Amanda Ruller wants to be the first female offensive football coach in the Canadian Football League (CFL). And the truth is, looking at the 34-year-old’s list of accomplishments, it’s hard to imagine she won’t achieve what she’s after – male-dominated careers included.
For starters, the powerful five-foot-tall Saskatchewan native and Roughriders fan was the first woman to work on-staff with University of Regina’s football team, and is currently one of the first women to win University of McMaster’s Coaching Apprenticeship, joining the University’s Marauders football staff. She’s also showing the rest of us how to overcome gender barriers.
In 2017, Ruller herself played running back at the highest professional level women currently participate in, repping Team Canada at the Women’s Football World Championship – ultimately helping the team secure a silver medal.
She also held the same position in the Legends Football League for the Los Angeles Temptation and later the Atlanta Steam.
Then there is the July 2021 invite from none other than Tom Brady’s agent, Don Yee, to come coach at a National Football League (NFL) and CFL free agency camp in San Diego.
Ruller is also a sports performance coach, training CFL and U SPORTS players, helping them prepare for challenging seasons ahead, as well as gruelling combines – athletic events meant to test athletes’ skills, including strength, speed, power and agility. Ruller’s own area of focus centres on strength and conditioning.
‘You can do anything the boys can do’
This makes sense, considering Ruller herself holds Saskatchewan’s record for Olympic weightlifting in the snatch and clean and jerk. But her list of achievements doesn’t stop there. The incredibly hardworking and versatile Ruller has also experienced success in other sports, proving her athletic prowess.
“When I was younger, I was in a whole bunch of different sports. Growing up I was in anything from track and field to soccer, to even playing a little flag football at my school in elementary school.” Ruller went on to participate in university-level athletics, in track and field and soccer, while at the University of Regina, completing her bachelor’s degree in Kinesiology & Health Studies.
The former track and field sprinter was later also approached by the Canadian Bobsleigh and Skeleton community to come train and compete with the team.
But how did her love of sport begin? And how did she ultimately decide coaching is the career path for her? “My parents used to take me to football games, and I’m like, ‘Can women play? Can women coach?’ And my parents were like ‘You can do anything the boys can do’,” says Ruller.
“So I fell in love with the game as a young girl, but then growing up, I was like, ‘I [want to] find a way to play – actually play – and find a way to eventually coach, ’cause I see a lack of representation of women, especially in the Canadian League, the CFL, and the [University Sport] level. Representation matters.”
Working in a male-dominated industry
As you might have guessed by now, the path for women coaches in professional athletics isn’t nearly as seamless and straightforward as it is for their male counterparts.
“Especially for women trying to get into coaching and football specifically, it’s not a very linear progression. I can’t just play in U Sport [university sport] and eventually get an internship or coach under someone else and then get to that [professional CFL] level. I didn’t play at that sport level, so I have to kind of network and connect and try things out and volunteer at different places.
“So it’s a little up-and-down progression, but I made it happen. Along the way, I was told constantly that because of who I am as a woman specifically, I wasn’t supposed to be here. I’m not allowed to put the men’s career paths in my hands. I’m not up to snuff because I didn’t play at the highest [men’s] level. I kind of push those aside.”
Carving her own path
When no inroads existed, Ruller decided to create her own, building a business and her reputation from scratch.
“So I kept volunteering and trying to make my way. I actually opened up my own business where I was coaching university-based football players, specifically for their positional groups, and speed training and getting guys ready for the combine training and [I trained] CFL players on the side, training them individually.”
Ruller adds she then noticed an opportunity she couldn’t pass up: “I actually applied for a women’s apprenticeship at McMaster University for the football team, and I was awarded it out of all the candidates, of which there were many because there are not a lot of opportunities for women in Canadian football. I was able to work with McMaster University last year with the Women’s Apprenticeship Program and again, this year, I was awarded to come on the team not just as a woman, but as a staff member.”
Navigating male-dominated workplace culture
As a woman in the industry, she’s also grown accustomed to rejection.
“I knew at a younger age, around my 20s, [that] I want to eventually coach. I want to make athletics my thing, and people kept saying ‘No. You have to get a real job,’ and I don’t understand that ’cause this, to me, is a job.”
Furthermore, the sports industry still seems to hold women coaches to archaic standards, while not subjecting men to the same criteria.
“I was told no, I can’t coach because I am a woman and I don’t have the experience or I didn’t play at the highest level of men, which is a little ridiculous, because a lot of men coach that have never played [professional football], and I’ve played at the highest level [women play], which is Team Canada Women’s Worlds National Team.”
Despite this, what keeps Ruller motivated is her love for her job.
Why Ruller opts for the road less travelled
“I actually think just being in athletics my entire life, I love a really, really good challenge and it makes me feel so fulfilled every single day. It doesn’t feel like work. I’m never looking at the clock. I come in and I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s the end of the day, already.’ I’m having so much fun. It challenges me mentally, physically.”
And it goes beyond personal gratification for Ruller too, because the coach appreciates the leadership opportunity the position brings: “I’m able to help these young men that I train in the offseason. I’m able to make a difference in someone’s life and for the amount of coaches I’ve had in my entire athletic career, I’ve had some good, some bad, and I want to relay to these athletes how to be bigger, faster, stronger and better leaders in the community, better gentleman or women,” says Ruller.
Ruller’s work is not only demanding on her physically, but mentally and emotionally too.
“Especially I think that I am judged a little bit more by everyone else, because I am new. So I have to be on point at every single second of the day. It’s super, super demanding. So you have to be almost two steps ahead of everyone else. People will [boo] me. Especially at football games in the stands where they call me out and call me names. So it’s very demanding for everything that I do throughout my work day.”
And it’s simple things we may take for granted that Ruller has to anticipate in advance.
When coaching outside, for example, the conditions can vary from one extreme to another — whether that means snow, cold, rain or extreme heat. “You can’t leave the practice field – you’re there for two-and-a-half hours, maybe three hours. I could never stop to fix my hair,” shares the brunette.
“I just have to almost kind of tuck it back in a low pony and fly with it. I have to do my drills. I have to demo for the athletes. I have to do everything, so it’s a lot of wear-and-tear on my hair.”
To help keep her hair on point, Ruller plans accordingly.
“When we’re inside, I get really sweaty, so it’s a lot of demand on my hair with oil, so I always have to have stuff with me – a little brush to brush it out or even dry shampoo ‘cause I’m going from the gym to another meeting to coaching outside.”
For Ruller, her hair is one aspect of her appearance that she indulges, and she has a couple of go-to secret weapons to get her hair looking the best it can, including the best shampoo to get straight and smooth hair.
Taking a time out and embracing self-care
“I’m taking care of my hair so, so much. That’s my number-one thing – I don’t even do my nails. I do my hair. That is what I take care of, because as soon as I take care of my hair, I feel confident. I have really, really curly hair. So I even straighten the front. I give it a little wave with a curling wand at the end and it just looks bouncy and free. People don’t think I put a lot of work into it, but I actually do.”
To keep it in check, Ruller relies on a few key John Frieda Frizz Ease haircare products: The John Frieda Extra Strength Serum and Forever Smooth Shampoo and Conditioner.
“The Frizz Ease Extra Strength Serum – going out in the different elements – holy smoke! Because I have that naturally curly hair, the flyaways are super bad and my hair gets frizzy. I could [style] it in the morning and then by the time I get in the rain and the snow, the snow just gets it and just collects it and makes it flat. Even getting a little bit of the Frizz Ease Extra Strength Serum can help me get through the day and actually look good and look decent. And then the Forever Smooth Shampoo, and that’s exactly what I need to kind of help myself out and get going. Those are the things I stick to.”
And to stay mentally motivated, especially on those tough, grueling days, Ruller relies on a few tried-and-true tactics.
“I actually just take a beat and remember why I’m doing something. I’ll take maybe 8 or 10 minutes max just for meditation. And I remember I’m here to help, no matter if I’m struggling [that day]. I’m here to help these athletes be better. I think that motivates me the most because I know that really good coaches – they never gave up on me; they kept helping. I have to be here for these athletes in these moments. And we can’t be successful unless everyone shows up that day. And I need to be that link in the chain that’s just as strong as them.”
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Looking towards a brighter future
Still, the coach remains optimistic about what the future holds for women in sport and coaching football specifically.
“Just hearing other women reach out to me about being a leader in the industry and especially being a female… They are saying, ‘wow, I’m so inspired. I want to do what you’re doing.’ Because once you see something, you can believe it and achieve it yourself. Representation matters,” says Ruler, adding, “And me being here is making a difference for someone else and opening more doors for women. I guarantee you years from now this won’t even be a question of why women aren’t coaching football.”