It's the week before the first game of the inaugural AFL Women's competition when we meet with Fremantle Dockers head coach, Michelle Cowan.
Although the hype is undeniably building for the historic occasion, with media coverage blanketing every newspaper and television in the country, Michelle appears unruffled – calm, even. In fact, judging from her cool demeanour, you would not be mistaken in thinking this is just another day in an endlessly fascinating and inspiring life.
Michelle is something of a trailblazer in the AFL. Unquestionably driven and strong-willed, she has always wanted to be a coach in a world where – until now – had not provided many avenues for women in the game. But she found a way - whilst also building a successful career as a motivational speaker, business woman, and mother.
We sat down with Michelle for a chat about her life, her thoughts on the game, and what lies in store for the future of the competition.
Q. Why football? What was it originally that drew you to the game?
I'm really lucky that I remember it clearly. I was fourteen-years-old when I made the decision that this is what I wanted to do. I knew that I wanted to work in something I loved doing. Sitting on the hill at East Fremantle Oval was probably the defining moment, when I could just watch game after game after game. It was always going to happen, and it was always going to be this way.
Q. What was the inspiration?
The love of the game. And you get that when you find yourself watching up to eight games of AFL over the weekend, and your mates are either at a beach, or at a party - I'd choose to watch footy because that is what I absolutely loved.
Q. Did you play football?
I played a handful of games, but I couldn't really do much because of the lack of pathways. I invested my time in golf and cricket instead, and played at the state level there.
Q. How important is the relationship between Woodside and FFC?
It's a really important partnership. Not just for this playing group, but for the future of the competition moving forward. It's imperative that we get the girls laced up and running out on to the track. If we didn't have Woodside's support, the girls may not be running out there and living their dreams, and the dreams of many little girl as well. The commitment and the investment from Woodside is 100% genuine. There's a lot of staff involved from Woodside, and to hear them speak about gender equality, inclusion and diversity within the work place makes it fantastic to have them on board.
Q. Obviously it is quite a historic time to be part of the game. What are you trying to impart to the girls at the moment?
I like to be empowering of my playing group, and make them believe in themselves and what it takes to be part of this elite competition. Teaching them the way we want to play, and what it actually looks like to be an AFL footballer. There's certainly been a lot of education happening on and off the field. For me, I'm really big on the players living by the way we want to play, and the standards and behaviours we accept when we're on and off the field.
Q. Can you tell us about the importance of trust and confidence between the players?
That's your challenge as a coach: you get twenty-eight different individuals and twenty-eight different personalities and expect them to play a united brand of football. They're all individuals: girls from different cultures, different ages, and different abilities. But we need to get everybody on the same page and playing a united brand of footy, which will lead us to great success. So it's a priority for me to fast track those relationships.
Q. Are you more than just a coach during this pivotal period of change?
I think as a coach you put a lot of different hats on, but I'm fortunate in this position to have incredible people around me, and incredible support staff. It's a really well resourced environment that allows me to focus more on my strengths and the coaching side of the game.
Q. Is this your personal highlight in football so far?
Yeah, it is. There has been a lot, but if I think about my greatest achievement, and I think the opportunity to be a senior coach of Fremantle in the first ever AFLW competition is a pretty incredible one.
Q. What led to your decision to accept the role?
I came from an incredible club in the Melbourne Football Club, and learnt and grew a lot there as a coach. It was difficult to leave, but at the same time it made sense from a family perspective - a young family and husband here in Perth, and the constant travel to Melbourne. And it's an incredible club here at Fremantle, where they're heading, and the journey the entire club is on is something I really want to be a part of. So, it was a no-brainer.
Q. What are the expectations around the women's team? Do you think about it?
The external noise, not really. I can only focus on what I can control: our environment, our culture, and our training standards on and off the field. They're within my control, and the outside world doesn't really affect me. I'm really focused on our first match, and moving forward into the season. It's real cliché. I'm not a cliché coach, but I will try and control what we can control.
Q. Have you thought about what you're going to say to the team before they run out for the first game?
I haven't thought about it… But you made me nervous (laughs). It's ground breaking isn't it? It's history that they're going to be creating. So it's a pretty incredible moment - and I think it will be one they will absolutely cherish. And we have eight teams, and we need to get it to eighteen - but we'll get there as we increase the talent. It will be fantastic to see eighteen female AFL teams running around this competition in the near future.
Q. Do you have a dream about where the game will be in twenty years' time?
If we can sell out the MCG with Fremantle in the AFL grand final, in a derby grand final, that'll be exciting. And I wish for every little girl to have the opportunity to play footy at school. Footy being written on every Christmas list sent to Santa from every little girl and boy.
Q. Any small details about being a coach that are often overlooked?
When you're in it, it becomes part of you, and part of your life. My kids are drawing on my coach's board, playing hangman on coach's boards, and rearranging the magnets. It just becomes a part of everything you do, and they come along for the journey and the ride, and they absolutely love it.
Q. Do you think your children will play AFL?
My son absolutely loves it. My daughter just wants to be a coach - just like mum.
To find out more about the 2017 AFL Women's Season, head to http://www.fremantlefc.com.au/afl-womens