In mid-June, the Sports Authority of India issued a set of guidelines for all National Sports Federations to follow. These were directives made to the NSFs primarily to ensure the safety of women athletes at all competitions and training camps – be it domestic or international.

The press release from SAI came not long after recent incidents where, first a female cyclist and then a sailor complained against inappropriate behaviour by coaches during their respective foreign training camps. These guidelines were primarily brought in place to help promote safety for women athletes – but a welcome run-off is also providing female coaches more exposure and an avenue to increase their own prowess as mentors.

“Women Coach to mandatorily accompany the contingent with female athletes during Domestic/International Travel,” read the first, and arguably the most important recommendation.

“Increase the strength of women Coaches/Support Staff in National Coaching Camps by respective NSFs,” was the last recommendation.

Other changes was the involvement of a male and female ‘compliance’ officer to ensure all guidelines are being handled well, and a pre-camp ‘sanitisation module’ before every foreign sojourn.

The changes also come at a time when the national federations of three major sports have come under the control of Committee of Administrators. Nevertheless, these are welcome requirements that SAI has called for.

Read the complete guidelines here

But this is happening now, midway through 2022.

In a country where the PV Sindhus, the MC Mary Koms, the Mirabai Chanus, and many more, have been celebrated, felicitated, and cheered for being among the best in the world in their craft for years, there has been no significant push to appoint female coaches and support staff members across disciplines.

The question of why it wasn’t done earlier had been asked a while ago.

“How can you have a (male) medical staff that goes with women for championships. We have to make an extra effort to identify more and more women coaches, support staff. That’s a huge priority for us,” Boxing Federation of India president Ajay Singh told the Olympic Channel in March last year.

“We need to involve more women everywhere, including in the management of the sport. The fact that today we have an executive committee with very few women is a big shame. We have tried to include more people, but we just have to do much more. We need female physios. We have to find more women in each category; give them special incentives and be a little more flexible in our terms and conditions. I think we need to have a different mindset on how to deal with women in sport.”

Change in mindset

SAI’s new directives are with the right intent, but, as Ajay Singh suggested, the mindset needs to change.

Among all the NSFs in the country, the National Rifle Association of India perhaps does a better job than most in promoting women as coaches and support staff. A number of former international shooters have been brought in as national coaches for the various disciplines in the sport. The numbers have been growing too, as Suma Shirur, the chief national rifle coach (for 10m events) told

“There are more and more women getting involved in coaching (shooting), being part of the coaching team of the country. But what’s yet to be seen is a woman in a leadership role. That’s not there right now, but that’ll be exciting for me to see,” said Shirur, who coaches Avani Lekhara, who won a gold and bronze medal at the Tokyo Paralympics.

“In our (Tokyo) Olympic (shooting) team, it was three women and one guy (physiotherapist). Given the cultural background of our country, women athletes will be more comfortable working with women physios.

“There are a lot of women involved in the team. But there’s still not enough recognition. There’s a lot of work going on, but not enough recognition for their expertise, calibre, their work. Somewhere, I feel it comes because the administration is mainly male-dominated.”

Dangerous perception

Shirur, who reached the final in the 10m air rifle event at the 2004 Athens Olympics, refers to age-old stereotypes that come into play during the process of hiring women in the support staff.

“There’d be a thinking, ‘oh, she might get married and go somewhere else, so let’s hire someone who will be here.’ Sometimes these issues come about when it comes to hiring women coaches. Or the thinking is that they won’t be willing to travel. But I’ve seen more women interested in travelling than males. There are certain perceptions in society that have to change,” she said.

There is another banal perception that prevails and is affecting the women already working as support staff in existing set-ups.

Abeer Arsiwala, a former youth level India international footballer, who is a strength and conditioning coach, had been hired by the U Mumba kabaddi team for the 2021-22 Pro Kabaddi League season. She works in a Strength & Conditioning firm that she co-founded with Manuel D’Souza, another former footballer. Both were present in the bio-secure bubble in Bangalore throughout this year’s PKL season, and Arsiwala was the only woman there as a S&C coach among the 12 franchises.

“If you spoke to other teams, they’d assume that Manuel was the head S&C coach and I’m the assistant, whereas in reality, we’re both equal,” she had told this publication.

“When we get individual clients and ask them if they would like a male or female personal trainer, there will be women who will want a female trainer because they’ll feel more comfortable. But you ask them if they feel the woman trainer is more capable, they wouldn’t be sure. It’s comfort over thinking the female coach is actually a genuinely good coach. That’s a mentality that has to change.”

It’s a perception that, Arsiwala asserted, has made S&C – a specialism essential to elite athletes – a career option deemed non-viable for women to pursue.

“There aren’t many who are pursuing this because who will accept a woman over a man. There is an assumption that a man will do better, and I don’t know why,” she added, reciting an incident at the start of the season when some of the kabaddi players she was working with were surprised when they saw her lifting weights during a gym session.

“I had to explain that it’s not about how much weight I can lift, but about the technique. What matters is lifting it correctly, not how much you can lift. I was there to help them use the right technique.”

Comfort for a woman athlete with a woman coach

Though support staff in India has generally been male-dominated, there are exceptions. In the women’s hockey team for example, the scientific advisor, physiotherapist and masseuse are women. So is an assistant coach, and of course, the chief national coach of the team, Janneke Schopman.

The 45-year-old Schopman, who was a part of the Netherlands team that won silver at Athens 2004 and gold at Beijing 2008, took over after Sjoerd Marijne’s stint came to a close post Tokyo. She was already involved in the Indian set-up during Tokyo and has seamlessly stepped into the head coach role. She provides a sensitivity and comfort to the players in the team.

Moreover, Schopman herself acknowledges the difference a woman coach can bring to a women’s team.

“I had a few coaches myself in the past and the only thing I can really say is that women and men are different. I had a male coach and he really didn’t understand women. He really didn’t and he also told us many times,” she told during a conversation earlier this year.

“I also think that coming from being female and being a former player, I do understand half of the time what is going on. Especially in terms of mindset and I think that can help. I have high standards and I think I have a better understanding of times when I should probably talk to them instead of yelling at them and that is what I am trying to do. So that is maybe my advantage being female in a female team.”

The players too are receptive to that change.

“Coaches are all the same, but having a woman is a different feeling,” said India midfielder Navjot Kaur to

“A woman coach like Janneke, when she speaks it’s very motivational for us. Especially when we talk about hockey, she’s specific and speaks clearly with tiny details. And when it’s a woman talking to you there’s a different kind of power, especially in World Hockey where there are just few women coaching at this level. I feel proud that we are being trained by a woman coach. Women can understand what exactly are the needs. Personally, I think they can make a better connection because they’re women too.”

At the upcoming FIH Women’s Hockey World Cup, Schopman, Australia’s Katrina Powell, and Alyson Annan – who coaches the Chinese team – are the only three women head coaches among the 16 national teams competing. At the Tokyo Olympics, Powell and her compatriot Annan, who was then in charge of the Netherlands team that went on to win gold, were the only two women head coaches. Schopman was assistant coach to Marijne at the time.

A bond between players and coach is one thing. Safety, however, is the most basic and essential thing a sports body must provide its athletes. Failure to do so may dry up the talent pool. In the light of recent events, that is paramount.

“Parents these days are reluctant to send their girl child to sport. If such things keep coming up, then they will stop sending them. So it’s for the authorities to remove the culprits far away from the sport. Safety is of utmost importance,” World No 3 archer Deepika Kumari told the Press Trust of India shortly after news about the Indian cyclist’s plight came to light.

“As for athletes, they should always speak out with confidence. Maybe they fear for their careers and reputation, and suppress the matter in some cases. But this way you are giving more freedom to these coaches.”

Search for equality

Worldwide, there has been a push to make sport a safer and more equal environment for women.

The IOC said in their “Women in the Olympic Movement” Factsheet that, “improving the representation of women among other key functions at the Olympic Games, including coaches, technical officials and Games team leadership, continues to be a priority for the IOC”.

The document says that only 11% of accredited coaches at Rio Olympics were female.

In the last few months, a host of countries have given their women’s national football teams contracts that are at par with the men’s team, for example.

In India, women’s sport has risen spectacularly over the past decade. The first woman to win an Olympic medal was Karnam Malleswari in Sydney 2000. And since the London 2012 Olympics, seven of the 14 medals won by Indians in individual events were won by women – including the only two medals won at Rio 2016.

Sindhu has won two Olympic medals and became world champion in between. Mary Kom put India on the map in world boxing, and recently Nikhat Zareen won her first world championship gold. Just last year, with Schopman watching on from sidelines, the women’s hockey team – serious underdogs before the event – finished fourth at the Olympics in a journey that captured the nation’s imagination.

Greater success stories may follow, but a change in perception behind the scenes will be important for that. SAI’s new policy for NSFs give a direction towards that change. The NSFs though will need to enforce these guidelines diligently to ensure there is the impact desired.

A conscious push towards empowering more female coaches across disciplines is the need of the hour. And a mindset change will also need to be enforced – no woman support staff member is there on a quota, they’re there on merit. Just like the athletes.

With additional reporting by Ashish Magotra and Samreen Razzaqui.