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Females coaches on The FA International Player to Coach Programme visit Burnley FC

With standout club careers, accolades aplenty and 233 England caps between them, the four players who make up the first female International Player to Coach Programme cohort have more of an understanding than most of what it takes to perform at the top of the sport. 

Three former Lionesses – Kelly Smith, Natasha Dowie and Izzy Christiansen – and active player Nikita Parris, have all set out this season to redirect their talent to help shape the next generation of players ready to learn from their successes. 

Making the leap from elite player into the world of coaching undoubtedly has its benefits, with the credibility and tactical and technical edge their former careers bring. Yet the additional skills that a coach needs to have – managing expectations, making difficult decisions, successful recruitment, leading a support team – can make the shift from elite player to elite coach a challenging ambition. 

For the past three seasons, the FA International Player to Coach Programme has provided that grounding for a number of former male players making moves to coach at the top level. Wayne Rooney and Ashley Cole were part of the first course in 2021, with Emile Heskey and Jermaine Defoe just two of the current cohort of notable names. 

This season marks the first time a women’s course has run alongside it, following the programme which aims to help our current & former England players to adapt, shifting their thinking from that of excelling as an athlete to taking on all the additional responsibilities needed to potentially become a world-class coach as well. Kelsey Byrne, our Women’s National Coach Developer, has reshaped the successful programme for a pool of potential coaching talent from those who have earned their stripes as a Lionesses. 

Steve Guinan, our International Player to Coach Lead and a former professional player himself, has delivered each of the men’s programmes to date.


“With the success of the men’s IP2C programme since its first cohort in 2020, it’s only right we recognise the Lionesses and the explosion of the women’s game, so the last few years have been spent understanding the demands of the women’s game and its differences to the men’s game. 

 “The challenge from making the transition to player to coach is huge and although playing at senior international level is an advantage, this playing experience does not guarantee a successful coaching career. However, it can be if the formative coaching experience is instilled. 

“That’s what we’ve set out to do with the IP2C initiative. We want to embed these fundamentals in order to keep some of the best footballing brains in the game. Ultimately the aim is to help English football, enabling top-class players to move forward with the necessary skills and characteristics required to succeed at the highest levels.” 

The group’s first meeting of the course was combined with a trip to Leicester City FC’s King Power Stadium to watch the current lineup of Lionesses take on Belgium in a UEFA Nations League fixture. Mark Swales, our Senior Women's Coach Development Lead, began the session by discussing with the new recruits which skills they themselves would be keen to see incorporated into the course. 

“The years of amassed skill, experience and knowledge of these players is a wealth of insight that current and future players can tap into – and the nature of this programme means we are recruiting players with incredibly high profiles. Step one for us, and for them, however, is to separate any level of expectation from their playing careers. 

“It’s so easy to fall into the assumption that such experienced players will feel at home straight away in a coaching role, but it’s a completely different experience.” 

The most experienced player on the course this year is Kelly Smith, who won 117 caps for England as well as being widely regarded as a legend of the Barclays WSL. At the beginning of the season, Smith accepted the role of Assistant Coach at her former home Arsenal with their women’s first team, and still feels like she has a lot of distance to cover in this new phase of her career. 

“One of the biggest things for me is knowing how much this programme will build up my confidence as a coach. Coming back into the game after being out of it for six or seven years has meant really seeing how different the game is now to how I left it. Everything is on a different level – it’s a completely different calibre of players to before. 

“I’m excited to experience all of the different learning tools and experiences this course will bring – that variety is what is needed now we’re experiencing the game from a different side.” 

One of those experiences utilised our links with other sports, with their next workshop on ‘high performance environments’ taking them away from the pitch and onto the F1 track as they spent a day with the race engineers, data analysts, and performance coaches at Red Bull Racing HQ. 

Here, they were joined by our current men’s cohort to gain valuable insight into the multi-faceted infrastructure and multi-skilled teams around the current dominant force in Formula 1 – and, of course, to learn from each other. 


Natasha Dowie agrees with Smith about the impact she hopes the course will have through the richness of experiences such as these that they’ll journey through on IP2C. 

“Meeting new people during this is a big draw for me. I’ve come into the programme from retiring last season and have gone straight into learning new skills and making new contacts – learning from those across the game and across the sports industry, and from the other athlete-turned-coaches on the course. 

“I looked up to Kelly for so many years and now here I am still finding out new things about people who are so well known, seeing a different side from how they operated on the pitch. We’ve realised quite quickly that the perception of each of us is probably quite different for different to people, and how that will shift again when we’re coaching other players.” 

Of course, it’s not just retired players who are able to take advantage of the fast-track skillset that IP2C offers, with the top scorer so far this season for Manchester United’s Barclays WSL campaign, Nikita Parris, also deep into the programme. 

Encouraging others like Parris to bolster their skills whilst still active players is something Kelsey Byrne is looking to expand on through launching the women’s IP2C course, to help tackle a lack of women coaches across football. 

“We have a huge drive here at the FA to increase the number of female coaches across the game, right from grassroots all the way through to the professional game. I believe that this platform we’re creating can help to retain some extraordinary passion at the top level whilst also inspiring more women to get into coaching across the board. There’s still a real shortage of female coaches that we’re really working hard to address; attracting female talent into coaching through our bespoke learning experience is hopefully a way to really shift that dial.” 

Kelsey has planned the first women’s IP2C programme of workshops with the hope of doing just that. The latest of their bespoke experiences saw them travel to Burnley FC to spend the day behind-the-scenes of the club, exposing them to things that usually get hidden to them as players – seeing player meetings, staff meetings and discussing recruitment – a real insight into the different day-today responsibilities coaching brings.


First Team Manager Vincent Kompany and Assistant Manager Craig Bellamy also talked the group through their experiences of making the transition from player to coach and offered the chance to watch training to see the theory in action. 

“The day really allowed the girls to see what life in a professional football club looks like beyond the grass. It was a once in a lifetime experience, and the girls have taken plenty away to apply to their own working practice.” said Kelsey, who has many more of these learning experiences planned for the months ahead, and for more participants in the years to come. 

“We are hoping for this programme to grow year on year. The cohort for the 2023-24 season of Izzy, Natasha, Kelly and Nikita have already shown a thirst to improve and a desire to give back to the game.  

“I’m really looking forward to seeing where we can go from here – not just with current and former internationals, but by carving out what all of those player-to-coach pathways should look like for players across the women’s professional game.”