Marion Clignet celebrates her victory in the women’s points race at the World Track Championships in Berlin in 1999

The coaching industry is populated primarily by men.  Marion Clignet has bucked the trend at the highest level and, with the backing of ConnectedCoaches Content Champion  Catherine Baker – who is passionate about seeing more female leaders in the world of sport – they provide some advice for female coaches on how to succeed in a man’s world.

  • Don’t listen to the voices in your head saying, “You can’t do that, no other woman I know has ever done that”. That is exactly why you should be able to do it.
  • Women should stick to their beliefs and ground rules and not change their personality to fit in with others.
  • Women do not sell themselves as well as men and their strong points are often hidden away or not put forward.
  • Building self-confidence requires a sufficient level of self-awareness to fully understand and appreciate what your strengths are. Only through such introspection can you then leverage your strengths to maximum effect.

Marion Clignet is one of a rare breed of female coaches who has presided over a group of professional male athletes.

If the percentage of women in coaching roles in the UK is small (30%), and the percentage of qualified female coaches is even smaller (17%), then Marion is part of an elite club too miniscule for sporting bodies to measure.

She may ply her trade in France, but the gender disparity on the southern side of the English Channel is just as pronounced, making her advice just as valued.

Women have to overcome numerous barriers to get into coaching. If they want to coach a men’s team, they have to factor in many more.

And with so few visible female coaches operating nationally or globally in the highest echelons of sport, there is inevitably a paucity of role models to provide much-needed inspiration and motivation for the next generation of coaches.

The traditional role of a female coach is working with children and young people at recreational level, including as unpaid volunteers, with the high-performance environment the near-exclusive domain of males.

Marion has bucked the trend and shown that leadership roles should not be thought of as alien territory for women – although gaining access is not without its challenges.

An empowering female role model, and ConnectedCoaches member, Marion has some encouraging words of advice for women who want to follow in her footsteps – guidance that is as applicable to grass-roots coaches as it is to those operating higher up the pyramid.

Advice worth its weight in gold

Just as extensive as the list of barriers hampering women from participating in sport and physical activity is the roll of honour Marion has established during a phenomenally successful career as a professional cyclist and coach.

She was the national US team time trial champion and national road race silver medallist before being cruelly shunned by the United States Cycling Federation after being diagnosed with epilepsy aged 22.

Her dual citizenship meant she had the option of competing for France. The switch was our next-door neighbour’s gain and the United States’ significant loss.

Her proud record reads:

  • 10 times French national champion (road, track and time trial)
  • 6 times world champion (pursuit, team time trial and points)
  • 2 times Olympic silver medallist (Atlanta and Sydney)
  • World record holder from 1996-2000 (3000m pursuit)
  • French long distance duathlon champion.

Her coaching CV is no less impressive, having worked with the likes of Thomas Voeckler and Pierre Rolland during her time as coach of the Tour de France Bouygues Telecom team (now Direct Énergie), and being employed as Directeur Sportif for the New Zealand men’s national team, junior boys, youth and women.

She has made a career out of breaking new ground and has spoken around the world on overcoming obstacles, managing epilepsy and sport, and how to move forward when others tell you “you can’t”.

Oh no you can’t. Oh yes you can!

‘Where there’s a will, there’s a way’ is a proverb that resonates with Marion, and a general truth that she is at pains to emphasise to female coaches.

‘I started coaching men’s teams at club level and have actually coached more men’s teams than women’s teams in my career.

‘I think it’s important to know your goals, your objectives, and be able to answer questions because you will be tested, but there is absolutely no reason why you can’t do it.

‘You are probably going to have a lot of voices in your head saying, “You can’t do that, no other woman I know has ever done that”. Why not? That is exactly why you should be able to do it.’

One of Marion’s top tips is: Do not take ‘no’ for an answer.

‘It is important to stay the way you are and to hold your stance, hold your position,’ she says.

That does not mean acting out the role of dictator for fear of people treating you like a doormat, but it does mean refusing to compromise on your personality.

‘Definitely women should not change who they are. They have to stick to their beliefs, their ground rules, to make a programme work.’

‘As with any club, you are always going to have someone who doesn’t adhere to your beliefs, but that happens with men just as it does with women.’

Centre of attention: Marion with her gold medal from winning the women’s points race at the 2000 World Track Championships in Manchester

Channel your inner ‘Wonder Woman’ 

Marion provides an anecdote to illustrate the importance of sticking to your principles which, at the same time, highlights a fundamental psychological difference between the sexes.

‘Having coached both sexes, women don’t ask questions, they just go for it. They are willing to do the work.

‘When I was coaching a pro men’s team, we were at a training camp in the mountains and the guys were trying to negotiate the distance with me downwards.

‘I think the ride was 180k and they wanted to do 100k.’

Did they think they might be able to get away with it because you were a woman? Maybe they were testing you out, I ask candidly?

‘There could have been some of that. One of them was complaining that he was a cyclo-cross rider and he didn’t need the distance. I said, “Look, I am preparing you for the races that are coming up after the Tour [de France]”.

‘The A Team were at the Tour and I was taking these guys to get them ready for the Tour of Poland, with 200K of races to look forward to. I stressed to them it was imperative they did their homework and were ready for it.

‘I told them if they wanted to ride 100k, they could do that, but they would have no assistance and they were on their own.’

You may have guessed by know that Marion is one tough cookie, who does not suffer fools, and who has, you might say, been there, done that and got the yellow jersey, and for whom enforcing rules, expressing opinions and giving instructions is an instinctive process.

Getting certain points across to their male athletes could, I imagine, be a daunting proposition for women who do not possess a naturally authoritative leadership style.

What if they feel intimidated by men who question or criticise their methods? Lack of confidence is a common stumbling block, deterring talented and qualified women from chasing their coaching ambitions.

‘It’s all about leadership,’ says Marion. ‘A good friend (who is a life coach) and I started a company called Body and Mind and we work with women on just that, on overcoming the male dominated world to move on up the ladder and to raise their hands in meetings.

‘Often women, even high-placed women, will not do that and the guy next to them will take credit for her idea.

‘There is a lot of self-evaluation to make something work and finding what we call the “wonder woman” inside you. If somebody really knows they want to coach a men’s team, and she knows she has the skills to do it, she has to do a lot of introspective work on herself to make it happen and come over whatever road bumps she might think she will encounter.’

Andy Murray with former coach Amelie Mauresmo at Wimbledon in 2016

Assertiveness and self-promotion

Marion admits her direct approach has caused problems in the past.

‘Perhaps because of my Anglo upbringing, I am very direct. I don’t do as the French do, what I call pale pink or pale beige, it’s always black or white. And tending to tell it as it is has got me into trouble, as I don’t see the point of painting photos.’

But the secret of being a successful female coach of a male team involves a lot more than being assertive.

Knowing your strong points and putting them forward is a key skill.

‘If you ask a group of women to tell you what their strong points are, they will have a lot more difficulty doing that than what a group of men would.

‘Look at job interviews for example. Let’s say a club is looking for a new coach. A guy may have 40 or 50% of the criteria needed. A woman may have 99% but if she doesn’t have 100% she won’t send in her resume. That’s the big difference in a lot of the working positions today, women don’t sell themselves as well.’

A technique to overcome this is to visualise yourself the best you have ever been and keep that vision in your mind when you are confronting a certain task.

‘By doing that women can bring their best self out,’ says Marion.

Confidence and mindset

ConnectedCoaches Content Champion Catherine Baker is passionate about breaking down the barriers to progression for women.

She founded Sport and Beyond to help people reach their full potential and works on female initiatives and programmes with clients ranging from international law firms, large corporates, through to female sports coaches.

‘The strong link between issues women might have in the corporate world and issues they might have in the world of coaching is fascinating to me,’ she says.

‘In both “worlds” entry barriers have been for the large part removed and opportunities are there for all. So what’s stopping women progressing through the ranks as they should be, and fulfilling their potential? A common factor, which comes up time and again, not just in research but in our own experiences straddling the different industries, is confidence.’

Echoing the advice of Marion, Catherine believes the most effective starting point to begin to grow and increase self-confidence is to ‘know your strengths’.

‘You can’t build someone’s confidence by just telling them to be confident, or telling them that they are great. They need to have a sufficient level of self-awareness and understanding to be able to appreciate what their strengths are, and how they can leverage those to become truly excellent at what they do.

‘Women often think that an ability to do a job well is enough to get you recognised and promoted appropriately. However, it is vital to build supportive networks, not just because it can enhance your chances of progression and promotion, but because it can have a significant impact on your development.’

The other crucial area is mindset – specifically how concepts such as growth mindset, stretch zone, and resilience can help female coaches to relish challenges and development opportunities, and learn from situations when things go wrong.

‘A better understanding of these, and tools and techniques to apply and embed them, can make a huge difference to how female coaches drive and perceive their development,’ says Catherine.

It may well be true that some men feel threatened by strong, self-confident women but, speaking, if I may, on behalf of all men, that’s our problem to deal with.

Next steps

UK Coaching works in partnership with governing bodies of sport and county sports partnerships to effect change and give women the confidence to get involved in coaching.

Reach is a brand of UK Coaching, set up to raise awareness and inspire more women to get into coaching as well as encourage current women coaches to develop their skills further. ConnectedCoaches members are encouraged to check out the Reach website and follow @ReachCoaches on Twitter.