Women Off The Water


2016 was a huge year for GB Rowing in terms of performance. The first Olympic Games since hosting in London would surely see a drop in funding for those that didn’t perform to the levels of their host Games whilst the international rowers of the future descended on Rotterdam, host of the Junior, Under 23 and World Championships.


The results from these regattas suggest the current GB Rowing Team is strong and the future is looking promising, with medals won on both the men and women’s side in Rio and Rotterdam. On the coaching side however, there is quite a different story emerging.


Of the thirty-four coaches that represented GB Rowing, three were women.



2016 Event Women Coaches Total Coaches
Olympic Games 0 12
Senior Worlds 1 (Gold Medal in W4-) 4
Under 23 Worlds 2 (Silver Medal in W8+, 4th in W4-) 13
Junior Worlds 0 9


Why does this concern me personally? Well two reasons.


The first reason is that an increase in opportunity for women coaches at the highest level is the right thing to do. The development of women and their role both in and out of the boat has developed at great pace, especially in recent years. FISA have been discussing the possibility of introducing another women’s event to the Olympic roster. The next stage of an exciting evolution is to develop women coaches to do a role some of the coaches currently have the skill set for, but just haven’t been given the opportunity to do in recent years.


The second reason this is important to me is because I have spent most of my coaching career working with junior girls. It is with great personal pride that some of these juniors have continued in the sport and are now coaching. I am currently working in a mentoring role with two female coaches to support their ambitions and development in addition to helping them avoid the numerous mistakes I have made in my career.


Wouldn’t it be great if they had coaching role models they could look up to like many of our athletes do? The girls I coach spoke with great enthusiasm of what they had seen from Rio. In particular they spoke about the three women’s crews who returned from Rio with Olympic medals. The coaches I work with don’t have these role models. In fact the last women coach to represent GB Rowing at an Olympic Games was in Sydney in 2000. That’s 16 years ago.


The above table doesn’t suggest this is going to change unless the coaches that were in attendance in Rotterdam and others are identified, developed and supported to a role within the Olympic coaching team in time for Tokyo, 2020. How do I support/advise/mentor these coaches on a career path that leads to high performance? It is unacceptable that this path is not more regularly trodden.


So now the problem has been identified what are the possible solutions?


Well one solution could be a sort of ‘fast-track’ system for women who have expressed interest in performance coaching. The GB Rowing Team could work to develop them at junior & U23 level before feeding them through to coaching at Tokyo and beyond. This will require support, patience and funding but frankly we fund athletes and coaches who don’t necessarily make it so I assume there is some money to support these coaches too.


A second solution is to recruit worldwide. It would be excellent if the coaches could be British but GB Rowing haven’t been shy in recruiting the best coaches in world rowing, regardless of nationality, so could hire women coaches from around the world. I can’t believe there aren’t female coaches in world rowing that wouldn’t develop and offer a lot to our teams.


A third solution could be GB Rowing ‘loaning’ out some of the coaches they develop. By sending coaches to a developing nation within World Rowing surely the experience they receive and results they accrue can give GB Rowing a guide as to whether they have the ability to coach at a level they deem acceptable? Some will suggest moving coaches abroad isn’t ideal for their personal lives. This is obviously a huge sacrifice but GB Rowing currently spend around six months a year out of the country on camps anyway.


I am aware I don’t have all the answers or solutions to this problem. In fact I am sure not many are aware that there is even a problem. I hope this article acts as a way of making people think about how our great sport can further develop and improve in the future. Currently, what is happening is completely unacceptable and the time for evolution has come. Women raced the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow over 1000m because they were deemed to not be athletically capable of matching the 2000m distance the men raced over. Gender equality in rowing has been high on the agenda with matched number of athletes for each gender racing in Tokyo 2020. The next stage of gender equality is to support women coaches to coach at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games and beyond.


The next generation of women coaches needs their own role models. When any opportunity comes to share their story, develop a pathway for future women coaches or work together to talk about their experiences, this opportunity must be taken.


To be clear this isn’t charity. Numerous female coaches have demonstrated they have the results, the ability and the knowledge to perform at the highest level of coaching. The gender of coaches in the table above also distinguishes any nonsense about positive discrimination. We have coaches winning medals on world stages, now is the time to give them the same chance afforded to male coaches.


Rowing isn’t alone in being under-represented by women coaches at elite level. It is a problem for many sports across the country, with UK Sport directing education and funding to develop female coaches in future and to research the current barriers to women coaching at the highest level. The lack of female representation is also not just a problem for GB Rowing. Nations across the world are under-represented by female coaches at the highest level. However, this is a wider issue.


The issue addressed here is that GB Rowing can do something about it. Be world leading in their thinking of developing elite level female coaches for Tokyo 2020 and beyond. For many years GB Rowing has lead the way on the water by being the most successful rowing nation in the world. The time has come for GB Rowing to lead the way off the water too.


Thank you for taking the time to read this article. Please comment below, share the article and let’s start a conversation about an important issue.


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  • Eira Parry

    Great article Tristan, it is such an important issue and one that will take some turning around. When I was coaching for GB Rowing there were two main problems that I came up against in fulfilling my ambition to coach at an Olympic Games.

    The first was that having few female coaches and lots of male coaches became a catch 22 situation. Many athletes subconscious image of a ‘good coach’ was male. Many athletes that I worked with had never been coached by a female before, and some had there own preconceived ideas about the role of a female in life, in work and in sport. You only have to look at programmes like ‘A Question of Sport’ where the panels are often all male, but never all female to understand where this idea comes from. We are bombarded with images, stories and ideas in the media that do not present women as equal in sport and in society, and we are presented with so many more images and stories about men engaging in sport and in sport leadership roles. (Current figures – 7% of media coverage of sport is of women’s sport) The result is that many athletes, un-knowingly, are conditioned to respond better to and to respect a male in a leadership role more than a female. I had real problems with credibility, and I was constantly asking myself ‘What am I doing wrong?’, ‘How can I do better?’. Of course we can all improve ourselves in some way, but I was getting good results, as good as many of the male coaches, I was learning and developing my skills, but the very thing I really wanted to change, my gravitas and presence, I now see was coming from the outside and would have been very difficult for me to change on my own.

    The second problem I had when coaching at the National Team training centre, was that however hard I tried, it felt like a hostile environment. Having worked in all female work places and mostly male workplaces, I know there is a difference, and I just felt like a square peg in a round hole when I was in this male dominated environment. Ironically, considering it is the training centre of the absolute creme de la creme of British (and World) Rowing, I think I did some of my worst coaching there. I felt intimidated, self conscious, unsupported and ultimately demotivated. I’m sure some of this is about my own characteristics as a person, not as a woman, and I hope very much that there are female coaches out there that will thrive in the environment. But it wasn’t all about me, I worked with other female coaches who found it similarly difficult and isolating.

    I will be forever grateful for the experiences and opportunities that British Rowing gave me, I had an amazing decade working in the most successful rowing set up in the world. And I have faith that British Rowing is looking outward and inward and assessing how they can be world leaders in addressing gender parity in the work place, as well as world leaders on the water.