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Three countries, two continents, one coach
Starting a new job can often be a daunting prospect – but doing so in a foreign country is even more challenging.
Then when you take into account being a lone female abroad, in an entirely different culture and with language barriers, that challenge only intensifies.
UEFA B coach Emma Hankins is only 31, but already has 18 years of coaching experience under her belt – the majority being outside her native England, in the US, Indonesia and Malaysia.
She tells Women’s Soccer Coaching about her experiences and how working in three different countries has shaped her as a coach and a person…
WSC: Give us a brief overview of your coaching background…
EH: “I started by helping one of my coaches with an after-school club when I was 13. I fell in love with coaching and when someone told me I could get paid to coach it blew my mind!
“I passed my driving test as soon as I could [aged 17 in England] so I could leave my job at [retail store] Next and start a paid coaching job. I never looked back.
“At university, I studied sport psychology and coaching sciences, while I was coaching at the Dorset Centre of Excellence. I then spent around nine years coaching in the US, and I was lucky enough to be able to come home to get my UEFA B.
“I’ve since set up a football program in a village in Indonesia and now I’m coaching full-time for FC Kuala Lumpur.”
WSC: What inspired you to coach abroad?
EH: “When I was studying in college, a couple of teachers planted the seed of coaching in the US in my head and it quickly became a dream.
“I chose my university specifically because it included a placement year where I could go and coach abroad, and through university I spent every summer coaching at a camp in America.”
WSC: What challenges did you face as a lone female coaching abroad?
EH: “I think being a female coach always leaves you open to being overlooked and underestimated.
“This definitely affected me when I was younger and just starting out, but now I’m older, more experienced and confident it just drives me to prove myself and show that we can be just as good if not better.
“In Malaysia, I’ve had a few people laugh when I tell them I’m a football coach…”
“Being a female coach in the US is really celebrated, with the women’s game being so big there. A lot of parents love to have a positive female role model for their daughters, so in some ways it feels like an advantage, but this has definitely led me to second-guess myself at times, wondering if I would have been given the same opportunities if I was male.
“You also get pigeon-holed – female coaches work with female teams, regardless of their attributes and what fit is best. I love coaching females but I am also now coaching two male teams in Malaysia and loving it.
“In Malaysia, there is a lot less female presence in football. I’ve had a few people laugh when I tell them I’m a football coach, because they are surprised.
“But then they are just excited to talk about football and England, and I think it opens their mind to the idea that females can play and coach as well.”
WSC: How long did it take you to adapt to living and coaching in a different country?
EH: “It’s always a challenge to adapt to a new country but I’ve learned that it is really important to build a community and surround yourself with good people.
“When you work every day as part of a close-knit coaching group, it can be easy to rely on that group in your free time, but if you really want to feel part of a community it is important to put yourself out there and meet new people.
“With Malaysia being a majority Muslim country, there are definitely some cultural differences but this isn’t an issue. It’s just important to respect other people’s views and cultures without judgement and be open to learning about their beliefs.”
WSC: Tell us about your roles in the US…
EH: “After university, I coached for UK Elite in New York on a nine-month contract, followed by a full-time contract and a three- year visa. I ended up moving to just outside Boston with the same company to work for their club, FCUSA.
“Club soccer is more focused and elite level, with players from different towns trying out to make it onto certain teams. I ended up being given the role as girls’ director for one of the regions, overseeing the girls’ program.
“I had a lot of contact time with the different teams, parents and coaches, as well as the other club directors. This gave me a good understanding of how soccer works in the US, as well as developing my ability to communicate, build a curriculum and deal with all the details involved in a big club, aside from what we do day-to-day on the pitch.
“I was also surrounded by some top coaches who I learned a great deal from and was able to get a lot of valuable experience coaching some really talented teams.”
WSC: How did your roles in Asia come about?
EH: “It was a complete accident – I was living on an island during the Covid-19 pandemic and ended up meeting someone who is a social worker with refugees in Kuala Lumpur.
“Throw yourself into it – there are many positives you could never get at home…”
“We came up with a few ideas of setting up a football program for the kids he works with, especially the girls who don’t have many opportunities, and one thing led to another.
“We decided that in order to make a quality program, I would need a full-time job and a visa, so he sent my CV to a contact and within a few days I was in Kuala Lumpur for an interview and was offered the job.”
WSC: What differences have you encountered in coaching cultures and environments between the UK, US and Malaysia?
CB: “The female game in the UK and US is definitely more developed than in Malaysia. Although it is growing and improving, I believe women’s football in Malaysia is at the start of its journey and there is still a lot of progress to be made for the game to be at a similar level to other countries.
“I think the UK game has a great direction, with youth players working towards playing for adult teams and top players being offered pathways to maximise their development towards the professional game.
“In the US, everything is geared towards playing in high school and college or professionally, which means families end up investing a lot of money and players are often put under a lot of pressure to perform and achieve results from a young age, which isn’t always best for their development.
“After college, there are very limited opportunities to play at a recreational level. The business and political side of the game also has a huge effect on the overall experience for players, especially in Massachusetts where the league structure is constantly changing.
“The stronger teams play in different leagues based on who their club is affiliated with, so the quality of these leagues and the competition is definitely watered down, players travel a lot further than they need to and games are not as equally matched as they could be if all teams competed in the same league system.
“For me, a club’s coaching and player development philosophy is really important, so I was really excited that the philosophy of FC Kuala Lumpur is similar to that of FCUSA.
“We have a great team of coaches and a positive culture within the club which I am really enjoying being a part of. From what I have seen from other clubs here in Malaysia, there is a much bigger difference between different clubs’ playing and coaching styles and philosophies, with some clubs being very focused on winning, and even offering money or gifts to young players from other clubs to come and play with them in a tournament and help them win games.”
WSC: What advice would you give to other women looking to coach abroad – particularly if they are moving alone?
EH: “Do it! It will always be a bit intimidating at first but every experience is what you make of it – so if you throw yourself into it, there are many positives and rewards you could never get from staying at home.”