After 10 years and 102 matches as head coach of the Australian Diamonds, you could be forgiven for thinking Lisa Alexander was ready to settle into an easy retirement and leave the cutthroat world of elite coaching behind. However, Alexander is far from losing her passion – in fact, she is looking beyond the world of netball.
“There are also opportunities in other sports and particularly for me, AFL,” she tells Guardian Australia. “People ask me about AFLW. I don’t think I’m suited for that kind of coaching, because it’s much more at a development level. I don’t say that with any sort of malice…for the longevity of the competition it needs development coaches who can lift the skill levels…It’s happening quickly but that’s not my skill set.”
Alexander has her sights firmly set on the men’s competition, where she believes she could add value to a number of teams, particularly the bottom six from this year.
“I’ve always thought I could add to the defensive knowledge because while they have embraced the cluster, I think a lot of the one-on-one contests and the coaching of that fine art of the defence in those contests, I think I can add a lot to,” she says.
“Also in the midfield the way the stoppages work, the different setups in our play are similar. In the attacking structure I’m seeing teams like Richmond now starting to look at that creation of space first and then driving to the attacking space.”
Alexander has been around football her whole life, attending St Kilda matches with her mother from the age of four and achieving a level three coaching qualification in the sport while at university. Growing up she did not understand why she wasn’t allowed to play football or cricket, two sports she loved to play in the backyard and around her neighbourhood. At that time, girls simply did not play those sports and Alexander is pleased that has changed for today’s young people.
While there is a significant barrier to break through to become the first female head coach of a men’s AFL team, Alexander takes aim at critics who suggest she should set her sights lower.
“People always say to me, ‘Oh, you should start at the bottom and work your way up’,” she says. “Well, would you say that to the CEO of BHP? If they went across to Macquarie Bank, would they have to go to the bottom of the pile there? I mean, it’s absurd. But that’s the sort of argument I have to put together for people who don’t understand.”
While male coaches in women’s sport are common – there have even been two male head coaches in the Super Netball – if Alexander was to achieve her dream, she would become the first female head coach of a professional men’s team in any of the football codes in Australia. While she does not find that idea daunting, she recognises that there are dangers that come with being the first.
“It’s going to be somebody that takes the leap of faith to say, we’re going to have a go at this. And we’re going to back it and we’re going to put in a team,” she says. “What happened to Rhyce Shaw this year [who took a team into a hub as a first year coach without a full support system around him], if that happens to the first female AFL head coach then of course they’ll fail. Because they are on a hiding to nothing.”
Alexander has taken on a part-time role as high performance coaching and leadership expert with Leading Teams, but as well as considering a role in AFL, she has been keeping a keen eye on the opportunities that have cropped up in the Super Netball – the Queensland Firebirds and Collingwood Magpies are both yet to name new coaches for the 2021 season, while West Coast Fever head coach Stacey Marinkovich will move into a full-time position with the Diamonds in 2022.
“I haven’t quite got the coaching bug out of me yet,” she says. “Watching the grand finals [in Super Netball, AFL and NRL] makes me think about that urgency and the thrill of coaching in a high-performance environment and how addictive it is. And working with young people…it’s a great love.”
Alexander acknowledges the tough journey ahead if she does set off down the path of AFL coaching, but she feels that it is important to take a chance on a big dream and set an example for younger women who want to pursue an elite coaching career.
“The only thing I see is the fact that we’re excluded, and it doesn’t make sense to me, because you’re excluding 50% of your talent pool of coaching,” she says. “Why would you do it? So it’s about modelling and people like me having to show the way. It may not happen for me. But even if I just paved the way for it to happen, I’ll be feeling very, very pleased about that.”