Neither Yui Sawaki nor Momoe Tani knew anything about football when they joined the teams at their respective universities as students.
Now they’re not just among the few women working in football, they are playing significant roles since returning to their school teams after graduation.
Sawaki leads the Kansai Gaidai University Lynx in a role similar to that of a general manager on a pro team. Tani, meanwhile, is the offensive coordinator for the Kyoto Prefectural University Wyverns.
“I wasn’t even sure about the differences between football and rugby,” Tani said with a smile during an interview with The Japan Times as she recalled how little she knew about the sport initially.
Both teams compete in the fourth division of the Kansai collegiate league, where teams feature only 20 to 30 players who essentially play both offense and defense.
While neither woman played football, they feel they can use their past experiences as students to contribute to their squads.
Tani was part of the team’s analytics staff as a student, and that experience helps her today when drawing up plays and calling them from the sideline.
“We were calling plays for our players based on statistics and scouting data when I was a student,” said Tani, who now works at a real estate company. “The data doesn’t lie and I had confidence I was studying as well as anyone. So I don’t have to hold back from doing what I’m doing even though I’ve never played.”
Sawaki’s role is different, as she works more on the administrative side, overseeing the team’s entire operations, including its budget.
The 30-year-old said that she was asked to take the position following the 2019 fall season, when the school was demoted from the third division.
Sawaki was essentially tasked with rebuilding the team and turning it into a more sustainable organization.
She was singled out for the job in part because of her experience working for a company. Sawaki currently works for a recruitment agency, where she helps university students looking for jobs.
“I want to help the students create their future through their four years of playing football,” said the Hamamatsu, Shizuoka Prefecture native, who is a manager for the Triaxis J-Stars in the X. League second division. “I want to help them think of how they want to build their own career paths and also what they want to achieve through football.”
Tani is more engrossed in the Xs and Os of the game as a playcaller.
“When you call plays, your opponents call their own plays to counter, and I’m thrilled when I beat their calls,” Tani said with a smile. “It’s like, ‘Yeah, I did it.’
“I prefer running plays because I love the way the offensive line moves, I love to see the way they block and things like that. I find it fun to call blocking assignments for our running plays and changing formations.”
Sawaki and Tani are clearly in the minority in football — or in any sport for that matter — as highly ranked women on the staff of a male team in Japan. Neither pays much attention to the NFL and were not aware there are a growing number of women on coaching staffs and in front office positions in the league.
The two women insist people like them do not have to feel as if they are below others just because they never played the game.
“I get interviewed because I’m a woman, but to me, as far as studying the game and things like that, it doesn’t matter if you are a woman or a man,” Tani said. “You are better off being a male to play the game, but as far as coaching, I think you can do that regardless of your gender. There are a lot of female students who are serving as analytics staff and things like that, and I want them to do well.”
Sawaki echoed that same sentiment, saying she wants football to be a sport anyone can contribute to if he or she is eager to help make their team better.
Sawaki, meanwhile, thinks there are areas where a female perspective can be an advantage.
“I want to promote success for women,” Sawaki said. “This was the case when I was a council member (of Kansai Collegiate American Football Association) and manager for the team as well. Women could introduce different ideas — I’ve always thought their influence was great.”
Women in football have never drawn more of the spotlight than during the 2020 NFL season, when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers won a Super Bowl title with two women, Lori Locust and Maral Javadifar, on the coaching staff.
The number of female coaches in the NFL is growing.
“Hopefully, it will continue in a way where someone like myself, who doesn’t have the experience to have played football, can be given an opportunity like I did,” Sawaki said.
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