One of the great things about athletics is the parity between female and male athletes. Yet in the coaching world, women remain less visible than their male counterparts. SPIKES speaks to a trio of women coaches behind some of the world's best.

Caryl Smith Gilbert

Nationality: American

Athletes coached

– Michael Norman (USA): 400m world indoor record holder, 44.52

– previously Andre De Grasse (Canada): Rio 2016 Olympic silver medallist (200m) and two time bronze medallist (100m and 4x100m); 2015 Pan American Games 100m and 200m champion

Growing up as a schoolgirl sprint prodigy, Denver-raised Caryl Smith Gilbert never imagined that one day she would be coaching. Aged 12 she ran 11.78 for the 100m. In 1986 she won a 100m silver medal at the inaugural World Junior Championships in Athens. Yet despite her special gifts she struggled to fulfill her early potential and quit competing in her early 20s.

Her former coach, Tony Wells, insisted she should take up a coaching position at her old high school. Smith Gilbert, frustrated with the sport, was not enthused.

“I didn’t see much value in anything that didn’t pertain to me,” she admits. “I was pretty selfish and self-centred, and down and out about my track career. I was trying to find my way and I thought my way was running track.”

She reluctantly took up the offer and quickly found that helping others achieve their track goals was a turn on. Success followed. She led DeeDee Trotter to Olympic gold (4x400m) and bronze (400m) at London 2012. She coached Tianna Madison (now Bartoletta), aged 19 at the time, to the world long jump title in 2005.

Nonetheless, it has not been an easy journey to her current position as Director of Track & Field at the University of Southern California. She believes athletics is a male dominated profession; in the US collegiate system, Smith Gilbert says, salaries are often lower for female coaches, and women are invariably pushed out into more menial roles.

“A good coach is a good coach, it does not matter about gender, colour or the biological make up. A good coach has a feel for coaching, but it is important to always do what is right for the athlete and this helps alleviate stress and pressure.”

She believes a woman coach can be “a bit more attentive to detail,” but Smith Gilbert is fully aware the difficulties women face in their journey to coach elite athletes. 

“It is difficult if you have a family,” says Smith Gilbert, herself a mother to three children. “It is hard to find that balance. When I'm home, I find I'm sometimes guilty about leaving the athletes I coach. Then I also feel guilty when I'm at work because I feel I am missing time with the children at home. It is a constant struggle and a lot of women give up. I am lucky in that I have the right partner and I couldn't do it without his support.”

Yet Smith Gilbert is adamant that advocating more female coaches is a cause worth fighting for.

“It is important for men and women to see strong women to offer guidance. It is good for everyone because it creates balance. To have another perspective allows you to get the most out of your athletes.”

Heather Burroughs

Nationality: American

Athletes coached (alongside Mark Wetmore):

– Jenny Simpson (USA): Rio 2016 Olympic 1500m bronze medallist; 2011 world 1500m champion

– previously Emma Coburn (USA): Rio 2016 Olympic 3000m steeplechase bronze medallist; USA 3000m steeplechase record holder 

Immersed in the sport since the age of eight, Heather Burroughs was told through high school and college she had the qualities to make a good coach. Yet it was only a couple of years after quitting the sport, aged 24, that she realised how interested she was in the performances of other athletes, and she took up a part-time coaching role at the University of Colorado.

“It was like I was the last to know,” she says of her coaching potential. 

Fortunate to learn from the coaching philosophy of Mark Wetmore, the man she still works alongside today, Burroughs believes the emotions she feels as a coach are not radically different to those she experienced competing as an athlete for the University of Colorado, where she starred as a three-time cross country All-American.

“When it goes well, it is lot of fun; and when it doesn't go well I often feel totally deflated,” she explains. Burroughs is Associate Head Coach for men's and women's cross country, and Assistant Coach for men's and women's track at UC – long regarded as one of the standard-bearers in collegiate endurance running.

Burroughs is a rare example of a woman occupying a high profile coaching position. She accepts that the time commitment to being a coach of an international athlete can make it very difficult for women with families. However, she sees signs within the NCAA system that more female coaches are emerging. 

“I'm only guessing here, but I think you will find a lot more female coaches in that 25-30 year-old age bracket than 15 years ago,” Burroughs says. “This is partly because we're still not three generations into women competing at NCAA level [female athletes began competing in 1982]. As every coach is a former athlete, the more female athletes we see, the more female coaches will follow.” 

Burroughs says she loves her job because everyone is invested “in being the best they can be,” and this makes it fun. But she says failure to grow the number of women coaches will have a detrimental effect on the sport.

“Men and women are different in psychologically and physiologically. The way I communicate and the way Mark [Wetmore] communicates, we find some different angles. But the other reason to consider women coaches is you are looking at 50 per cent of the population. If you are only looking at male coaches, you are not taking from the entire talent pool.”

Anna Botha

Nationality: Namibian

Athletes coached:  

– Wayde van Niekerk (South African): Rio 2016 Olympic 400m champion; 2015 world 400m champion; 400m world record holder

As a great-grandmother of four and with almost 50 years coaching experience, Anna Botha can draw upon a wealth of experience.

A long jumper and 100m sprinter in her youth, Botha moved into coaching in her native Namibia in 1968 – motivated to guide her own children who had just started the sport. Yet long after her kids had hung up their spikes, she carried on, insisting “it gave me a purpose in life and I love to see young people develop and build confidence through achieving”.

After arriving from Namibia to coach at the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein, South Africa, in 1990, her career has continued to take an upward trajectory. She has coached a number of South Africa's leading sprinters and hurdles, including 2008 World Junior 400m hurdles finalist PC Beneke. 

She has never found the fact she is a women a bar to her enjoying coaching success, but she understands the dilemma many women face when committing to coaching. 

“Coaching asks a lot of your time and input, particularly because as a woman you have many family responsibilities. In my case I was very fortunate in that I had a husband [who has since died] who loved athletics and fully supported me in my coaching.”

Botha admits her number one passion is coaching the 400m because of the the “guts and determination” needed to excel in the event. In recent seasons she has enjoyed huge success with Wayde van Niekerk, and she believes one of her strengths is giving her athletes clear boundaries.

“I dearly love all my athletes but it's about being strict,” she explains. “I like to think they can be open and spontaneous with me. We can laugh, but when we have to work hard, we work hard.”

She insists women coaches can offer “something a little different psychologically”. With regards to herself, she says her appetite to learn more about the sport has been key to her longevity in it.

“You are never too old to learn. I'm always trying new things so it is never boring for the athletes. If I have a problem, I think about it and try to work something out to make it better.”

This article has been updated with athletes' latest achievements in August 2016 and March 2018