Ireland Under-17s coach CHELSEA NOONAN on overcoming her doubts and the Covid-19 pandemic to obtain the Uefa A licence - plus advice for fellow coaches MORE
Mom’s the word
Yolanda Thomas – head coach of Tulsa Soccer Club and director of coaching for its girls program – has spotted a trend that needs addressing.
“We all know we need more women coaching,” she notes. “But if we’re going to have more women coaching, inevitably we’re going to end up with more mothers.
“If we want these women to keep coaching, how can we support them?”
Part of the solution is the Moms Who Coach initiative, a United Soccer Coaches (USC) group set up earlier this year that Thomas co-chairs.
“I was involved in the [USC] women’s group and the black soccer coaches group, and there were some women who said they needed support as moms.” she told Women’s Soccer Coaching.
“It’s something I’ve really struggled with and I could have used more support. Now I’m in a position where I have some experience and can support others. But I still need support as I continue.”
What Thomas is continuing is a career in soccer that spans over two decades. Originally from Sweden, she played in the domestic Damallsvenskan for seven seasons and represented Sweden at youth level up to under-21s, before moving to the US to spend four years at Oklahoma State University.
A planned return to Sweden with Linköpings was curtailed by a back injury. It was at that point Thomas made the decision to go into coaching permanently.
“As women, there’s this unspoken pressure to do everything right…”
She has now coached at almost every level, from developing the motor skills of two-year-olds to leading Tulsa’s Women’s Premier Soccer League team.
And, of course, Thomas is also a mother. Daughter Sasja is eight, son Solomon five, and the latest addition to the family, Shiloh, is just a few months old.
So when Thomas speaks about offering and needing support, it’s in balancing those two roles: coach and mother.
She said: “I think as women there’s this unspoken pressure to do everything right.
“There is pressure to be a certain way and to be there for your children physically all the time, in a way that is not expected of men.
“When you’re missing, you’re looked upon as weak because you’re nurturing, not just in soccer but in the professional world in general. I see that as a huge strength, as a coach and a leader in particular.
“It’s a tough struggle. Sometimes you’re trying to portray a strong front, walking into a room and having to argue your cause with 20 men, but then you’ve got to flip to be this nurturing mom. That can be a strain.
“There’s also the guilt that inevitably happens when you miss your kid’s game, or their social function at school. It’s a struggle trying to be everywhere at all times.
“The other major struggle is just not having support, and having to function in a world that wasn’t designed for you to succeed.
“It’s run by men who think like men all the time. They aren’t thinking about the things that women deal with.”
‘REMEMBER WHY YOU DO WHAT YOU DO AND DON’T BE AFRAID OF SUPPORT’ – YOLANDA’S ADVICE FOR MOTHERS WHO COACH
“To the women out there who may be thinking about having kids or have had kids, always remember why you do what you do.
“You’re going to deal with people who don’t want to support you, be it employers, friends or family. Don’t let anyone tell you what to do.
“You’ll have moments where it’s tough. You’ll have moments where you haven’t slept all night and you’re still having to run a session or you’re trying to pump and you’re leaking.
“Remembering why you do what you do is the thing that is going to help you get through the tough moments.
“The other thing I would recommend is seeking out other women who have gone through it. Don’t be afraid to ask or send a DM or a message. We’re out here and we’re here to support you, so seek out some advice and some counsel.
“No one does it alone. I couldn’t have done it alone. I happen to have an extremely supportive husband but I also have family members and friends who support me.
“Inevitably there are those schedule jams that you just can’t sort out. You’re going to need help.”
One thing the co-chair of the Moms Who Coach group, Amanda Evans, had to deal with was being told that if she was going to coach she shouldn’t have kids – or if she was going to have kids, she shouldn’t coach.
Thomas and Evans – who is head coach at Mary Baldwin University – are setting out to tackle some of these challenges facing mothers in the game with a two-pronged approach.
The first prong is support. “On a completely personal level, it’s just talking,” Thomas said.
“I’ve been through it: I was pregnant, I had the baby, I was nursing. Having conversations one-on-one with other women who have gone through it and supporting each other on a very individual level is one aspect of it.
“Regardless of what positions they’re working in, a lot of times women are a minority; they’re working around a lot of men. It can get really lonely with the things that you go through that are unique to you as a woman. Motherhood is one of those things.
“We’re creating a network of people who have faced, or are facing, similar situations so we can support one another. Really simple networking, connecting people with like- minded people.”
The second prong is advocacy: “We’ve got a huge country with different states and different laws. We’re not quite as far ahead with labor laws as they are in Europe,” Thomas said of the US.
“The support for workers who are women, workers who are nursing, workers who need childcare, isn’t quite where it needs to be. That’s where the real advocacy happens.
“The work is still in its infancy right now, but one of the things we’ve done is connect mothers who are at the same level of coaching and ask how we can help them advocate for one another.
“An example would be: in your contract, what does it say about needing childcare when you’re travelling? Are your kids allowed on campus when you’re a college coach? Are they allowed to travel on the bus with the team?”
For Thomas, what she’s advocating for is long overdue.
“Representation matters – hopefully it can inspire some to go into coaching…”
She said: “Change is slow. In my personal experience I don’t think I’ve seen a lot of change in terms of actual policy. But what I have seen is a change in attitude. I think that’s a reflection of society at large.
“Women are not backing down. There are enough of us together who are standing our ground – we belong and we’re here to stay.
“I think the difference now compared to previously is that women who were standing their ground weren’t necessarily aware of as many women who were doing it.
“When you feel like you’re doing it on your own you’re less successful. Now I think we’re mobilized.
“The world is smaller by virtue of technology and social media so we can all see what others are doing and be encouraged and support one another.
“And now these young women that I coach, they’re growing up seeing me. I didn’t grow up seeing that to the same extent. I think representation matters – it normalizes it for them and hopefully can inspire some of them to go into coaching in the future.”
Thomas is conscious of presenting her authentic self, and a well-rounded illustration of her life, to her players.
‘IF YOUR BOARD MEMBERS WERE MOTHERS, THEY WOULD BE THINKING ABOUT WHAT TO DO WHEN SOMEONE GOES ON MATERNITY LEAVE’
“I’ve heard of a lot of women around the US who have chosen not to have children because they were afraid they wouldn’t have their career path.
“A lot who may be coaching already are afraid to have a kid because they want to take a little bit of time off and they’re afraid they’re going to get fired.
“I’ve heard a lot of men who have told women not to have a kid as they’re not going to be able to get back into it. They tell you take the bare minimum off if you have one.
“[When women go on maternity leave] there’s a void that is left. In Sweden, where I grew up, a lot of the time employers will hire someone temporarily for the time that you’re out.
“That isn’t a practice that is common in the US. When you’re gone and they hire someone they basically take your spot – you don’t necessarily have that job security of maintaining your job.
“In my experience, with my son, I had a ton of support so it was pretty easy stepping back into it. I just kind of picked up where I left off.
“When I had my daughter three months ago, my employer was very supportive of giving me the time off.
“I do think it was a bit of a challenge for my organization, me being gone. That’s something that a lot of organizations are not prepared for because they don’t have women in power who are thinking about these things.
“If you had three board members that were women who had children, they’d be thinking about what to do when someone goes on maternity leave.”
She describes a time when her players went to get water from her cooler and found her breast milk in there.
“They need to see that there,” Thomas insisted. “Many of them are going to be in that position, they’re going to have kids and probably going to nurse.
“I think my presence is kind of pulling down stereotypes a little bit and normalizing things that really are normal and should be normal, but aren’t talked about.
“We don’t have to whisper about breast milk – it’s natural. We can talk about it.
“I can talk about my kid without appearing as though I’m the mother who can’t stand being away and I shouldn’t be coaching.
“You can change the perception of what you can and should do as a mother and also show that it’s okay to be a little bit vulnerable and still do your job.”
Thomas refers to her players, too, as her ‘kids’, and can see the synergies between raising her children and coaching her team.
She said: “You become a parent, you view life slightly differently. There is a nurturing side of you that maybe doesn’t get as much practice until you become a mother.
“That has absolutely made me a better coach. I think I have a better awareness of my players’ disposition, of what they might be going through off the field and of what’s happening in their minds which ultimately affects their performance on the field.
“Having that understanding helps you also connect with the person better.
“We like to say we coach football or soccer, but really we’re coaching people. So if I have a better understanding of the people that I’m trying to teach something, I’ll probably end up being more successful.
“When you’re working in the youth game you also understand the parents. Since being a head coach in college, and even more since moving into the club world and dealing with youth players, the mothers of my players have become a huge support.
“A lot of times it has nothing to do with their child’s soccer development, but has everything to do with their young girl’s development to become a young woman.”
So how can organisations better support mothers in coaching positions to make sure we give these young girls the role models they deserve? Thomas has some clear advice.
“Think about what value mothers could add to your organization,” she said. “Think about the value that women, period, could add to your organisation and keep that at the forefront.
“When organisations hire men they don’t ask whether having children is going to inhibit him from doing his job. Stop asking women that question.
“And speak with a trusted woman in your organisation and consult them about how you can best support them in their needs.”
Yolanda Thomas has spoken. A lot of places would be wise to listen
“As coaches, we have a desire to fix everything. It’s not realistic. As a mother, I focus on what’s most important and move on…”
HEAR MORE FROM YOLANDA, INCLUDING HOW MOTHERHOOD HAS CHANGED HER APPROACH TO COACHING, ON OUR PODCAST — CLICK HERE TO DOWNLOAD IT