'We're really onto something here': The moment it all changed for trailblazing coach

THERE'S not much Michelle Cowan hasn't done in football over the course of her decorated career.

Over the past 20 years, Cowan has been a senior coach, an administrator, a talent scout, an assistant coach, a development coach and a mentor in women's and men's football programs.

She's rightfully proud of all her achievements, but she's particularly fond of her time as senior coach of Melbourne's fledgling women's side.

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The significance of the exhibition matches played against the Western Bulldogs between 2013 and 2016 wasn't lost on Cowan at the time.

The crowds that attended games at the MCG, Marvel Stadium (then Etihad) and Whitten Oval and the unprecedented television coverage were key factors in creating the momentum that led to the formation of the AFLW.

"It was a massive career highlight for me," Cowan told womens.afl. 

"I have incredible memories from those exhibition games.

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"Those teams and those games were really the foundation of what we have now.

"We played some really good matches, I remember that day at the MCG was just huge for all of us, and it all culminated with the game at Whitten Oval (in 2016) that was live on Channel Seven.

"So many people watched, interest just went through the roof, and I think it was that moment that made a lot of people think, 'Wow, we're really onto something here'.

"I'd coached men's footy for a good 15 years prior to that and then to coach a women's team in my own right was a first for me.

"I certainly learnt a lot in the WAFL system and then at the Melbourne Football Club as well … it was a pivotal time for me."

Demons coach Michelle Cowan during the exhibition match against the Western Bulldogs in 2015. Picture: AFL Photos

While plenty of men coach women's football, examples of women coaching in a men's program are harder to find.

One of the keys to Cowan's success has been to stay true to her coaching principles regardless of the make-up of her team.

"Coaching the athlete and not the gender has certainly been a philosophy of mine all the way through," she said.

"You've got to build relationships with people, connect with them, communicate, and that's all about the individual whether they're male or female."

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Cowan, who was Fremantle's inaugural AFLW coach, is now the AFLW Operations and Wellbeing Manager at West Coast and is also the bench coach for the women's side on match day.

Such is her standing in the game, she was also recently asked to be a part of the AFLW Competition Committee.

"I just want to be a part of some really good conversations about the growth of the game during this exciting period of its development and expansion," she said.

"To be a part of that, to have an opportunity to influence the game, really excites me."

Inaugural Fremantle coach Michelle Cowan. Picture: AFL Photos

Cowan mentors aspiring female and male coaches and is passionate about supporting initiatives like Women's Coaching Month, which is aimed at boosting the numbers of women coaching at all levels of the game.

"I had some incredible mentors through my career and if there's a space where I can help mentor some up-and-coming female coaches then I'll do that because I love it," she said.

"We've got to continue to support, champion and provide opportunities for female coaches.

"My daughter is 'umming and ahhing' over whether she wants to be a vet or an AFL coach, so the fact that she has those opportunities is fantastic.

"We've got to continue to have conversations and support each other … support in that space is really important and highlighting it with Women's Coaching Month is fantastic by the AFL.

"We just need to keep providing a pathway for women to get involved with academies and clubs to give them that experience and exposure and then encourage them to back themselves to take on these roles.

"We just need to continue to shine a light on the issue and continue to provide opportunities for everybody."

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Over the course of July, the football community is invited to join AFLW and State League coaches alongside other industry experts, in a three-part webinar series that showcases women’s coaching pathways across all levels of the game.

The AFL’s Women’s Coaching Pathways include:

She Can Coach Program
The ‘She Can Coach’ program was launched in 2018 and was established to increase the number of women in coaching, improve the capacity of these coaches, increase the visibility of coaching role models for women, and develop a network of women in coaching across all levels of the game. There are currently 36 women participating in the program, with four current Umpire Coaches, and 32 participants who are involved in coaching at either a community, state-league, or talent level. She Can Coach has expanded to a national program in 2021, after previously operating in Victoria only.

BHP Women’s Coaching Academy
The BHP Women’s Coaching Academy was launched in 2018 and provided six women with the opportunity to complete the Level 3 Coaching Course, in addition to further development opportunities. In 2021, the following women were selected as part of the BHP Women’s Coaching Academy:
Melissa Hickey
Natasha Hardy
Emma Sampson
Shannon Millar
Emma Grant
Lisa Roper
Dale Robinson
Sam Virgo

For further information about Women’s Coaching Month, and the AFL’s women’s coaching pathways including the She Can Coach program, BHP Women’s Coaching Academy and the AFL Victoria Women’s Coaching Academy, visit coach.afl/women-girls-coaching