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kicking goals: peta searle first woman AFL coach

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Peta Searle has become the first woman ever to be hired in a full-time capacity in the most male-dominated industry in the sporting world – AFL coaching. Last week, Searle confirmed her appointment as a development coach with the St Kilda Football Club, where her role will be with developing players through the Saints Academy. This is the highest rank in the coaching system that a woman has ever achieved, and it is remarkably appropriate that it is Searle, who is a trailblazer for any woman who aspires to achieve what she has already achieved in football successes.

Her resume is an impressive one, and confirms why St Kilda coach Alan Richardson and head of development Simon McPhee have chosen her as the best candidate for the role. She was the first woman ever to be appointed as head coach of a VFL side, and coached Port Melbourne, following her apprenticeship with successful AFL and VFL coach Gary Ayres. Prior to this, Searle had coached in the Victorian Women’s Football League club Darebin, and had lead the club to five premierships. More than enough credentials to justify her appointment as a development coach at an elite club at the game’s highest level. Her recommendation came directly from Ayres, who has been a strong supporter of her ongoing, seven year crusade to break through the barriers of the male-dominated world of AFL coaching and to obtain employment in her dream profession.

However, despite her incredible successes and her clear talent for the role, Searle had all but relinquished her dream of coaching at an AFL or interclub level for personal reasons. As a single mother of children Tess and Jackson, she temporarily gave up football coaching and returned to her other trade of teaching to maintain a steady income in order to support her family. She resigned from her VFL coaching role at the end of last year, following a brief tenure at the Melbourne Football Club, due to not being able to justify signing a coaching contract worth just $5000. ‘It’s just not viable for me to continue’, Searle stated. ‘I just thought that maybe with a few more years in the system something could have happened – that I could have provided for my family and do what I really want to do. But the fact is that just didn’t quite evolve, and that’s disappointing.’

Mentor Ayres was also disappointed at the time of this turn of events. ‘I think that this is an awful shame,’ he stated. ‘I believe she could knock over, without any problem whatsoever, a development coaching role within any AFL club. But she’s been trying to knock the door down for a long, long time.’

Thankfully for Searle’s own fulfilment of her dream and realisation of her obvious potential, she wasn’t teaching physical education to school students in Brighton for long. The opportunity opened at St Kilda, and now her dream is alive and well. ‘I’ve been lost for words. Probably a little bit overwhelmed,’ Searle told Fairfax Media at the confirmation of her appointment. ‘For this situation to have turned around – it’s happening and it’s real – I’ve gone from being grumpy Pete to you can’t wipe the smile off my face.’

Not only does Searle’s dream remain alive and well through an unlikely match with the St Kilda Football Club (who, in the past, have had well documented and serious issues with women – from the Steven Milne rape charges to their notorious dealings with the so-called ‘St Kilda schoolgirl’ Kim Duthie), but also the dreams of a true breakthrough in AFL sporting and coaching culture. For it is truly shocking that it took the AFL 117 years to appoint the first female in a coaching rank, that is indisputable. However, Searle’s efforts mean that there is true and genuine potential for there to be more and more breakthroughs in this industry, and for more and more truly qualified and passionate people to live their dreams and to see total male domination become a thing of the past.

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