Coach Karen Ephraim on the importance of observation and individual development in coaching

Karen Ephraim, coach and professor of the Master in Coaching at Johan Cruyff Institute, about her long experience working in different sports and the value of individual development for the benefit of the group

Karen Ephraim is a physical education teacher, volleyball coach, wheelchair rugby team coach and professor-coach of the Master in Coaching at Johan Cruyff Institute, , in which she has been involved since 2010 and where she guides students –often from sports but sometimes also from outside– in the development of their coaching skills.

She is a clear example that a good coach can work with any athlete or person, no matter what their sport is or whether they are a man or a woman.

“You need to know your players, who they are, so you can help them to understand themselves”

“I think the most important trait or attribute that a successful sports coach needs, is that you know your players, who they are, and that you help them to understand themselves. That way, you can give them what they need and deal with their individual needs”, says Karen, and she continues: “Coaching is about observing, which for me also includes listening and feeling,”

Karen has had the ‘teacher genes’ since she was little; she got her love for her profession from her parents, who were both teachers. She enjoys coaching: “Athletes are people who are eager to learn and improve. I love the environment in which I work.” In this interview she talks about her methods and her extensive background.

Can you explain to us who you are as a coach, and what is important to you in coaching?

“Coaching is about observing” - Johan Cruyff InstituteI started my career as a teacher in physical education and I worked at a high school for 10 years. When I was working with the children in the school, my focus was always on their individual development, and that is what I still focus on now.

When I worked at the school I was also a volleyball coach, and had the same focus. After a few years, I founded and coached the wheelchair rugby team at Den Haag, the city where I live in the Netherlands. I was also head coach of the national wheelchair rugby team for a few years. I very much enjoyed this, we always worked on possibilities and not impossibilities…which is so important in disability sports, and in development in general. 

“In sports in general it’s important to focus on possibilities, and in disability sports it’s essential”

Because if someone can’t walk, it is useless to focus on walking, you need to focus on how they are able to move. For me, that is the same way I look at coaching in general. Wheelchair rugby is a small sport, so whether it’s men or women, they all play together in one team. It’s not about being a man or being a woman, it’s about the contribution each player can give to the team. In my opinion, in disability sports it’s a bit easier to manage the differences because the differences are very physical and therefore very apparent. For me, it was a very good lesson in learning to coach the possibilities of those players and looking at the way I could contribute to the possibilities of each person.

Have you ever faced any equality challenges as a female coach?

I think it could be an issue, but for me it has never been one. I know what I can and can’t do, and so that’s what I’m working on. For me, it’s not important if I am a male or female coach, I’m just looking to support what my players need. Maybe externally people look at me differently because I’m a woman in sport, but I don’t really notice it.

For me, it’s not important if I am a male or female coach, I’m just looking to support what my players need”

Was it always your ambition to help people how to become better coaches?

I think it has always been my ambition to be a teacher. My parents were both teachers and they showed me their love for the work they did. When I was a little girl I always wanted to be a PE teacher, so it started at school for me. I do really enjoy what I do now because sportspeople are always eager to learn and develop, and that’s a great environment to work in.

Can you share with us your experiences as a professor-coach of the Master in Coaching at Johan Cruyff Institute?

I have been a teacher on the Master in Coaching since 2010, and it is a big honor to work with groups of students who are eager to develop their coaching skills. The most important part of the program for me is that it’s all about personal development. Johan Cruyff said “you can only coach others if you can coach yourself”, so the journey we go on with the students is all about their personal development and how they can make themselves better in all that they do. 

“The journey we go on with the students is all about their personal development and how they can make themselves better in all that they do”

It is always exciting to see the students develop in one year! We show them how important it is to watch and listen to other people. I think, for a coach, your eyes are a very important tool to be able to coach because coaching is about observing, which for me also includes listening and feeling.

You attended a ‘Women in Football’ conference. Do you such events are important?

Yes, I do think it’s important because people tend to just stick with the way they have always done things, which in this case is that more men are members of boards and technical committees than women. In order to get more women leaders in football, everyone has to be aware of this issue. So for example, traditionally, whenever there is a board meeting, most if not all of the people involved are men – and that’s the way it has always been. I think it is important to force others to change this. In this case, I think the organizations involved with the Women’s European Championships did well because they really highlighted these points and the lack of women leaders. I think it is necessary to continue to do this until the new behavior begins and having more women involved becomes a new ‘normal’.

There is such a lack of women who are head coaches in football. However, those that are tend to be very successful. Why do you think this is?

For example, whilst less than 10% of all women’s national teams have female head coaches, the success rate for winning a championship for teams with a female head coach is 92% in global competitions… It was good to see the Netherlands win the European Championships hosted in the Netherlands and that all the hard work that Sarina Wiegman had put in paid off. She has worked for so many years in football, she is very professional and in my opinion did everything a good coach should be doing, i.e. seeing and hearing every aspect of the game. I don’t know her personally, but I think she has always been busy being a football coach and not being a female football coach. She did what she thought was needed to be the best football coach and that was her ambition. It was so wonderful to see them win!

I think that the women who are given the head coaching jobs have had to prove, and prove again and again, how good they are as coaches. They have to prove themselves so much more than men have to. This makes me think of the German football referee Bibiana Steinhaus who refereed in the German men’s league, and she got really positive feedback. She said that she doesn’t want to be seen as an example and, in her own words, “I do what I love to do and I just want to be very good.” Like I said before, we are not used to having female coaches in high positions, and as long as it is not normal, we have to work hard to get up there and for it to be normal. Firstly, the female coaches themselves have to work hard to get themselves to that position, and secondly, we have to support them and create those opportunities.

What advice would you give to women who want to progress in their coaching career?

I think one of the things is to work hard. Know what your possibilities are and the things you are not good at. Work hard to get better at what you do. Don’t focus on being a woman, focus on how you can progress. You may do things differently to a male coach, but you should realize that this is a good thing!


Leadership in Coaching

The Leadership in Coaching Program in Amsterdam is developed for everybody (in or outside sports) who seeks self-knowledge and self-development with the aim to improve oneself as a (sport) coach and/or manager. This 10-month program is delivered in Dutch and based on the vision of Johan Cruyff in which sport coaching is more than using tactical and technical knowledge. It is about knowing yourself and developing your own unique coaching style, and to apply that to the players / staff, the team and the environment. We believe that you can only coach others, if you know how to coach yourself.

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