Coach profile: Canada Games Apprentice, Jess Tang
The Canada Games Women in Coaching Apprenticeship program is a unique mentorship opportunity for women coaches across the country. Today, we are hearing from current apprentice coach, Jess Tang, on her experience as part of the program, her coaching journey and vision. Let's meet Jess, a wrestling coach at Coast Wrestling Academy.
I began my coaching journey in 2015, when I approached Frank Mensah, the head coach of Coast Wrestling Academy at a tournament hosted by SFU. He was immediately supportive and invited me to come out to practice two days later. Coast Wrestling Academy has been my home in BC ever since and it’s given me opportunities to coach and work with some of BC’s and Canada’s top female wrestlers.
Between 2017 - 2019, I lived in Ontario and coached with a club called Matmen Wrestling. That experience in Ontario gave me exposure to diverse athletes and coaches, which furthered my learning as a coach and deepened my confidence. Through the encouragement of mentors, I became involved as a Board Member for the Ontario Amateur Wrestling Association, and later on, I became Director on the board of Wrestling Canada. Both experiences gave me a different perspective on sport, by looking at it through a governance lens and understanding how policies can impact diversity, inclusion and equity in sport.
What are some of your coaching goals and how does this apprenticeship help further these goals?
My goal is to coach at an international level - to be in the corner for my athletes at an international tournament. Being a part of the Canada Games Team BC Coaching team through this apprenticeship program has allowed me to learn from individuals who have experience coaching high performance athletes.
The professional development I receive from this position will give me the skills to work with a greater number of athletes, such as athletes on Team BC or, hopefully, the national team. I’m keenly aware of how few women coaches we have in the sport of wrestling and I think it’s important to have more diverse representation in coaching positions. I want to be in a position to advocate for female coaches and athletes in wrestling and contribute to the dialogue that pushes forward more inclusive policies and opportunities for them.
Being a part of the apprenticeship program has given me opportunities to speak and connect with other female coaches across Canada and hear their unique perspectives and challenges they face within their sports. I’m grateful to be a part of this community of women coaches within this program.
What unique challenges have you faced as a coach in a male dominated sport?
I wish I could say that I’ve never faced any challenges, though that sadly isn’t the case. I think the hardest part to deal with isn’t the impact on me, but when I see the decisions being made by male coaches having a direct and adverse impact on female athletes. There is a sense of added responsibility I feel and take seriously as a woman coach to actively advocate for team policies and coaching decisions that are more inclusive and take into consideration how current coaching practices may be dated and ineffective in the way that they reinforce gender stereotypes and gender roles.
I think a lot of “old school” coaching practices need to be re-evaluated because of the lasting harm they can inflict on athletes. This false idea that “mental toughness” means pushing yourself to play or compete past pain or injury and to compartmentalize your emotions. This harms both men and women in sport. I’ve seen male coaches dismiss female athletes for being “too emotional” or feel too uncomfortable to hold space for an athlete to express their emotions. This is harmful, creates toxic and unsafe environments for athletes, and breaks the trust athletes have in themselves and with their coaches.
It is challenging to find a balance within a coaching staff with different coaching philosophies, generational gaps, and differences in our lived experiences. Being a minority voice on a coaching staff means there is an added emotional labour and investment you put in when engaging in conversations with colleagues about addressing systemic barriers and biases. It can be exhausting to feel that sense of responsibility to advocate and educate others who don’t see these blind spots or understand the unique challenges female athletes face that their male counterparts do not. I’ve been lucky to find supportive networks within the wrestling coaching community who are willing to have these conversations, which I am so thankful for.
How did having leadership opportunities impact your confidence and experience as a coach?
It’s had a huge impact. Every time I was encouraged (and in some cases, pushed forward) by the other coaches on my team to run a practice by myself, to lead a drill or address the team, these opportunities built up over time and allowed me to find my voice and confidence as a coach. I’m so thankful for the coaching staff I worked with who encouraged me and gave me these opportunities to lead in front of the team, so I could build my confidence and discover my unique coaching style. When I started coaching, I didn’t have a ton of confidence and it was easy to fade into the background and just follow the lead of the head coaches. Through mentorship and supportive colleagues on the coaching team, I was able to slowly find my voice as a coach. I’ve realized sometimes the best way to learn is to just be thrown into the arena - to be given the opportunity to lead, even when you don’t feel fully ready. You’ll learn more that way than when you sit and wait on the sidelines until you feel confident.
What has been some important learnings for you so far in the apprenticeship program?
One of the biggest values of being in the apprenticeship program has been the ongoing personal development sessions over the past year and a half. These touchpoints have been valuable over the pandemic when many of us haven’t had the opportunities to coach actively. They have been steady reminders that we can still further our coaching education and it is worth investing in.
There was a PD session on Mental Health in Sport, which took place in December 2020 and came at a time when I think many of us were struggling with our own mental health due to restrictions. The session was timely, relevant, and covered a topic that I think all coaches would benefit learning more about. We need to normalize being able to talk to our athletes about their mental health and make a clear distinction between mental toughness and mental health. The session gave us ways in which we can incorporate talking about mental health with our athletes and how to help them develop plans for athlete self-care. It’s important for us as coaches to be able to talk openly about mental health with our athletes, to model what it looks like to take care of our mental health, and normalize asking for help. Ensuring mental health is part of our coaching plans means we can build safer team cultures and training environments, and stronger relationships with our athletes.
I want to coach athletes who are champions both on and off the mat - this means ensuring they have what they need off the mat to feel empowered, confident, and capable.
What value do you think this program brings to the sport community?
This program is incredibly important to demonstrate the value in investing in underrepresented (and often marginalized) voices in sport. By intentionally creating a space where women coaches are supported and invested in, you increase the chances that these women will stay in sport and advance into coaching positions where they can advocate for and champion better outcomes in their sports. More women in coaching positions means more athletes can see themselves reflected back to them by those in positions of power and are therefore more likely to feel valued, seen, and heard.
This program gives an opportunity for women to learn in a safe and supportive environment, while still giving them exposure to high level competition. To be able to attend the Canada Summer Games as a coach, while still learning is a huge opportunity. Opportunities to coach at high level competitions, like the Canada Games, are often limited to coaches who have been in the sport for many years and it can be hard to gain access to these opportunities as a young, new coach. This program opens the door for female coaches and ensures they are given the supports they need to succeed in these high level, competitive environments.
We need more women voices in sports period. Greater diversity and representation across levels of leadership in sport, such as coaching, ensures that decisions being made and policies being advocated for, take in the needs and considerations of those marginalized and underrepresented. This is crucial to create an equal playing field - where every athlete has an opportunity to thrive and feel seen.
Throughout my coaching experience, mentors have been instrumental in helping me find my confidence and voice as a coach. I am so thankful for the supportive coaching colleagues I’ve met through the teams I’ve been a part of and Board’s I have sat on. These mentors have shared the same belief that we need more diverse voices and representation in wrestling, and have worked to give opportunities to new coaches like myself to learn and develop. I’m thankful for programs like this Apprenticeship program that provides a community for women coaches to connect with each other and to be given specific, intentional development opportunities.
Thank you so much, Jess, for sharing your story and insights on the program and coaching as a whole. Best of luck at the 2022 Canada Summer Games! To learn more about the program and to apply for the 2023 Games, click here.