Shannon Millar is a pioneer in Aussie rules football.
She’s the first woman from the Northern Territory to achieve level three coaching accreditation: good enough to coach in the AFL.
She’s turned her club’s women’s team around.
And working as midfield coach for the best men’s team in the Territory, she’s proud to say she’s the first woman in such a role in the top NT men’s competition.
But there have been challenges along the way. Not least, her own attitude.
“Coming into my first men’s season, there was a lot of self-doubt and if I was the right person for the role, because a lot of these footballers have a lot more playing experience,” she says.
While the woman’s side of Aussie rules has boomed in recent years, women within coaching ranks still make up a clear minority.
Around 1,600 women and girls coached at some level in 2021, but the ratio of men to women in coaching has stayed at about 15 to one, despite the women’s footy explosion.
Even within the shining light of women’s football, the AFLW, just 30 per cent of all coaches are women. And there’s not a single female head coach working this season.
Plus, given incomes are so low — less than $10,000 a season for many assistant coaches — it’s hard for almost all to consider AFLW coaching a profession right now.
But as the promise of players becoming fully professional draws closer, the Sydney Swans’ new AFLW head coach Scott Gowans says now is the time to act.
“We have to get it right now, so that in 2026 or 2030 or whenever it may be, the bottom line is we’ve created a really good talent pool and helped create equalisation across female coaches.”
The Swans are currently recruiting for a full-time AFLW assistant ahead of the side’s entry into the competition, which could come as early as August.
The club received 12 applicants, 10 of which were women, for the position that will also involve coaching the club’s women’s academy players.
“If we can create the pathway where they do that but they’re also coaching their own side, that gives them a chance to find out what it’s like to be the one that makes the decisions.”
Women coaching men
On the men’s side of the game, women among coaching staff is even more rare, with some notable exceptions.
Sam Virgo became the first woman to be senior coach of a boys under-17 championships team, leading Queensland in July. And Demons star Daisy Pearce was approached by Geelong earlier this year to be part of the club’s men’s operations.
Both women are part of the same training program Shannon Millar was involved with last year that earned her level three accreditation.
“It’s a male-dominated sport, it probably always will be,” Millar says.
“That’s fine but I think just having that support for females that they’ve got the same opportunities as a male would have.”
Finding women opportunities — especially in the men’s game — is vital, according to Gowans.
“Some of the AFLW assistant coaches are under $10,000 for the season, and that’s a really difficult job to do,” he says.
The AFL will soon announce six women who will spend the next two years involved in clubs’ women’s and men’s programs as part of a coaching accelerator program.
That will give them the certainty of permanent employment and experience in elite football environments.
But Gowans warns there’s nothing like running your own team and being accountable for your decisions, especially for players moving from the AFLW into coaching.
“The majority of players need to go back to a local level and coach their own team.
The local perspective
She’s worked in the Northern Territory academy sides, and has been involved with the Gold Coast Suns AFLW program, but Shannon Millar is certainly not doing it for the money.
“I don’t know anyone’s wages or anything like that, but I’m definitely doing it because I enjoy giving back to people,” she said.
“I enjoy the thrill of coaching and all the highs and lows it can bring within a game.”
Her experience as a woman in the men’s Premier League may be new to the Northern Territory, but there have been many pioneering women coaches around the world.
Last season eight women were coaches in American football in the NFL. Becky Hammon has been an assistant at NBA basketball team San Antonio Spurs for eight years. Dawn Braid became the first full-time NHL ice hockey coach in 2016. And Chan Yueng Ting was the first woman to lead a men’s side to a top-tier soccer title, in Hong Kong in 2016.
Millar believes while it’s hard to generalise based on sex, she feels she brings a more “nurturing” approach to her coaching than some men’s coaches.
One of Millar’s women’s players, Eliza Morrison, thinks the coach is adept at making players fulfil their potential.
Chris Baksh, the men’s head coach of the Nightcliff Tigers in Darwin, says Millar earned her opportunity, having turned the club’s women’s program around over the past four years.
“It was a big job, the women were on the bottom and hadn’t had much success,” he says.
“The second year, we built a relationship, I obviously liked her coaching and asked her to get involved with the men.”
As a long-time member of Darwin’s sporting scene, Millar already had connections with some players. Winning over others took more work.
“There’s been some players where we probably haven’t hit it off so well and are a bit stand-offish because I am a female,” she says.
“But as they’ve got to know me and I’ve got to know them, we’ve really built that bridge between us.”
Midfielder Cam Ilett, who has known Millar for more than a decade, says all his teammates have come around eventually.
“It was a bit of an unknown for the others and adjusting to the sense of having a female in the change rooms, and talking to a playing group as a midfield coach, but that was quickly squashed when they got to work with her and see how she operates.”
The Nightcliff men’s and women’s sides face elimination finals this weekend, but Millar has one eye on her future.
“I’m open to any opportunities that come my way, and hopefully I can keep learning and developing.
“Maybe one day I’ll be a part of an AFLW side or an AFL side.”
Source: AFL NEWS ABC