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Trailblazing Wellington Phoenix duo tackle a new challenge – Stuff.co.nz

On the eve of the first A-League Women’s game for the Wellington Phoenix, coaches Gemma Lewis and Natalie Lawrence share the benefits of coaching women, how the league is a gamechanger for young Kiwis, and a Christmas away from home.
Gemma Lewis and Natalie Lawrence hope one day they can just be referred to simply as ‘coaches’.
Chosen as the head coach and assistant coach of the debutant Wellington Phoenix women’s team, Lewis and Lawrence are used to the conversation always centring around the fact they’re ‘female coaches’.
“We’ll know we’ve made the progress when we don’t get asked about being female coaches as much – that’s how we’ll know we’ve started to shift,” says head coach Lewis.
There’s no doubt, though, that their partnership is special: one of only two all-women coaching line-ups in the A League (along with Canberra United). The Phoenix make their debut in the 10-team competition on Friday, playing Western Sydney Warriors at their new home-away-from-home-ground in Wollongong.
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And there’s no doubt they are the right duo for the job; their CVs speak for themselves.
Lewis is a former Welsh international footballer who’s held various coaching roles in New Zealand over the past five years, including assistant coach for the Football Ferns at the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup, and has been head coach for the national women’s U20 side. She was also on the coaching staff of the celebrated New Zealand side who won bronze at the 2018 U17 Women’s World Cup in Uruguay.
Lawrence’s experience coaching in New Zealand and Canada, and her work developing young players, also makes her a perfect fit for the young Phoenix side – a team with eight 18-year-olds.
While the two coaches, chatting from Wollongong earlier this week, hope in the future the conversation will stray away from gender, they have to admit there are advantages to having female coaches in the women’s game.
Remembering times when she coached boys’ teams, Lewis says male footballers tend to ask fewer questions and don’t want to talk over things.
“When I coach females, it’s a lot different,” she says. “They want as much information as they can get, they kind of want that reinforcement. Every player’s different but at the same time, that’s normally a bit of a trend in the female game.”
Lawrence laughs, admitting it’s a generalisation. “But females love to know the why, and men like to get on with it…I think there’s going to be a natural advantage to understanding our own gender.”
There’s also the emotional side of it as well, Lewis points out. “With teams I’ve worked with in the female game, if you really get their respect and their trust in the relationship, then they’d walk through a brick wall for you.”
Their selection for these leadership roles early in the Phoenix Women’s journey shows the development of women’s football in New Zealand is on the right path.
“They could have potentially not given this job to a female coach for the first season, so there’s already a lot of firsts,” Lewis says. “To put a whole female coaching team in charge is also a big step for them, but I think it shows we’re moving in the right direction.”
Both women are part of the first Women in High Performance Sport programme back in New Zealand. Lawrence is one of eight women in the leadership residency project, that saw her embedded into New Zealand Football; Lewis has been one of 14 emerging female coaches in Te Hāpaitanga, which helps them to gain confidence and learn from coaches from other codes.
“We got a lot out of that programme as the mentees,” Lewis says. “And now in a programme that’s being created by New Zealand Football for female mentorship, we’re able to give back what we’ve learned and mentor coaches coming through in our own game.
“We’re both coaching full-time now, and we can show that you can maybe turn coaching into a career – it’s not just a volunteer role that you do for the love of it. It comes with its challenges, but if it’s something you’re really passionate about, you end up making it work.”
There’s always been a missing piece for Kiwi women footballers in terms of player development, Lawrence believes, and the Phoenix team can fill that gap in the 2021-22 season.
“Our top players have had access to professional football through moving countries, but that’s a big barrier for a lot of players, especially at a younger age,” says Lawrence.
“Now there’s a team for Kiwis to aspire to be part of that’s incredibly close to home – you now have a complete pathway in New Zealand that’s sustainable and tangible. Where you can stay in your country and you don’t have to leave if you don’t want to.
“I think that’s an absolute game-changer.”
Lewis and Lawrence have the chance to make their mark on football in New Zealand as they develop their team, and they have high hopes of the new Phoenix side becoming role models for young Kiwi footballers back at home.
“I think that’s been the struggle in the past. The visibility of role models and the professional game for New Zealand has been really hard to grasp. You’ve got these amazing Ferns who play in incredible teams across the world, but you don’t ever really get to see it,” says Lewis.
Both coaches say that unless young fans are willing to wake up in the early hours of the morning to follow international leagues, it’s hard for aspiring footballers to see Kiwis footballers succeeding.
Lewis hopes the team will be able to travel back to New Zealand next year, and not just for the players who are stuck in Australia away from their families, but also to play home games and give back to the community.
She raises the idea of having young players attend the Phoenix training sessions, being able to ask questions and meet the players, increasing accessibility and visibility.
“I think our Football Ferns have done amazing work making the sacrifices to move away from home going into these incredible leagues, but the visibility of that back home is very limited and I don’t think our players really get to know those players well enough,” she says.
“Having this closer to home just means you’re hoping young players start to know the names of the players that play for the Phoenix, and feel like you can be a professional player and see it as something they could start to have as a career.”
Building the team culture is something the coaches have been doing since day one, leaning on the culture the Phoenix men’s side has developed, while also creating their own.
“Everything that people are thinking could be a challenge, we’re trying to embrace and create in our culture,” says Lewis.
“For everyone – players, staff, everyone involved – it’s the first time where you get to really put a stamp on what this team looks like. Lots of teams you come into, it’s already there for you.
“You kind of learn to embrace it or add your twist of it, whereas this is an open book for the players and for all of us within the team to really shape who we want to be as a team.”
Their time in Wollongong, their home away from home, hasn’t been the sunny vacation they were hoping for so far, with rain closing the grounds some days. Lewis jokes they might even get a white Christmas.
Lawrence’s face lights up at the mention of Christmas, her favourite holiday.
“We are super, super aware that these players are going to be away from their families so we want to make it as special as we can,” says Lawrence, who has already planned out the festivities for the day.
Lewis and Lawrence are looking forward to making new traditions, not just at Christmas time, but also as a brand new team who have the chance to make history.
The Wellington Phoenix play their opening match in the A-League Women against the Western Sydney Wanderers FC on Friday 7pm (NZT). Watch live coverage on Sky Sport 2 from 6.30pm, or free-to-air on Prime.
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