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AFL’s Jan Cooper- Female Football Development Manager

  • Wednesday, June 22 2011 @ 03:04 pm ACST
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General News

Jan Cooper may have what is arguably the most difficult job in football - as the AFL’s Female Football Development Manager. Recently the AFL has made a huge push for female football development in its bid to bring a Women’s Football League to Australian televisions by 2020 and Jan Cooper is at the front of this charge.

She is responsible for taking the sport from its traditional roots as a “boys only” game and developing it into something attractive to women, whilst overcoming not only the stigma attached to women in sports, but a lot of opposition from the football conservatives.

The AFL has been a male dominated environment for over 150 years, and though women have always been involved, they have typically been resigned to particular roles. Jan’s main challenge is converting the mindset of some in the industry to understand that women do want to coach, umpire and play football, and not just continue in the traditional roles in kiosks or as trainers. This “self-invitation”, she says, has not been easy for some to get their heads around.

She also has a major challenge in redirecting the main flow of funding from the AFL’s next big idea, back to grassroots developments such as female football. But she understands that the lack of encouragement of female fans and access to adequate resources and new competitions for female players is actually hurting the development of the next generation of juniors - research suggests that mums have a huge influence in the sports their kids play, so by denying women access to football, they are actually discouraging the next generations of boys and girls from taking up the sport.

Jan has also had a key role in increasing the media coverage of female football, but she recognises the challenge of taking on the male dominated media industry. Unlike in football, there are no female executives in the television industry- no female voices making decisions about what sports to broadcast, so inevitably women’s sports get second place. The male executives are just not convinced of the commercial value of women’s football, and female TV viewers who accept this as normal and make no effort to tune in to female sport, are partly to blame for this.

But despite the difficulties these challenges present, Jan has been very successful at her job, with women’s football reaching greater heights than ever. This year, all states competed in the AFL Women’s National Championships, a competition which has allowed women’s leagues to increase player numbers, and helped improve the level of professionalism in women’s football. The competition was held in Adelaide and was split into 2 divisions to accommodate the difference in levels between traditional football states like Victoria, and those new to women's football, such as Tasmania. There are even medals, similar to those in men’s competitions, but named after prominent female footballers, such as the Debbie Lee medal for best and fairest. Debbie Lee is now the president of the VWFL.

She has also been key in providing greater integration of the industry by insuring football advocates have portfolios with strategic plans and budget catering for both males and females. Along with her quest to ensure females receive similar funding to males, this movement is now gaining momentum.

Though she must be happy with these achievements, Jan says the most enjoyable aspect of her job is of course the football. For her, there is the opportunity like no other to meet others passionate about the game and to be inspired by the innovative ideas and dynamics of people within the industry. But she also enjoys seeing new viewers blown away by the skills of female footballers, and being able to support other up and coming women who seek employment in the football industry through mentoring.

Though a little publicity shy, Jan agreed to let us take a look at the women behind the AFL’s top Female Football manager. She was born into a family with a rich football background and grew up watching and talking football. Growing up, she dreamed of being a coach and had experience as a trainer, but outside the city she found it difficult to break beyond the traditional women’s roles at her local footy club.

However, later she was approached by the Western Australian Football Commission because of her successful idea of using football as vehicle for improving primary school literacy rates. At the time her husband also worked for the WAFC and the managers understood her passion for football. So for a while she was their Female Football Development Manager, working 2 days a week presenting teacher PD to ADL School Ambassadors. Later, she was invited to work for the AFL, and did both jobs part time, before she was asked to work full time as the AFL’s Female Football Development Manager, of which she is now in her second year.

When she left the WAFC to join the AFL, Jan’s main objectives were to create a more comprehensive player pathway for 13 to 18 year old girls, look into the feasibility of an under 19’s competition and take the necessary steps to creating a nationwide competition which would have a big enough following to enable television coverage of the games.

Today, Youth Girls competitions in the football heartlands of Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia aren’t just a feasibility study - they’re an everyday part of life for girls who play football. Their brothers play for the Juniors, and they play for the Youth Girls. Girls play football at school, and you’ll even see them alongside the boys playing Auskick at the MCG. There’s Youth Girls and even a schoolgirls National Championships. And for girls who show particular talent, there is the AFL Women’s High Performance Academy run at the MCG. Morover, many states, leagues and even some AFL clubs, have copied this move and now have their own similar women’s or girls’ academies.

But Jan’s passion doesn’t just stop at female footballers - she also wants to see more women in administrative and even executive roles in AFL clubs, and believes it’s feasible for female umpires and even coaches to break through to the top level and show their skills in the AFL. To assist in this, she has helped modify coaching courses to make them more appropriate for female coaches and coaches of women’s and girls’ teams.

And even in the states where football traditionally hasn’t been so popular, Jan’s push to develop women’s football is in full flower: It is in the rugby league heartlands of New South Wales and Queensland where women’s football is surprisingly finding its feet. Sydney Women’s AFL is now one of the biggest leagues in the country, and the state team has been promoted to Division 1 for 2012, after winning the 2011 Division 2 title at the Women’s Nationals.

Meanwhile, Queensland has three leagues, in Brisbane, Cairns and Capricornia. Queensland’s state team, the Sunfire, survived to play again next year in Division 1 at the expense of South Australia. There are also two Youth Girls competitions for under 18’s and under 15’s. Elsewhere, Northern Territory now has a new Youth Girls competition, whilst in Tasmania, women’s football has grown from a single club to 6 clubs.

In fact, around Australia there has been such a huge increase in the numbers of women and girls playing footy that ABC even covered it. Click here to see what they found out about women in football, courtesy of Jan Cooper and the Claremont Piranhas.