Erica L. Ayala

Hiring women coaches takes intentionality. Just ask the NFL

Jennifer King, an assistant running backs coach for the Washington Football Team
Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

Less than a decade ago, there were no women coaching in the NFL. 

In 2015, Jen Welter became the first woman to serve in an NFL coaching role when the Arizona Cardinals hired her to an intern position. The following year, Kathryn Smith became the NFL’s first full-time female coach when she was named special teams quality control coach for the Buffalo Bills. 

In 2017, the New York Jets hired Collette Smith as a training camp intern to work with defensive backs, making her the first Black woman to coach for an NFL team. And earlier this year, Jennifer King was promoted to assistant running backs coach of the Washington football team, making her the first Black woman to serve as a full-time NFL coach. 

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Less than a decade after Welter paved a new path for women coaches, there will be a record 12 women coaches in the National Football League during the 2021 season, CNBC reported last month. This is the most women to coach in the NFL in a single season.

Progress still to be made in the NFL

While the NFL has taken major strides in just a few short years, we are still far from gender equity in the NFL and elsewhere in coaching. There are no women head coaches in the NFL and the majority of the NFL’s 32 teams still do not include a woman on the coaching staff.

Still, there are lessons that can be taken from the NFL and applied to other leagues, including professional women’s leagues. 

The first lesson? Intentionality!

The rise of women in the NFL isn’t an accident

Five years ago, the NFL established the Women’s Careers in Football Forum (WCFF) to inspire, educate, and connect women actively working in football to other college and NFL football operations positions. Over the course of two days, participants engage in a series of panel discussions, presentations and breakout sessions covering everything from strength and conditioning, research and strategy, and team operations. 

“A big thing we found is that people who are getting their start in the league got their job because they played college football with someone who knows someone who knows someone and it’s just such a close bro network. Women don’t really have that and so this forum is an attempt to really bridge that gap,” Venessa Hutchinson, the NFL’s senior manager of football programming, told CNBC.

Of the 12 women coaching in the NFL this season, eight attended the WCFF (their names can be found in bold on the table below). Sam Rapoport, NFL senior director of diversity, equity and inclusion, shared the names of the women coaching this NFL season with On Her Turf via email.


Current Role 

NFL Team 

Katie Sowers Assistant Running Back Coach Kansas City Chiefs
Jennifer King Assistant Running Back Coach  Washington Football Team
Callie Brownson Chief of Staff Cleveland Browns
Lo Locust Assistant Defensive Line Coach Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Maral Javadifar Strength & Conditioning Coach/Physical Therapist Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Emily Zaler Player Performance Assistant  Denver Broncos
Jada Gipson Defensive Back Intern/Linebackers Coach Cleveland Browns/Texas State 
Alex Hanna Receivers Intern/Defensive Quality Control Coach Cleveland Browns
Sophia Lewin Offensive Assistant Coach Buffalo Bills 
Tessa Grossman Intern /Graduate Assistant Strength & Conditioning Coach  Atlanta Falcons/Illinois State
Heather Marini Intern/Quarterbacks Assistant Coach Tampa Bay Buccaneers/Brown University
Angellica Grayson Linebackers Intern Washington Football Team

In addition to helping create a coaching pipeline, the forum has also helped expand the number of women in front office jobs. Since the program began five years ago, 181 WCFF participants have landed football jobs, with 100 of those roles being in the NFL, the league reported to CNBC.

Assistant coaches Maral Javadifar and Ross Cockrell of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers look on during the fourth quarter of Super Bowl LV in Tampa, Florida.
Assistant coaches Maral Javadifar and Ross Cockrell of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers look on during the fourth quarter of Super Bowl LV in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Further, the invite-only forum ensures 50% of all participants are women of color. The most recent virtual event in late February welcomed 40 participants, 30 of whom – or 75% – were women of color. Additionally, in five years of the program 83% of the women hired from the annual WCFF are women of color. 

“You have to be very intentional and very purposeful to make sure that it’s not just white women who benefit from this type of diversity initiative,” Hutchinson said.

A two-day forum has its limitations. There is only so much additional coaching knowledge one can gain in 48 hours. However, the real value comes from the investment and networking opportunities participants receive. Generally speaking, people hire or recommend people they know for positions. If football coaches and executives don’t see women throughout their career, they are less likely to hire or recommend women for open roles. 

While this may explain the anemic numbers of women in dominantly male-represented sports, this does not explain a different issue: why aren’t more women coaching women’s teams?  

Why aren’t more former players being hired to coach women’s teams? 

The dearth of women coaching women’s teams has been previously documented. As it stands right now, only 10 women currently work as head coaches across the three major North American women’s sports leagues: the WNBA, NWSL, and NWHL.  

Of the 10 National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) teams, two currently have women in head coaching positions (one of them serving in an interim capacity) amidst a season of coaching turmoil. Ahead of its seventh season, the National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL) has two women bench bosses across its six teams. In its 25th season, the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) has six women (including three former players) serving as head coaches.

So why are women underrepresented as coaches in women’s sports leagues?

Throughout much of the comparatively short history of these three women’s leagues, the player-to-coach pipeline hasn’t existed, though some notable changes have been made in recent years.

The WNBA’s landmark 2020 CBA includes an initiative dedicated to helping players get connected with coaching opportunities. Last month, the NWSL and the U.S. Soccer Federation announced a new free ‘B’ license course for former and current players.

Our mutual goal is to help the tremendous athletes in our league succeed both on and off the field and subsidizing the cost of this elite coaching education program will help us live up to that mission,” NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird said in the announcement. “We’re excited to see what our players accomplish with this certification in the future.”

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The partnership will pay for the costs associated with the course, including travel to Houston to sit for the exam. There is no direct cost associated with participating in the program.

Eliminating the cost barrier is a good practice in intentionality. However, the timing of the course makes it hard for active NWSL coaches or players to balance course work and their professional season, according to Orlando Pride defender and new mom Ali Krieger

“We women do a lot,” Krieger – who is also dipping her toe into broadcasting – told On Her Turf in a phone interview. 

Ali Krieger #11 (left) and Ashlyn Harris #24 (right) of the Orlando Pride hold their daughter Sloane after a game between Washington Spirit and Orlando Pride.
Ali Krieger #11 (left) and Ashlyn Harris #24 (right) of the Orlando Pride hold their daughter Sloane after a game between Washington Spirit and Orlando Pride in May 2021. (Photo by Roy K. Miller/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

During her career, Krieger has witnessed how tough it is for players like her to parlay decades of elite soccer experience into coaching careers. In the future, she hopes more opportunities – such as the coaching course grant – are accessible and take into account the high grind and moderate reward of women professional athletes, especially given the often low wages that players are paid. 

Can women’s leagues learn something from the NFL?

While there are barriers for players who already have coaching aspirations, there is also the issue that many players don’t see coaching as a potential opportunity.

That was true for much of Noelle Quinn‘s 12-year career in the WNBA. Coaching was not on her radar at all until she was approached to co-coach her former high school team while finishing out her pro career. 

“It wasn’t on my vision board. It wasn’t on my radar. When you grow up, you have male coaches,” Quinn, the new head coach of the Seattle Storm, told On Her Turf last month.

“I think in life when you see something and you see yourself within someone, you’re more apt to gravitate toward whatever that is,” Quinn continued.

The WNBA recently granted teams permission to add a fourth coach, so long as one of the coaches on staff is a former player. 

“Creating that, in general, was a great start,” Quinn said, noting that players can’t “know that they like coaching if they never had an opportunity or an experience.”

Even WNBA players who knew they were interested in coaching have run into barriers. In 2018, current Los Angeles Sparks guard Kristi Toliver took an assistant coaching job with the Washington Wizards while playing for the Mystics. Yet, because both teams are owned by Monumental Sports Entertainment, Toliver had to accept significantly less money than her male counterparts. 

Toliver eventually ended up signing with the Los Angeles Sparks while remaining with the Wizards to avoid the conflict that led to her pay cut. Last month, Toliver confirmed she will be added to the Dallas Mavericks coaching staff for the upcoming NBA season. Toliver is glad to see more leagues are seeing value in having former women athletes on the coaching staff and hopes the WNBA can continue to create opportunities.

“You want to say it’s obvious, you know, but obviously, it’s not. So the fact that all these leagues are making steps in the right direction, I certainly hope and feel that the W would follow suit with that,” Toliver told On Her Turf after a practice with the Sparks. 

Phoenix Mercury v Seattle Storm
Seattle storm head coach Noelle Quinn talks with Jewell Loyd #24 during a game against the Phoenix Mercury on July 11, 2021 at the Angel of the Winds Arena, in Everett, Washington. (Photo by Josh Huston/NBAE via Getty Images)

Some coaches have also made a commitment to hiring women, including Minnesota Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve, who has an assistant coaching staff that consists of three women, all former WNBA players. 

But it takes more than individual commitments.  

That is why the intentionality of the WCFF remains such a critical part of the program.

Unlike failed quota systems or the controversial Rooney Rule – which requires teams to interview at least two underrepresented candidates for any open job – the WCFF has proven results, especially for women of color. 

Perhaps because of the overhead costs associated with networking events like the WCFF – or even the NBA Basketball Operations Executive Program – many opportunities for women come on the men’s side of the game. Not to mention, better coaching salaries. Women coaching men’s teams – whether in the NFL or the NBA – is an important step towards gender equity in sports. Yet, what does that mean for women’s teams? 

“I’m not as interested in seeing women coaching men as I am women coaching women,” former Notre Dame women’s basketball coach Muffet McGraw said on an episode of “On Her Turf at the Olympics” last month. “I think it is great that the NBA is hiring women to be on the sidelines, to be assistant coaches. But what I would love to see is those women coming back to the WNBA and being a head coach.” 

You don’t have to wait years to see your favorite Olympians in action again

A'ja Wilson
Getty Images

The Tokyo Olympics saw strong performances by U.S. women’s teams, including gold medals in basketball (both 3×3 and 5-on-5), beach volleyball, water polo, and volleyball. Overall, women took home 58% of the total U.S. medals, winning 23 gold medals, 22 silver, and 21 bronze medals in Japan. 

Now the athletes will return home to be with their loved ones unable to make the trip to Japan. They will celebrate, they will commiserate, they will give interviews, and perhaps even have a parade in their honor. 

And then, days later, they will get back to work! 

Yes, Tokyo is far from the last you’ve seen from most of these athletes. From Canadian football captain and gold medalist Quinn to rising basketball star A’ja Wilson, the United States is home to several professional women’s sports leagues where you can watch the best of the Olympians compete with and against each other. Many more women will tour the world to compete in tennis, golf, cycling, and volleyball. 

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Tokyo Paralympic Games

Tokyo isn’t done hosting elite athletes just yet. The Paralympic Games commence on August 24th. Swimmer Jessica Long and track & field’s Tatyana McFadden are appointment viewing. Long made her Paralympic debut in 2004 at the age of 12. McFadden is a four-time grand slam champion, having won the Boston, Chicago, London, and New York City marathons four years in a row.

Olympic gold medalists battle it out in the WNBA

The league returns August 12 with a new competition called the Commissioner’s Cup. Akin to what we see in European leagues, the Commissioner’s Cup is a competition within a competition. In the first half of the season, Breanna Stewart and the Seattle Storm took the top seed in the western conference. They will face off against the Connecticut Sun from the eastern conference. 

The remainder of the WNBA season starts August 14 when the 3×3 gold medalist Stefanie Dolson and the Chicago Sky hosts the Seattle Storm. Sue Bird has already announced her retirement from the Olympic stage. Don’t miss your chance to watch one of the best point guards in women’s basketball round out her professional career. 

Softball has short wait before Athletes Unlimited season begins

The second season of Athletes Unlimited softball will open on August 28 in Rosemont, Illinois. Three-time Olympic medalist Cat Osterman returns to defend her 2020 championship. Pitcher Taylor McQuillin (MEX) is also returning for a second AU season after the Olympics. 

Track & Field storylines continue at Diamond League stops

The 2021 Diamond League circuit continues with the Prefontaine Classic on August 20-21. The headliner is an athlete who didn’t have the chance to compete in Tokyo: Sha’Carri Richardson, who is slated to enter both the 100m and 200m. 

The Prefontaine Classic kicks off August 20 with the women’s distance night, featuring 800m Olympic champ Athing Mu and bronze medalist Raevyn Rogers. The 2021 Diamond League series concludes September 8-9 in Zurich, Switzerland. 

Beach Volleyball stars return to FIVB World Tour

Beach volleyball competition continues with the 2021 FIVB World Tour. During the first part of the FIVB season, Olympic gold medalists Alix Klineman and April Ross racked up three podium finishes. Brazilians Ágatha Bednarczuk and Eduarda “Duda” Lisboa return as the FIVB top-ranked team.

Tennis action continues on 2021 WTA Tour

The WTA tour is in action right now with the  2021 National Bank Open in Montreal, Canada, while the US Open commences August 30 at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Queens, New York.

Olympic medalists return to LPGA Tour

After winning Olympic gold, Nelly Korda will return to the LPGA tour riding that momentum. Upcoming LPGA events include the Trust Golf Women’s Scottish Open (August 12-15) and Women’s British Open (August 19-22). 

NWSL season, in full swing, welcomes back Olympians

Unlike the WNBA, the National Women’s Soccer League didn’t take an international break for the Olympics. The Portland Thorns sit at the top of the table and will welcome back gold medalist Christine Sinclair and bronze medalist Lindsey Horan on August 14 for a game against the Orlando Pride. Quinn and the OL Reign travel down to Portland for the Cascadia Rivalry on August 29. The regular season concludes on October 31.

Road cycling action continues with World Tour stops

The 2021 UCI Women’s World Tour returns to the road with three European races this month. Tokyo bronze medalist Elisa Longo Borghini (ITA) will be among the entrants for two upcoming European races. The Ladies Tour of Norway gets underway on August 12,followed by the Holland Ladies Tour from August 24 – 29. 

2022 Beijing Olympics & Paralympics

Perhaps the best blessing of a delayed 2020 Tokyo Games is that the wait until Beijing 2022 is shorter than usual. In a mere six months, athletes will head to China for the Winter Olympics. Kendall Coyne Schofield and the U.S. women’s hockey team will look to defend their 2018 Olympic gold medal. 

On Her Turf will continue to bring you stories about women and non-binary athletes overcoming obstacles to excel on the court, on the ice, in the pool, and everywhere in between. 

Foluke Akinradewo Gunderson is proud to represent mothers at Tokyo Olympics

Photo credit should read PEDRO UGARTE/AFP via Getty Images

At age 33, middle blocker Foluke Akinradewo Gunderson is one of the elder stateswomen on the U.S. indoor volleyball team.

In her third Olympics, Gunderson’s ambitions have changed. “Now it’s, ‘I want to contribute to the team and more importantly, I want us to win a gold medal.’” 

In order to make the gold medal match in Tokyo, the United States had to defeat Serbia. Five years ago in Rio, the Serbian women’s volleyball team defeated the U.S. in the semifinals, handing them their only loss of the tournament. U.S. head coach Karch Kiraly called that loss “an absolute soul crusher” in an interview with The New York Times

Beating Serbia to advance to the gold medal match was a huge step for the team, which has won five medals – no zero gold – in 11 Olympic appearances. 

Volleyball - Olympics: Day 2
TOKYO, JAPAN – JULY 25: Jordyn Poulter #2 of Team United States and Foluke Akinradewo #16 attempt to block the shot by Elina Maria Rodriguez #1 of Team Argentina during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Ariake Arena on July 25, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Toru Hanai/Getty Images)

The U.S. will face Brazil, a team that has its own demons to rid after failing to make the podium in 2016 on home soil. The Brazilians have gone undefeated so far in Tokyo, dropping only four sets in seven matches.

In addition to winning the U.S. team’s first-ever Olympic gold medal, Gunderson is hoping to add an additional exclamation. Gunderson had her first child, son Olukayode Ayodele Gunderson, on November 28, 2019. 

“It was always my goal to come back, I didn’t know if it could happen. There were many times in my comeback that I thought about giving up,” She told On Her Turf at the Olympics hosts Lindsay Czarniak and Lolo Jones

While being an Olympian after childbirth is becoming more common – think Allyson Felix, Alex Morgan, Serena Williams, and more – it is also extremely difficult. Gunderson’s recovery was especially hard because she had to overcome a severe case of diastasis recti, or separation in her abdominal wall. 

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In Gunderson’s case, she had a 9-centimeter gap after giving birth  The middle-blocker needed to redevelop her core strength ahead of the Tokyo Games.

The juggle of having an infant and trying to come back to Olympic level is no small feat,” Gunderson told “The strength of the female body – what we’re able to endure, and how our body changes, and how we’re able to adapt in a new way – is really impressive.” 

Rebuilding her core and being a new mother amid a worldwide pandemic brought its own challenges. It was an extreme of the adage: what do you do when no one is watching? There was no competition, no travel, and not even any teammates in the weight room. It was a lonely lead-up to the 2020 Tokyo Games for many athletes. Nevertheless, she persisted. 

Eventually, the national team was able to train together. But even then, Gunderson still trained alone at first, out of an abundance of caution for her infant son. In Tokyo, Gunderson is alone again, this time without her 21-month-old son and her husband Jonathan

“I’m really proud to be in this Olympic Games and to represent all the moms out there.”


The NBC Olympics research team contributed to this report.

Follow Erica L. Ayala on Twitter @Elindsay08

To stay updated on the biggest news in women’s sports at the Tokyo Olympics (and beyond), be sure to follow On Her Turf on InstagramTwitter, and bookmark the On Her Turf blog.

During the Olympics, you can also catch up on all of the major storylines in women’s sports by watching “On Her Turf @ The Olympics,” a 30-minute show that will stream for free on Peacock. Hosted by Lindsay Czarniak, MJ Acosta-Ruiz, and Lolo Jones, the show kicks off on Saturday, July 24, and will stream every day of the Games (Monday-Saturday at 7pm ET and Sundays at 6pm ET).