PEI

P.E.I. coach joins Ottawa Redblacks as part of new women in football program 

A coach from Stratford, P.E.I., spent the last four weeks at the Ottawa Redblacks training camp, one of nine women chosen for the Canadian Football League's first women in football program.

Organizers say the ultimate goal is to have more women in more roles across the league

Meagan Ferguson on Day 2 of training camp with the Ottawa Redblacks. (Jonathan Halpenny/Ottawa Redblacks)

Meagan Ferguson of Stratford, P.E.I., got her first taste of being on the sidelines for a professional football game last week when the Ottawa Redblacks played their season opener against the Toronto Argonauts. 

"I'm very tiny, so I always try to scoot in front of the players so I can actually see past the six foot tall football players," Ferguson said. 

"It's really exciting just to be on the sidelines with that atmosphere and that energy. Everybody's been super great."

Ferguson is part of the first women in football program organized by the CFL, one of nine women from across Canada spending four weeks with one of the league's nine teams. 

Two other women were also in coaching roles, while others were involved with strength and conditioning, in the team's front office, and one with equipment management. 

Ferguson says she has felt support from the Redblacks players and coaches during her time with the team. (Jean Delisle/CBC )

"It's been an unbelievable experience," said Ferguson. "I'm just so grateful to be amongst the nine women to start off this program." 

"The experience has been unmatched, with all the knowledge and skill sets and people that I've met so far."

'Be a sponge'

A hockey teammate at UNB encouraged Ferguson to try football in 2015, and she has been hooked ever since.

In 2019, she co-founded the Island Demons, P.E.I.'s first team in the Maritime Women's Football League.

Ferguson said the women in football program was a great opportunity to grow her football knowledge. 

"My two intentions coming into the program, one was obviously to be a sponge, so just to absorb everything from how the professional football league works, different skills and drills that I can bring back to the Maritimes," she said.

"The other goal was to be a worker bee and put myself to use, whether that's with coaching, mental performance consulting, or just being a support system for the staff and the coaches."

In 2019, Meagan Ferguson played for P.E.I.'s first women's tackle football team that she helped to co-found. (Sarah MacMillan/CBC)

Ferguson coaches the women's hockey team at Holland College, and also runs her own business as a mental performance consultant for athletes, teams and coaches. 

She put those skills to use at the beginning of the training camp, when the Ottawa head coach invited her to speak to the rookies. 

"Basically just to talk about mental resiliency, focusing on the things that matter, and the things that are in their control," Ferguson said. 

"I was also able to work really heavily with the defensive corps, with Coach [Mike] Benevides, run some sessions out on the turf, run some sessions in the classroom. So they've been very open to my skill set, which is, you know, really a blessing to see."

Ferguson got to work wih defensive coordinator Mike Benevides during her time with the team. (Jean Delisle/CBC )

Being the first

Ferguson said her work on mental preparation helped to prepare her for being put in the spotlight as the team's first female coach. 

"I think it's something that everybody would assume, being the first female coming into a team with this new program, I think like anything, there's nerves to start something new," she said.

"But my big thing is pushing yourself outside of your comfort zone is the only way you're going to grow. So really seeing this as an opportunity, not just for the program and the league, but for myself, really more excitement than nervous is what I would say about that." 

I think that's the first step in moving forward, is seeing that equality, with skill sets and professionalism and passion.—Meagan Ferguson

 

Ferguson said she has felt support from the Redblacks players and coaches as well. 

"Working with the athletes on the field has been great. Their respect level for, you know, not just a new coach coming in, but a female coach coming in has been really refreshing," she said. 

"I've talked to a couple of the coaches out here who've been great, they have daughters, they have nieces, and the biggest feedback they've given me is wow, seeing someone in that position gives them an idea of what opportunities are there."

Ferguson said her work on mental preparation helped to prepare her for being put in the spotlight as the team's first female coach. (Jean Delisle/CBC )

End goal

Laurence Pontbriand is the manager of football and officiating development for the CFL, and helped to create the new program. 

She said the league was "pleasantly surprised" that more than 150 women applied for the program.

"We really want to give the opportunity to women to get involved in football at the professional level, get to learn from our clubs," Pontbriand said.

"But we also want to give the opportunity to the clubs to have access to a larger pool of candidates in terms of coaches, football operations, staff, scouts. And if women are not considered, then they don't have access to that larger pool."

I think we have to see some women hired within the clubs, that's the end goal.—Laurence Pontbriand

 

Pontbriand said there is currently one female coach in B.C., two women in football operations, and two in athletic therapy in the CFL.

She said the plan is for the program to continue in 2023, with the goal of growing the number of women working in the league.

Laurence Pontbriand is the manager of football and officiating development for the Canadian Football League, and helped to create the new program. (Submitted by Laurence Pontbriand)


"I think we have to see some women hired within the clubs, that's the end goal," Pontbriand said.

 "It's a long-term goal. It's not something that we're expecting to see this year," she said. But if we do have some women hired from that program, that's how we're going to we're going to measure the success of the program." 

Ferguson said she has a "football-filled summer" ahead, including coaching the New Brunswick under-18 female tackle team. 

She will be taking that team to Saskatchewan for the first under-18 female tackle nationals in July. 

Ferguson is also head coach for P.E.I.'s under-18 female squad that will be competing at the flag football nationals in August at UPEI. 

Ferguson says the women in football program was a great opportunity to grow her football knowledge, including skills and drills that she can use with her players. (Jean Delisle/CBC)

As for women finding careers in professional football, Ferguson said she hopes her time with the team has made a difference.

"Here at the Redblacks, they've been super open to my skill set and my knowledge," Ferguson said.

"I think that's the first step in moving forward, is seeing that equality, with skill sets and professionalism and passion. Doesn't matter if you're male or female, if you have a drive to move forward. I think that's what they're open to." 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Nancy Russell has been a reporter with CBC since 1987, in Whitehorse, Winnipeg, Toronto and Charlottetown. When not on the job, she spends her time on the water or in the gym rowing, or walking her dog. Nancy.Russell@cbc.ca

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