you don’t have the experience, right, so we’ve got to find ways to give the experience so that barrier can be broken down.”
Both Zelinka and Pendrel said they get the same sense of satisfaction – or more – as coaches than they did as athletes.
Zelinka talked about teaching athletes what she’s learned about trusting the process.
“Most younger athletes haven’t experienced that for themselves yet,” said Zelinka, whose 12-year-old daughter Anika plays water polo, following in the footsteps of her Olympian dad, Nathaniel Miller. “So, to be able to hold that space for them to kind of figure that out along the way and just kind of being that stable rock for them, knowing that I don’t really care if they do bad or good in the moment or on a certain day and we all have that, and you’ll have the ebbs and flows to be able to get to those peaks.”
Pendrel has long been about propping up the younger generation of riders, and has put her money where her mouth is. She’s declined her Athlete Assistance Program – or “carding” – funding for several years, believing it could be better used by a younger athlete. She’s passed up about $100,000 in funding.
She likes the idea of being a positive influence, like the people who “made such a huge difference” in her career.
“The idea that you can make a big difference in somebody else’s life is really exciting,” she said. “Most athletes won’t make it to the top, but the athlete may become super influential at [something else].
“So being able to support a whole breadth of people … bringing more good people into the sport and having a positive impact, and getting more kids out riding, that’s exciting to me – to have more impact in my career than just the results I’ve been able to achieve.”