Most coaches who walk onto the basketball court think about tactics, starting lineups, and the game ahead. But as the first woman to coach a men’s national team at a major FIBA tournament, Liz Mills has to think about everything, even what she’s wearing.
“When I went to Mozambique, they said, ‘You can’t wear the boots. You have to take them off because you look too feminine,” Mills told CNN Sport.
She refused to take off the high-heeled boots and they have since become a mainstay. “I am very proud to be a woman. Don’t forget, but I’m here to coach. And that’s what I want people to talk about: coaching.
Growing up in Australia, Mills watched the Women’s National Basketball League. Unlike most, the people who inspired her were not the players, but rather the coaches on the sidelines.
Mills says: “I always say that, for me, seeing coaches like Carrie Graf and Jan Sterling, they were head coaches of women’s teams in the 90s and early 2000s.”
She adds: “I think it put it in my head that I wouldn’t be a great player, but I could be a great coach.
“I’ve seen these strong, bright, smart women win the league. If they can do it, I can do it.
Mills was inspired by the pioneers of women’s football, but she would become a pioneer in an entirely different way. She is a pioneer and champion for women in a sport where the coaches are almost exclusively male.
After spending several years coaching basketball in Australia, mostly with boys and girls, Mills was volunteering in Zambia when she was invited by a friend to watch a local men’s club team.
Like many of us watching a sports team, Mills thought she could do better; but unlike most of us, she did something about it.
“I go up to one of the players and ask him, ‘Do you have a club president or anything here?'” she recalled. “And he introduced me to the president of the club. He worked for the World Bank, Maziko Phiri, and was very open-minded, so we had a chat and he said, “OK, you can have an hour of practice.”
That hour turned into a training session, which turned into another training session, which turned into Mills taking charge of Heroes Play United.
Over the next 10 years, Mills coached club teams in Zambia and Rwanda and served as an assistant coach for the Zambian and Cameroonian national teams before getting his big break as head coach of the men’s national team. from Kenya.
Mills took over the post in Kenya ahead of the 2021 AfroBasket qualifiers, where the country was seeking to qualify for Africa’s premier competition for the first time in 28 years.
She duly delivered in the most dramatic manner. In February 2021, forward Tylor Ongwae hit a buzzer-beater to lift Kenya over Angola – the most successful team in AfroBasket history – reserving Morans’ place in the tournament.
In the competition itself, Mills guided Kenya out of the group stages for the first time in their history and narrowly missed out on the quarter-finals, losing 60-58 to South Sudan in the round of 16. of final.
With that success under her belt, Mills moved from East Africa to North Africa, taking over Moroccan club AS Salé and taking a few more steps by becoming the first woman to coach a men’s team. basketball in the Arab world and the first woman to coach. a Basketball Africa League (BAL) team.
Mills laughs as she thinks back on her hardships and accomplishments, but enduring the discrimination she’s faced hasn’t been easy.
“I remember the first time we played against Angola, they were like, ‘What is your water girl doing on the pitch?’ They could not understand that there was a female coach.
But the prejudice was not limited to Angolans. “An Australian reporter asked me what I did when the players took showers,” Mills said, “or what I did in the locker room when they needed to change.”
She’s also gotten used to being focused on herself knowing that any failure will not just be perceived as a personal failure, but also as a failure of her entire sex.
“I think back to AfroBasket,” Mills recalled. “Our first game against Ivory Coast was the first time a woman coached an event like this. And so I say, ‘My God, I hope we win this game, but I hope we We’ll play well.” But I also have to perform as a woman.
“My male colleagues aren’t sitting around worrying about this stuff at all. They are just there to train.
By being the first to accomplish what she has, Mills has blazed this trail for herself, but she doesn’t want another woman to have to do the same.
That’s why she founded the Global Women in Basketball Coaching Network in August.
“There are so many coaches in Africa now who contact me, especially young women, who say to me, ‘I saw you coaching Kenya’ or ‘I saw you coaching Salé and that’s why I want to coach,'” says Mills. “Especially after Kenya qualified, I had a lot of women around the world [getting in contact]from Ireland to the Philippines via Colombia.
The network – which Mills set up with her twin, Vic – connects women around the world who coach basketball at all levels of the game, providing them with training and classes to improve their training.
But more importantly, it’s a safe space where coaches can support each other in an industry plagued by sexism.
Members of the network have suffered discrimination of all kinds, particularly those who work in men’s football. Mills said one of the members had already been offered a job as head coach of a men’s team, but the club’s sponsors said that if she got the job, they would withdraw their sponsorship.
Even in women’s football, coaching is still seen as a predominantly male job. Mills recently attended the FIBA Women’s Basketball World Cup in her native Australia, where only five of the 12 countries were coached by women.
But for every story that weighs Mills down, there’s another that lifts her up and encourages her to keep fighting.
“I was in Senegal for the BAL (Basketball Africa League). On the first day of the tournament, we had just finished practice and I was walking around the arena waiting for a game to start, and a lady and her two children stopped me from walking,” says Mills.
“And she’s like, ‘I just want to say the reason me and my two girls are watching here is that we love basketball, but we’re going to come and watch every one of your games because my girls want to be like you when they grow up.'”
Mills isn’t the only trailblazer in men’s sports, and joins a growing list of female coaches making strides in the sport.
Brigitte Affidehome Tonon was the Benin men’s head coach before Mills joined Kenya. In the United States, Becky Hammon has been at the pinnacle of men’s basketball for several years, spending eight years as an assistant coach to Gregg Popovich with the five-time NBA champion San Antonio Spurs. She was considered by a number of NBA teams for their position as head coach, before taking on the role of head coach of the WNBA’s Las Vegas Aces, which she led to a championship. in its first season.
But Mills is aiming to achieve it all on the international stage, no matter how long it takes.
“I want to be the first woman to coach at the World Cup as the head coach of an African [men’s] team,” she says.
Many would see it as a simple matter of time.