Upon Steph Binder’s signing last week as North Melbourne’s new VFLW coach, the competition now boasts six female head coaches across 12 teams.
Collingwood, Williamstown, Hawthorn, the Southern Saints, Darebin, and now North Melbourne all have a woman in the top job coming into 2022. After it was announced in July that Cheyne Webster would be vacating the Roos role after just a year at the helm, the door was wide open.
Binder joins her new club boasting years of experience coaching underage and academy sides.
She’s served as an assistant coach for the Dandenong Stingrays and Vic Country girls sides, as well as acting as a development coach in the St Kilda Next Generation Academy and Under 15 Girls Next Generation Academy.
With North Melbourne having taken multiple Vic Country selections in the 2021 AFLW Draft, Binder will be working with girls that she helped to get draft ready from the get go.
Speaking to The Inner Sanctum, she touched on how much it meant to join the five other women in the VFLW top jobs, but how far the greater landscape of women in coaching still has to go.
“If you look at the VFLW, there are some amazing female coaches there,” Binder said.
“It is a little bit disappointing that at the AFLW level, there aren’t any senior females in those roles. I’ve worked with and been coached under some amazing female coaches.
“The AFL are putting a lot into development with She Can Coach and other various female coaching acceleration programs, but there seems to be a little bit of disconnect between having the female coaches doing all the training and getting the experience and actually being considered for the top jobs.
“I don’t know if it’s a cultural mindset that needs to change, but then I don’t necessarily think there needs to be female head coaches at every club. I think we need coaches, male or female, who actually want to coach women and have experience coaching women and girls, and know the subtle differences between coaching women and men.
“The more female coaches there are, the more there is hope for the generations to come that there are pathways. The more female coaches the better, but we’ve also got to have the right person for the job as well.”
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Binder’s experience speaks for itself, but there’s always going to be a jump going from coaching under 15s and 19s to coaching a group of adult women.
While North Melbourne’s young AFLW brigade received their share of game time at VFLW level in 2021, the team the side fielded in its final Round 14 match had an average age of approximately 24.
This is significantly closer to the age profile of a contending top level team than any side Binder has ever coached before.
The new coach is well aware of the challenges this poses, but is already considering what she’ll have to implement in her new squad, both across training and outside of footy.
“Definitely there’s going to be a step up in terms of physicality, speed of the game and training standards,” Binder said.
“The thing to be mindful of is I’ve gone from the juniors where they’re still mostly living at home and in high school, rely a fair bit on their parents, to potentially working with people who are at uni, working full time, have a lot of other responsibilities.
“Being able to manage their work/life balance as well is really important. There’s higher standards at the senior level.
“One of the biggest things regardless of the level you’re at is the culture and team dynamics. The stronger you are as a team, the better you’re going to perform.
“Really getting the culture aspect right from the start and building from there is probably the one thing I’m going to bring through.”
Building the list
Though North Melbourne has primarily utilised talent identification days in the past to build the team, and again this season, Binder has already begun formulating the strategy behind building her best squad.
Past relationships and connections have always been an important part of sport at the state level, and Binder isn’t shying away from leaning on those to help shape her side.
Finding new talent and building the culture will be a balancing act, but one that she’s prepared for.
“The talent day pathways will be a really good avenue to unearth some talent,” Binder explained.
“I think the way we’re going to go about it is getting really good people to the club, and then looking at their athletic abilities and their football abilities. If we can get the right players culturally, that’s going to give us a good base.
“There’s definitely some players that I’ve coached in the past that I’d be reaching out to, just because they’re ripper people and good players. Putting a few calls out, but really looking towards our talent day to see what’s out there in the local area.”
Through perhaps serendipitous circumstances, two players that Binder coached at Vic Country, Tara Slender and Tess Craven, could find themselves under the direction of their old coach once again.
Already familiar with their best attributes, Binder is thrilled with the prospect of having the opportunity to help develop their games further.
“Tess is an absolute ripper,” she said.
“She just sort of goes about her business and gets the job done; very hard at it and has beautiful skills. She’s very unassuming, and I just love everything about her.
“Tara adds a bit of X-factor, she’s very athletic and can take a great overhead mark. You can sort of swing her to either end of the ground, so very versatile.
“It’s really good to be aligned with them, and I’m sure all the other young talent will be really exciting. I’m looking forward to getting to know them all and helping develop them through.”
No announcement has yet been made on the commencement date of the 2022 VFLW season, though the VFL is staying committed to holding the 2021 VFLW Grand Final.
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