The recent study in the journal Gender and Society found that few women are coaching baseball, softball or soccer. That there continues to be a gender divide - more like a chasm - in terms of the number of men and women coaching our kids (despite many factors that might suggest a greater balance) didn't come as a surprise to me.
I know from personal experience just how difficult it is for a woman to break into the ranks of youth sports coaches. I met all sorts of resistance from the "old boy network" that ran my town's sports programs, and, in the end, the only way I was able to become a coach was because the soccer club couldn't find anyone else to coach. In the end, the only way a group of boys - including my sons - was going to be able to play U12 travel soccer that year was if I was the coach. It took a lot of arm-twisting, but I was able to show the powers-that-be that I had done my homework by getting my coaching license from the Massachusetts Youth Soccer Association and that I was ready to coach. That made it harder for them to say no.
One of the Gender and Society study's key findings was that the way to become a head coach was to be an assistant coach first, and that, when requests for assistant coaches went out from the head coach - either by e-mail or at the first preseason meeting - it was the fathers, not the moms, who volunteered. Not only that, but women were actively discouraged from coaching and steered instead to filling the traditional role for women in youth sports of being team parents. If a women did manage to become an assistant coach, she didn't end up feeling particularly welcome.
Based on my experience, and the results of the Gender and Society study, here's my advice to woman who want to coach:
- Identify the sport you are interested in coaching. Chances are it will be the sport your son or daughter is playing, or thinking of playing, but of course there is nothing new about that. Most parents, at least when they begin coaching, do so because they have a child on the team (one study estimates that about 90% of the volunteer coaches in a given community are the parent of one or more team members).
- Understand the downsides of coaching. If you want to coach your child's team, understand that doing so may present, as the author of a 2005 article on the parent-coach/child-athlete relationship in the Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport observes, a conflict of interest for both you and your child. Your child may feel "pressure from [you] and [his] coaches to perform well, and desire[ ] that [you] be [a] source of social support and leave skill and strategy instruction to the coach's domain." You also may find separating your role as parent from your role as a coach, a "fine line to tread." As one respondent indicated in focus group interviews for the article suggested, "parents coaching their own children [may be] fine for lower skill levels, where the emphasis is on skill development and fun" and "where equal playing time is the norm" "but at more advanced, competitive levels, "it's so hard to be the perfect, impartial, neutral coach, as if it wasn't your daughter no matter how hard you try."
- Become certified in the sport. Learn everything you can about the sport. Many women think they can't coach a sport because they don't know enough about it (although in this post-Title IX world, this is less of an obstacle). Talk to other coaches, attend clinics, high school and college games, watch instructional videos, read up on the history of the sport, its rules, and its culture (The Internet, of course, in general and MomsTeam in particular is a great place to find information!). Find out when coaching classses are being held in your area for the sport you want to coach. Ask the coordinator of your town club whether it will pay for you to attend. For instance, the course for the lowest level soccer license issued by the Massachusetts Youth Soccer Association (class G) costs $35.00 and takes four hours, and can now even be taken on-line.
- Become certified in first aid, CPR and the use of an AED. Most youth sports coaches have no training at all in sports safety or first aid. Sign up for sports safety training courses offered by the American Red Cross and the National Center for Sports Safety.
- Understand what it takes to be a good coach. 'Think about what it takes to be a good youth sports coach and ask yourself what you can do to be the best possible coach. There are a lot of reasons why women make great coaches. You can do it!
- Be pro-active. As soon as you find out what team your child is on, contact the head coach and tell him you want to be an assistant coach. Hopefully, you will have already taken a course or become certified in the sport so it will be hard for the coach to say no.
- Don't take no for an answer. Be persistent. Insist that the club make a concerted effort to recruit women as coaches and give them the chance to become head coaches after serving as an assistant coach for a season or two. Because stay-at-home moms and those who work part-time find it hard to balance the competing demands of family and coaching, programs should allow coaches to schedule practices right after school so moms can be home in time to make dinner for the family. Programs should also provide child care help if that is what it takes to allow women to coach. (Indeed, argues the authors of an article in The Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance, "If the mother has older children on the team, the sports community needs to forge a welcoming culture so that she feels empowered to succeed as a coach without worrying about being perceived as a smothering parent.").
Brooke de Lench is the author of Home Team Advantage: The Critical Role of Mothers In Youth Sports (HarperCollins 2006) and Founder and Publisher of MomsTeam.com, and producer/director of the new documentary, "The Smartest Team: Making High School Football Safer," airing on PBS stations across the country beginning in September 2013.
Listed below are some articles on the MomsTeam.com site about women as youth sports coaches and ways women and mothers can change the culture so that it reflects their views as well as those of men.
MomsTeam wants to hear from you. Are you a mom who was able to break into the coaching ranks? What advice would you give to other moms who want to coach? What is your community doing to promote full inclusion of women at all levels of coaching? Have you seen an increase in the number of women coaches? Your voice matters. Click here to share your thoughts.
Most recently revised September 18, 2013