23 Mar 2023 – With the aim of inspiring the younger generations of women to take on coaching roles, the IOC is highlighting female coaches who are carving a path for other women to follow. One such example is Karin Harjo who – one year after being appointed head coach of the Canadian women’s Alpine skiing team – is seizing another exciting challenge by taking up a role as personal head coach to World Cup record-breaker Mikaela Shiffrin.
“With every new position that I take, I take it for two reasons,” explains Harjo. “One, the challenge it will offer; two, the people I will get to work with. That’s what really matters. It’s never been about the title, but about the job and the enjoyment.”
Both roles – with the Canadian women’s team, where she was the only woman fulfilling a head coach role in the Alpine skiing World Cup, and with Mikaela Shiffrin – meet those two motivations. Reaching this level after coaching for over 20 years, Harjo says: “It was never a goal that I set out for, but it was never something I thought was impossible. The way my philosophy was, I just focused on being the best that I could be where I was and whatever that was.”
“Coaching transcends all genders and race”
Once set for a career in science, Harjo re-evaluated the future she envisioned just before graduating from university. Skiing was what she “loved more than anything” – but so was learning.
Harjo was able to combine those passions in coaching. “The art and science of coaching is my favourite part about it because there’s so much technical side and study and analysis that you can do to find the hundredths to get the edge. But then the art side is really amazing. That’s what sets it apart because you’re dealing with a human being, not a machine.”
It’s clear that a combination of authenticity in how she communicates and a genuine desire to help others discover their true potential have been just as important components to her growth. And why top athletes like Shiffrin want her by their side.
Harjo’s appointment was announced soon after Shiffrin broke Ingemar Stenmark’s long-standing World Cup record of 86 career wins, and both will be targeting even more success in the years to come.
“I think coaching is about who you are as a person and is something that transcends all genders and race,” explains Harjo. “What has motivated me is that there’s always something to figure out. That’s the beauty of working with a human being – there’s no one answer,” adds Harjo. “Everybody’s unique. It’s your job as a coach to figure out how you can create an environment for their success.”
“I remember thinking about this when I was working in the lab. I wanted to be a doctor because I wanted to help people get better – and coaching was the same. I might not be helping to cure cancer, but I am helping people to become their best. That’s one of the greatest things you can do in life, and it’s why I wake up every single day.”
Ask the question: “why not me?”
Spending much of her childhood in Norway, Tokyo-born Harjo thrived in a culture where it was normal for boys and girls to play sport together. She was never told that she couldn’t achieve something because of her gender, so she never believed any differently. It’s an attitude to life that has helped her get to where she is today.
“There was no separation as kids in Norway. You did whatever you wanted to do, together,” recounts Harjo. “What’s always stayed with me at my core is a belief that as a human being, you can do anything. Never have I had a thought in my mind that I couldn’t do something because I was a girl.”
While Paris 2024 will be the first Olympic Games in history to achieve numerical gender parity among the athletes, there’s still a long way to go with coaches, as only 13 per cent of coaches at Tokyo 2020 were women, and only 10 per cent were at Beijing 2022.
Harjo thinks more can be done to promote coaching at the highest level of sport as a viable path for all. “There are different life choices that may be impacting why there aren’t more women at the highest levels, but maybe we need to work harder to spread this message of belief,” says Harjo. “What I love telling anybody trying to work their way up in sport is to figure out how to be your best and to be hungry. The better you are, the more doors will open.
“But for young women wanting to coach at the highest level, it’s much easier to believe in that vision if they can see somebody else doing it. I tell women all the time: ask the question: ‘why not me?’ Being seen is the biggest impact we can have in opening those doors for the talented women out there.”
Opening the doors for future generations
Creating the pathways for these talented women is precisely why the IOC has funded the Women in Sport High Performance Pathway (WISH), a dedicated mentorship and training programme designed to train over 100 high-performance female coaches in the next four years.
“I think the WISH programme is a great example of providing opportunities for women to network, to meet and grow,” Harjo commented. “Programmes like WISH are incredible because they provide an avenue for women to take a step forward and start. And that’s often the hardest thing to find and do”.
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