FIFA's Women's Coach Mentorship Programme was a unique opportunity for Lidija Stojkanovic
She was mentored by Nils Nielsen, who led Denmark to the 2017 UEFA Women's EURO final
“I want this programme to continue because it's very important to improve women's football and to have more female coaches."
18 months, 78 weeks or 547 days is a period in which you can learn a lot from each other. This was exactly the duration of the second edition of the FIFA Women's Coach Mentorship Programme, during which Lidija Stojkanovic gained more than just important experience for the next phase of her coaching career. "I can say that it was a great opportunity to take part in this programme. It's not only about the exchange, but also about listening to all these top coaches and wonderful people who were around me - especially my mentor (Nils Nielsen). I'm very happy that he was with me for the whole 18 months, especially during our qualifying matches," Serbia's U-19 national women's team coach told Inside FIFA. "Nils always texted me before and after the games. He followed my group when we played, and he visited me twice. The feedback and invaluable advice I received from him will help me to improve even more in the future."
Stojkanovic's reflections underline how empathy is a core component in Nielsen's management style, and not only during his time as national coach of Denmark and Switzerland. If a coach wants to understand their players and help them develop, the perceived wisdom is that you must get to know them and understand why they react in a certain way. This philosophy was the only way the Greenland native could get the best out of his former charges - just as he is did with his mentee. "The programme is so good because you are always in a room with people who share the same passion. This means that the starting point is, of course, football" says Nielsen, who works as Director of Women's Football at Manchester City. "But you have no idea where the conversation will go when you start talking and connecting with people. And that's always the interesting part. If you take the time - which I try to do all the time - and listen, then you always learn. "I understand Lidija much better now than I did after the first time we met. What is actually her 'reality' in Serbia? "By sharing experiences with the other mentees too, you get to understand the situation of all those people around the world. That was very rewarding for me and made me realise that although we are taking steps forward with women's football, there is still much to do, and still many areas in the world that need assistance in building and developing the base of the women's game. In the position that I'm now daily, I tend to sometimes forget that."
Stojkanovic also believes that women in her country need more opportunities and support. Currently she is the only female head coach in her federation. The fact that Nielsen visited her in her 'home' working environment however was of great importance. "It helped me to have someone see where and how I work" Lidija continued. "When I arrived in Manchester, everything was so professional and at such a high level. I hope I can reach that level too one day. Nils really helped me to overcome my challenges and boosted my confidence," the 44-year-old explained. Seeing Lidija's exemplary work up close, Nielsen considered how more female coaches should get a chance in future.
This is not the end, this is only the beginning. Nils is not just my mentor, he's actually my friend now.
"My point is that you have to be open-minded. I've always said that female coaches are definitely not only great coaches, but maybe they understand female players better too. "As men, our role should equally be to help the game grow and create opportunities, not to take opportunities away from girls and women. I'm lucky and in a position at my club where I can actually make a difference. We have to understand that the quality and the willingness to coach is there in all women. We have to ensure they have a chance to show what they can do." Increasing the number of qualified female coaches in football is key, and this is exactly where FIFA's mentoring programme comes in. True to FIFA's commitment to promoting female football coaches, the programme provides aspiring women's football coaches from around the world with experienced coaching support. The programme focuses on networking, advice and relationship building "Sometimes I think, why do we try to keep women away from coaching roles? Is it because we're afraid they're too good? I don't know" continued Nielsen. "So, then I think we need to create opportunities. And how can we do that? Through networking. "You have to get into people's heads! People will remember who Lidija is. They know who she is because she was in Manchester, and the next time they want to hire someone, they might look in that direction. There are so many good people - men too - in the programme who share my opinion. We're here to help grow football and one of the ways to grow is to create more opportunities for female coaches," Nielsen adds.
There is no such thing as a man's job and a woman's job. You can do everything, but you just need to be open-minded enough.
Stojkanovic was given an opportunity 18 months ago and was determined to make the most of it and broaden her horizons. "I am so grateful to have been part of this programme. I would recommend that every coach; every female coach; every young coach should apply to take part. Sharing all these experiences over the last 18 months, I have not only improved as a coach, but also as a person" enthused the Serbian, who took up her current position in February 2019.
"I've never heard so many positive stories, and being in a room with these top coaches who have so much experience was unique. I want this programme to continue because it's vital to further improve women's football and to have more female coaches in the future."