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Maia Vink (right) in action for Coastal Spirit alongside Katie Rood of Glenfield Rovers.
In a move to get more women coaching at the highest levels in New Zealand football, a new coach mentoring programme is attracting some of the country’s best players, like Olympian Katie Duncan.
Maia Vink has a record of speaking up for women’s football during her playing and coaching career.
When she was a young confident secondary school student, Vink attended her region’s football AGM to question a proposal a new competition.
The meeting attendees were discussing the new league set-up and the concept’s budgets. Listening to their support and praise, Vink got up and without skipping a beat asked: “I’m just assuming that all of those budgets and those sorts of things will be for the women’s teams as well.”
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The room full of men and the 17 year-old Vink sat in silence.
Her confidence attending and voicing her opinion came from a place of frustration, seeing two different sides of football growing up in Christchurch.
“I was frustrated with some of the inequalities I saw when my brothers were also going through the system,” says Vink, who would chase her siblings around with a football, before going on to play for Canterbury and the New Zealand U17s. “I saw that they got the new kit, the best training times and coaches and it really bothered me deep down.”
Vink is now using her skills and opinions in a new role, as a mentor for NZ Football’s female coach mentorship programme, aimed at addressing the limited number of women pursuing advanced coaching qualifications and careers in high performance coaching.
Maia Vink (kneeling) at the secondary school nationals in 2012 as the head coach of Marian College (next to mentor Kathy Seward).
She sits alongside Football Ferns U20 head coach Gemma Lewis and assistant coach Natalie Lawrence as mentors to the nine successful applicants. All three mentors are also part of High Performance Sport NZ’s Women in High Performance Sport pilot project.
“It’s a really unique opportunity,” Vink says. “It’s really taking that mentorship to a whole other level where the acceleration can be much greater, the relationships can be much deeper. And the learning outcomes can be far greater.”
One of the mentees is former New Zealand mid-fielder Katie Duncan, who has over 120 tests for the Football Ferns across 13 years in the game. Duncan’s playing achievements include two U20 FIFA World Cups, three Olympic Games and four FIFA World Cups, in between playing professional football overseas in countries like England, Australia, Germany and Switzerland.
Duncan is also looking forward to being in the programme, after retiring a couple of years ago and having a “really hard” time with the transition from player to life after football.
Katie Duncan (left) fights for the ball in 2019.
“Athletes that have retired will know,” says the 33-year-old. “Once you retire, you’re kind of not really needed. The sporting organisation funds current players and if you’re not a current player then you’re kind of shown the back door. That was quite hard, especially after playing for so long.
“I went through a low point in my life, but you just kind of have to navigate that yourself.”
At the time, Duncan was also in her first year of teaching, after completing a bachelor in physical education, and the combination of both was difficult. But she learnt a lot during that period, she says.
“I think it would be a great opportunity for me to be mentored because I would actually like to mentor women who are going through similar situations,” says Duncan. “And they don’t just have to be at New Zealand level.”
There are at least four scheduled meetings throughout the year with mentors, online seminars and funding assistance with coaching qualifications if needed.
It’s a great fit for Duncan, who’s always wanting to develop and improve as a person and a coach.
“I really have a passion to develop other people,” she says. “I grew up with male coaches which is fine, it definitely helped me, but I just think there’s a real opportunity to inspire and show young females that if you want to be a coach or a referee, it’s possible.”
Duncan admits there is no rush to move up the coaching ranks. She will take her time and opportunities when they open, making sure to work around her family who are an important part to her. She and her wife, former New Zealand footballer Priscilla Duncan, have a one-and-a-half-year-old baby, Nadia.
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Football Ferns U20 head coach Gemma Lewis.
“I’ll just continue to gain experience and if it leads me to coaching the U17s or a New Zealand team, or maybe I go overseas and get experience, then that’s where I take it,” Duncan says. “But as long as I’m enjoying it and loving what I’m doing then I’ll continue to do it.”
The pressures of sport and managing people is not an easy position to be in, and Vink says having the mentoring programme is about formalising what she’s been doing for most of her career.
“It’s about lighting a bit of spark in the coaches,” she says. “Sparking who they are and what kind of coaches they want to be in terms of that high performance space.
“And then really kind of honing in on that and providing every bit of support where we can so they can be the best versions of themselves.”
It’s a cycle where the mentees will then be able to share lessons and messages with their own teams. “They can go in and empower young females and it’s doing that, again and again and again, at different layers,” says Vink. “I love empowering women. It comes back to the 17-year-old Maia who was kind of upset and felt frustrated with the systems.”
Vink captained a few sides growing up but found her way into coaching as she learnt there was potential to reach more people.
“The way I could see myself influencing and having the biggest impact was through coaching, where I could affect more people. And I found a lot of joy in it as well,” Vink says. At 17, she started coaching a Year 12 division two girls team.
Maia Vink (right) in action for Mainland Pride.
A PE teacher at secondary school, Kathy Seward, was a big influence in going down that pathway. “Even from Year 9 she would give me leading opportunities in the sessions or half-time talks,” says Vink. “It wasn’t until I got to the First XI and I realised I was coaching. I just thought it was part of the game.”
After Vink completed university (she received a sport coaching and commerce degree and then a formal coaching education qualification), she headed to the Netherlands to coach. Then she received a phone call from Lawrence inviting her to join her in Canada at the Vancouver Whitecaps. They had a girls academy and Vink spent three years working in the development space.
Eventually the lure to come home was too much. Vink now lives in Wellington and is the assistant federation development manager at Capital Football as well as the head coach of the women’s premier team. She served as the assistant to Lawrence last year.
Last season Vink almost had an all-female coaching staff at Capital Football. “One of the assistant coaches, Charlotte Wood, was the goalkeeper coach, Rachel Finaly was our strength and conditioning and sport scientist, Lauren Joyce was the team manager and there was meant to be a female physio but she went on maternity leave,” says Vink.
There are also two other women on the mentorship programme who Vink is familiar with from her region – Katie Barrott and Maika Ruyter-Hooley. “I’ve already got a good relationship with those two already in terms of their coaching ambitions,” she says.
Vink says the conversations around women’s football are starting to change and that’s “really exciting”.
Football Ferns defender CJ Bott in action against England last year. Vink says there are “still heaps of inequalities between male and female players”.
“You don’t get looked at sideways for bringing up women’s football. It’s more ‘oh OK, that could actually make sense’,” she says. “That’s what we should be talking about and at some clubs that’s already happening.
“Some cultures and people around the football community have been taking really big steps in the last five to six years and they’re actually leading the way.”
While there’s been growth in the women’s space, New Zealand is still lagging, says Duncan.
“Because I’ve been overseas and I’ve seen what happens over there, when you come back to New Zealand you’re like ‘Argh, we’re actually really behind’,” she says. “There’s still no money in it and there’s still heaps of inequalities between male and female players.
“But then New Zealand Football are putting things in place for the 14 and 16-year grades. There’s little things like this that will change the game in terms of giving more opportunities to female players.”
Both Duncan and Vink are now contributing to the shift through coaching. Vink says her style is about being inclusive.
“But I’m not scared to rock the boat if that makes sense,” she says. “If tough decisions need to be made I’ve always got what is best for the players and the clubs in mind. And I’m really trying to grow the game, in every facet, because it can’t be in isolation.”