'I was daunted but thought bring it on' - How Demy Dowley made a success of being a woman coaching Ben Rhydding's men's hockey team
She was already busy enough for a start; a teacher by day, a coach in the junior set-up at her local club and part of the England coaching pathway on evenings and weekends. She had coached boys before, to a standard as high as the best in the north, but these were men she was being asked to lead.
It was the father of one of those boys under her guidance who encouraged Dowley to spend just one hour with the senior men’s team to impart what she had learned on the international pathway.
One session became two. Two sessions became a full pre-season.
“The fact I was a woman didn’t deter me,” says Dowley. “But I was daunted, I had no consideration that they would want to be coached by a female or would take me seriously. I didn’t think it could possibly work.
“So initially I thought I’ll do it as a one-off. They seemed to love it and said will you come back and do a bit more, so I just kept saying okay.
“At the end of the summer they asked me to be their coach. Once I realised the players were receptive, I enjoyed it more and thought this was a great challenge. So I just thought: bring it on, let’s give it a go.”
That was 2008. Fifteen years later Dowley steps aside from the day-to-day coaching of the flagship men’s team of a proud family-orientated club established in 1901 into a more over-arching role as director of Ben Rhydding’s National League squads.
She does so proud of everything they achieved together, having learnt plenty about herself as a coach and a person along the way.
“Being a coach of the opposite gender you have to find your coaching craft, you can’t be the role model,” explains Dowley.
“I say to a lot of coaches I work with, if you want to really stretch yourself and find out who you are as a coach, coach the opposite gender, because you really have to be a good coach. Back in 2008 I was the only coach who was female apart from two others who were both northern lasses, coaching at any level.”
Dowley’s influence was almost instant. Ben Rhydding started winning games again and within two years found themselves winning promotion to the national league.
“It’s dead easy to be a good coach and it helps when you’re trying to win respect when you’re winning game,” she says. “But promotion was absolutely the wrong thing because we weren’t ready. We’d improved so quickly but we came straight back down.
“There were many times I thought this is not worth it. And it’s not so much the players, it’s the armchair pundits. When you’re winning everything’s easy, the minute you’re losing everybody’s got some advice on what you should be doing. There were a few who were keen to say what they thought.
“I did have a manager who has been with me all this time called Warwick Smither, an ex player at the club, a big character.
“He has been a God-send over the years, he has managed the chatter, has managed the bias, and he’s done it brilliantly.”
Staying loyal to her principles helped sustain Dowley through difficult times.
“There were lots of times where you have to ask yourself how true you’re being to yourself,” she says. “Make sure you stay true to yourself, don’t try to be something you think they expect you to be - the shouty, sweary, laddy, blokey coach, because that was never ever going to be me.
“You come to understand that some guys just need to do, it’s no good explaining in great detail, they're very active learners.
“So sometimes you have to let them think they’re unfolding it for themselves, so they’re not being told what to do.
“There was also lots of times when there was disagreement about tactics, because I was very up to date with the latest parts of the game (due to ongoing England roles) and that sometimes wasn’t well received and it took time for them to understand what we were trying to do.
“It was hard work, just making those relationships, understanding the people I had in front of me. It probably took three years before we found a formula that was working for everyone.”
Her finest hour came two years ago when she took Ben Rhydding down to Lindum for a match to decide which team would be promoted to Conference North, the third tier of the National League in England.
“It was a huge occasion, about 300 people there, which for a hockey game is impressive,” beams Dowley, who prior to coaching the men had taken Ben Rhydding’s junior teams to 14 national finals.
“It was the most nervous I’ve ever been, even after all these years…fortunately we won 2-0.
“It was the best moment for me because yes we played great hockey, but the mental preparation we’d worked on for so long really shone through. Their composure, their professionalism, their total commitment to each other was what won them that game.”
Now stabilised in the regionalised third tier that includes Yorkshire rivals Wakefield, Doncaster and Sheffield, Dowley hands over the Ben Rhydding senior team reins to David Birch who has been assisting her the last two seasons and is also head of hockey at Bradford Grammar School.
“Fifteen years coaching a senior side, that’s a long time for anyone to stay in the role,” admits Dowley, who was a player before getting into coaching to get her kids involved.
“You find a lot of female coaches start in the way that I did, I was a teacher with three sons.
“There was no coaching provision at the club at that time for the really young ones. I took that on mainly for my kids and it blossomed from there.
“Coaching has been my life for 25 years and for sometime I’ve been thinking what is the legacy?
“I’ve been working with a group of young coaches, David is the one that stood out as somebody who might be able to take it on.
“Then we got promoted to the National League which in my head wasn’t enough, it’s more about making the club a sustainable National League operation, and that’s what we’ve done and David is going to pick all that up.
“Everything is in place, he’s got a leadership group, a great infrastructure around him, and he just needs to take it on and make his own mark. I’ll help him with that as much as I can.”
Dowley, 57, need not worry about what her legacy is. Trailblazing female coach would be an easy label to attach.
But her transformative influence does not stop there. For Dowley wants people to view a coach without gender bias.
A story in football this summer has been about a female coach stepping up to temporarily take charge of League Two side Forest Green Rovers.
Are the skills Dowley has developed transferable?
“100 per cent, yes,” she insists. “I’m on quite a few different projects and I run a group called Fair Game which is about just trying to reframe people’s perception of coaching and making it a genderless craft.
“A good coach is a good coach. Some of that is about challenging people’s biases about what they think coaching is.
“Gone are the days when a coach is screaming instructions, demanding they do press-ups if they get it wrong, it’s much more a collaborative skill.
“Now it’s about translating what’s in your head into something that can be achieved as a collective, and that’s not easy, and it takes time.”
The sport she has given much of her life to is as healthy as it’s ever been.
“Yorkshire hockey is strong, it always has been, it’s a historic sport for the county,” she says of a sport that is predominantly a private school pastime.
“It’s still small in comparison to rugby and cricket, but it is a popular sport because it is a family sport.
“Hockey is one of those games that reinvents itself by not being afraid to add rules in every year that make the game safe. You’ll have readers that will remember playing hockey at school in which they had a bully-off on some wet grass field, but the game has changed so much.
“And the girls winning gold in Rio was a remarkable achievement.
“The London Olympics definitely had an impact and there was a huge growth in juniors coming to play hockey.
“After Rio, a lot of the girls went to schools with their medals round their neck, there was a good campaign to promote hockey and female role models.”
And Demy Dowley of Ben Rhydding is most definitely a role model.