Obsessed with sport, one AFL women’s masters competitor wanted to complement her lifetime of experience in other games and coaching with a late start to her football career.
Jules Hay finally took the plunge into Women’s Masters AFL football in part because of the impact she thought it could have on her coaching. Perhaps not so much obsessed – more consumed – by sport from an early age, Hay loved football, but because of circumstances she plunged into a range of other sporting pursuits for quite some time. In Year 7 at school she played Australian Rules football in her school’s all-male team. Soon enough though, she was in the netball team. Growing up in the West Australian capital of Perth she followed the West Coast Eagles, but once the Fremantle Dockers were formed she jumped on board. “Our family wanted to support the underdogs!” she says. At a certain stage she says she felt “removed from footy”. Her sports included netball, basketball, Little Athletics, and swimming. She played softball at Mercy College, and then she moved to Ocean Reef Senior High School on the northern fringe of Perth. In Year 12 she won the Sportswoman of the Year award, and the Pierre de Coubertin award (named after the founder of the modern Olympics, it is an award which recognises sporting secondary school students who demonstrate the Olympic movement values).
Hay went on to study sports science at the University of Western Australia and graduated with a Diploma of Education. “I was keen on teaching, but sport was serious for me,” she says. At one point she joined a national development squad for basketball referees. “Officiating was interesting and challenging. And I quite like hard things,” says Hay. She also enjoyed the social network which came with refereeing and “you had to be fit to do it.” She saw fitness as a natural part of sporting activity, not necessarily an end in itself.
After going as far as she thought she could in Western Australia Hay decided to move to Melbourne. On a couple of occasions she has attended the Australian Institute of Sport as a referee. She describes those excursions as “fantastic”. “It was really good to be recognised and I took it pretty seriously,” she says. She was also instructing as a Physical Education teacher at Emerson Special School in the south-eastern suburb of Dandenong, which works with students who have mild intellectual disabilities. It was a natural progression for her. “I love making people love sport,” she says. “I love to show them how great being involved in sport is. It’s all about engaging as many people as possible.”
In the mid 2000s she travelled to the UK, where she stayed for five years whilst teaching, and then went by train from London to Hong Kong, ultimately visiting 44 countries. Her highlights included observing how they taught sport in China, and watching Mongolian horse riding. She formed the conclusion that “western countries are a lot more invested in sport.”
In fact Hay is so invested in the idea of sport’s beneficial effects she has what she describes as a “bucket list” idea of flying over poorer countries whilst discharging a plane-load of tennis balls – literally spreading her passion!
In 2009 she was pregnant and sport went on the backburner – if that’s how you’d describe it! Whilst on this “backburner” she was running, swimming, and bike-riding. She had run a marathon in her last year in London, and from there she decided to take up triathalons. She started with mini-triathalons, but she was so competitive she quickly upgraded to bigger events. Over a six-year period she competed many times. She was a single mother, and teaching at Deakin University.
She had also been coaching her son’s basketball team when both her son and daughter moved on to the AFL introductory Auckick program at Ashburton.
She turned up to the program with over 20 years of coaching experience across a range of sports and levels. They asked her if she could help out in the canteen. Every job’s important at a sporting club backed by volunteers, but Hay says, “I like to push gender sterotypes. I thought I could help out with the coaching.” Hay says beyond her enthusiasm for the sport she had no specific football coaching background, but Auskick was primarily about fundamental movement skills, which she knew well. In 2017 the local Auskick set up was an all-male coaching environment. “I was the only mum,” says Hay. Despite this, Hays says the dads were great.
(Hay was keen to encourage more female players and coaches, and last season nine women were involved in coaching Auskick. She says Ashburton Auskick had the only local Auskick for girls. She notes, “The players finally had female role models in a sport that had been dominated by males for 150 years. I felt like crying!”).
Hay’s enthusiasm for the idea of women coaching in football has encompassed her thinking so much she is now studying the topic, with the ultimate aim of producing a PHD from her work. “I’m researching female football coaches,” she says. At the time of writing she notes, “Only four percent of coaches in football are female in Victoria, and only eight percent nationally. In the last three years there’s been a 23 percent surge in participation in Australian Rules football by women, but the number of females in coaching has remained stagnant. Originally there were two female head AFLW coaches – Bec Goddard (Adelaide) and Michelle Cowan (Fremantle) – but last season there were none! There was an idea that with more females playing, you’d get more coaches, but that’s not supported by the data. This is not a football problem, it’s a social and cultural problem.” With her passion for the subject Hay’s PHD should make for interesting reading.
In 2018 her son was going to play with the Ashburton Redbacks and the club asked if she’d coach the Under 8s. She said she’d think about it, but when she discussed it with her son he told her it would be “awesome” to have her as his coach. “I’ve taught my son a lot,” says Hay, “Gender is invisible to him!” Nonetheless she was the only female coach amongst 40 men. “I’d been coaching for 23 years and I had an extensive background in teaching, but I felt the odd one out.” She says that through the season there were many occasions when she was asked if she was the team’s manager and she was at pains to point out she was in fact the coach.
But she enjoyed the challenge of her first season coaching football, and at the end of it she found out about a ‘come and try’ day for masters aged women footballers. Hay thought it could help her coaching if she actually played. So she turned up on a cold and wet day with around 40 other females. She loved it.
“I like that ‘physicalness’ of the game,” she says. “And coming from six years of triathalons, I loved the team aspect of it. You’re with 35 best friends and there’s a sense of belonging. It really empowered me. I probably understood why men had been attracted to the game for so long. The idea of a common goal really resonated with me. There’s a more powerful sense of coming together as one.”
Hay continues, “Playing footy you’re able to put everything else aside. You’re all fighting together chasing some stupid red ball! Our world has become so lonely. No one really knows anyone. Then all of a sudden you’re with 35 best friends and they’re true friends, not just on social media.” She had a strong sense that “these are people you had to rely on.”
“It was really nice to be a part of it. It was a true privilege.”
Hay says that as a woman and a mum she enjoyed the team and leadership opportunities.
In her second ever game (Vic Metro versus Vic Country) she won the Lawrie Evans medal for best on the ground. While she likes being on the ball, towards the end of her first season with the Waverley Warriors she gravitated towards a defensive role.
She feels playing has definitely helped her coaching. “It’s made me appreciate how hard football is. Football ebbs and flows. It’s quite exhausting. You can get crunched from behind so you need 360-degree vision. You can get seriously hurt. Communication is vital. That’s what I like about it. It’s much more dynamic than other sports. And it’s complex.”
She continues, “Many people only have their knowledge of the game as a spectator. I feel fortunate that I now have knowledge as both a coach, a spectator, and a player.”
© All images and words copyright Robert Keeley Photos.