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In this photo, provided by the Buffalo Bills, assistant football coach Kathryn Smith poses, Thursday, Jan. 21, 2016, in Orchard Park, N.Y. Smith is the first, full time, female assistant coach in the National Football League. As gender barriers are starting to fall in the pro coaching ranks, some in the Canadian sport community say there is a bigger issue at play - getting women to consider coaching at all.

Anna Stolzenberg/The Canadian Press

As gender barriers are starting to fall in the pro coaching ranks, some in the Canadian sport community say there is a bigger issue at play — getting women to consider coaching at all.

"The go-to answer is the environment is not welcoming and it's pretty lonely," said Coaching Association of Canada chief executive officer Lorraine Lafreniere.

"I think until we tackle getting an equitable amount of women's coaches coaching women's teams, that's the starting point as far as I'm concerned ... to me that's the biggest challenge," she added.

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The NFL now has its first full-time female coach after Kathryn Smith was promoted by the Buffalo Bills this week to take over as special teams quality control coach on Rex Ryan's staff. A number of women have worked in front-office positions but female coaching hires have been quite rare in North American men's professional sport.

Brock University assistant athletic director Chris Critelli, who previously served as a women's basketball coach at the St. Catharines, Ont., school, said there is cause for optimism when it comes to women's coaching, but there is much more to be done.

"I see it in the boardroom, I see it on the playing fields, that it is changing," she said. "But women also have to put themselves out there. We have to get more women into coaching, they have to want to coach, there's not enough of us that really want to dedicate our lives — like the men do — to coaching. It's just not ingrained yet."

The coaching lifestyle can be challenging regardless of gender. The workdays are long, it can be tough on family life, the travel can be a grind and getting started at lower levels often means a commensurate salary.

There are many female assistants at the Canadian Intrauniversity Sport level in a variety of sports. But only a handful have served as head coaches and even fewer have coached men's teams.

Longtime Queen's University men's volleyball coach Brenda Willis recalled that when her school was looking for a women's volleyball head coach two years ago, there were a lot of applications for the posting but only five per cent were from women.

"I think most women have put a limitation on their options, just not considering (coaching) as a viable path, mostly because of a lack of role models and a lack of opportunities."

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She added that the creation of more mentorship programs and national women's coaching schools would help increase the pool of women who could take it to a higher level.

On the professional side, former WNBA player Becky Hammon was hired by the San Antonio Spurs in 2014 to join coach Gregg Popovich's staff, making her the NBA's first full-time paid female assistant coach. Last month, Major League Baseball's Seattle Mariners hired Amanda Hopkins as an area scout.

Smith, meanwhile, spent this past season as an administrative assistant for the Bills' assistant coaches before getting a promotion.

"I think in today's world the standards or norms are forever changing," said Wally Buono, head coach and general manager of the Canadian Football League's B.C. Lions. "The barrier was going to break, most barriers have been broken in sports and obviously this is just another barrier.

"First of all, you're not just doing this if that person isn't qualified to do the function. The NFL doesn't need or I'm not sure football needs to have a little bit of glitz and glamour. It's at a point today where there's too much at stake, too much attention is brought to things if you're not doing it for the right reasons."

Smith has worked with Ryan for several years — she was the New York Jets' player personnel assistant when Ryan took over as coach there in 2009.

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"It's growing and I'm delighted that a professional team in the quintessential masculine sport — football — has done this and I think it will gradually spread the message," said former Canadian track star Bruce Kidd, now a kinesiology and physical education professor at the University of Toronto Scarborough.

Basketball coach Olga Hrycak had a decade-long run as coach of the men's basketball team at the University of Quebec at Montreal before retiring last year. She spent nearly 50 years coaching women and men at virtually every level, and feels we will one day see a female coach at the NBA level.

"It's happening slower than I thought," she said. "But based on ability, performance, outcome, there's no reason why women cannot coach at that level, so it's going to happen."

Willis feels it can take longer for women's coaches to establish themselves. Once they do, however, the sky's the limit.

"I would like to say it's an obvious evolution," she said. "Women are running for president. All of those things, I think the ceiling is unlimited. I think it's what ceiling we put on ourselves and also the developmental opportunities that are made available to us."

— With files from The Associated Press and Canadian Press sports reporter Dan Ralph.

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