From burgers and fries, to a coach on the rise

Gemma Lewis was running an American diner in Wales when it dawned on her what she really wanted to do with her life.

A former international footballer, who'd also had a stint with giant English club Chelsea, Lewis had made a clean break with the sport four years earlier. “I needed to find myself without football,” she says.

But, working in that restaurant, she realised just how much she loved the game, and how much she wanted to coach.

Now Lewis is regarded as one of the most promising coaches in New Zealand - and the world. She's just spent three days with the world’s top female football coaches in Zurich, as part of the new FIFA coach mentorship programme.

She also met the woman who will mentor her for the next 12 months – the head coach of the Japanese women’s team, Asako Takemoto.

Like a jet-setting footballer (but without the jet), Lewis is now in Montevideo, Uruguay, where she picks up her role as the assistant coach to the New Zealand team about to play in the women’s under-17 World Cup.

Earlier in the year, she was an assistant coach of the New Zealand under-20 women at their World Cup in France. Both teams have male coaches. 

A little of what Lewis gleaned from Takemoto during their whirlwind introduction may be able to help the under-17 side over the next couple of weeks, in their aim to advance from their group for the very first time.

“Just listening to some of her experiences was pretty amazing,” Lewis says of Takemoto, who played for Japan for 15 years, and was head coach of Japanese age group sides at two World Cups. In June this year, Takemoto guided Nadeshiko Japan to a 3-1 victory over the Football Ferns in Wellington (a ‘friendly’ which incidentally began the unravelling of Ferns’ head coach Andreas Heraf).

“She has so much experience, and I was digging into all of that, trying to get all of her ideas. She’s so humble and grounded, and so willing to share. I think it’s going to be a really good opportunity.”

It is 28-year-old Lewis’ goal to be like Takemoto and ultimately become the head coach of a national women’s side.

The FIFA mentorship programme has come at just the right time for New Zealand Football. Lawyer Pip Muir’s damning review of the governance of the sport last month revealed the pathway for women’s coaches to progress to national roles was “not well-defined”. It also recommended greater opportunities for the development of women coaches be made a priority.

FIFA introduced its programme, helping 21 up-and-coming coaches, soon after launching the first-ever global strategy to grow the women’s game.

"It’s easy to think... as women, we’re fighting to get to the top of a male-dominated industry. But we need to snap out of that and together ensure it's not an old boys’ club."

- Gemma Lewis

Lewis believes there are definite benefits in having a woman coaching a women’s football team.

“I’m a firm believer that it should be the best person for the role, regardless of gender. I’ve worked with a lot of great male coaches and seen them work really well in female environments, but I do think there are certain advantages to having a female coach,” she says.

“Being able to understand females better, how to communicate with them, and how to empathise. It’s so important in a young female environment that they feel positive, secure, and able to approach you as a coach; [to create] an environment where they can thrive without potentially being intimidated or concerned.

“It’s good for them to have a role model to look up to, too.”

Lewis could well be that role model. In her playing days, she turned out for Wales, Cardiff City and Chelsea in the women's English Premier League.

But, during those years, coaching never crossed her mind. “All of my focus was on being a player, and when I stopped playing, I took myself away from the sport completely… because it was all that I’d ever really known,” she says.

“It was the best thing that’s happened to me. Managing a restaurant was the polar opposite of what I do now, but I grew as a person - learning about communication and working with others. And it made me realise how much I loved this game.”

She started coaching as part of her volunteer module at university, and then took on a local under-16 girls team in Cardiff. With a Bachelor of Science in sport coaching and physical education, she couldn't get a job in football in Wales, but spotted a job as the development officer at Auckland Football. In 2014, she moved to New Zealand.

“I coached some of the Auckland age group teams, and the instantaneous reaction of how much I could have an effect on a group of players was infectious to me,” she says.

“It’s such a more humbling experience than playing. With coaching, I invest so much more in the players, trying to create the best opportunity for them to have the best outcome, and that intrinsically creates so much reward for me.”

As Lewis has travelled along NZ Football’s coach education pathway, she’s become assistant coach of the 'Future Football Ferns' programme – her first opportunity to be a full-time coach.

She’s part of a rising swell of young women coaches nationwide - one of four coaching teams in the National Women’s League. Last year she led Auckland to win the national title, but this year she's crossed the harbour bridge to coach the Northern Lights, who are currently second on the league table.

Lewis took a lot from her experience at the under-20 World Cup this year, where New Zealand failed to advance past the group stage but pulled off an historic 0-0 draw with France. She was one of 13 female assistant coaches at the tournament; only four of the 16 teams had a woman as head coach.

“I’ve really enjoyed this year learning so much from good head coaches. But I want to see what I can bring to a team in a head coach role,” she says.

Lewis now feels comfortable calling New Zealand home, and it’s where she’d like to see her coaching dream come to fruition.

Over the next 12 months, Lewis will be tapping into the Japanese brains trust, making two or three visits to work with Takemoto.

“The opportunity to learn from Asako is huge. It can be difficult coaching an international side, when you don’t work with the players week in, week out. You prepare for short tournaments that are a huge opportunity for the players and the country, but you have to work out how to get the best out of the players in a small space of time," she says. “Asako has the experience to show me exactly what we can do to improve in that area." 

The investment FIFA is putting into women's coaching worldwide is 'huge', Lewis says, and she's encouraged by NZ Football making similar efforts here, with a female coach scholarship programme launched in July.

Lewis is actually a mentor in that programme - to one of the most capped players in Football Ferns' history, Katie Duncan.

“It’s brilliant because I’m learning from her too. She’s working with me at the Northern Lights, volunteering to help run sessions,” Lewis says. “I’m very willing to share all that I’m learning and help people as much as I can.

“It’s easy to think there are only a couple of jobs in this career and, as women, we’re fighting to get to the top of a male-dominated industry. But we need to snap out of that and together ensure it's not an old boys’ club, and help each other to occupy more coaching spots, and spots within the governance of football.  

“There's got to be a mentality where it’s not competitive, but it’s about how we can help each other to better ourselves.”

* The New Zealand women's under-17s begin their World Cup campaign on November 14 (NZ time) with a game against Finland.

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