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Good Youth Sports Coaches Understand Gender Differences but Avoid Reinforcing Gender Stereotypes

One of the hallmarks of a good youth sports coach is that he understands gender differences but, at the same time, avoids reinforcing culturally-based gender stereotypes.

Coaching Girls

As Dr. Leonard Sax notes in his book, Why Gender Matters, the "innate, biologically programmed differences between girls and boys" lead them to take to the sports playing field "as they enter the classroom: with different needs, different abilities, and different goals."

A good youth sports coach understands, when coaching girls, that:

  • A supportive, non-confrontational approach works usually works better with girls (although I believe this approach should be used for girls and boys, especially before high school). Studies have shown that stress impairs learning in females, with moderate stress degrading young girls' performance (This is why, according to Dr. Sax, girls on average don't do quite as well on standardized tests, such as the SAT, as one would expect based on their grades; moderate stress actually improves the performance of boys). Girls' coaches have players help each other relax before the big game.

  • Girls are more likely than boys to look to their coach as an ally and a friend, particularly at the middle school and high school level, and seek her advice about personal matters totally unrelated to sports. The 2008 Go Out and Play study by the Women's Sports Foundation found that the influence of coaches increased as girls entered middle school and high school, with 38% and 47% of middle school and high school girls respectively saying that their coach taught them the most about exercise and playing sports. For many girls the social and more emotional aspects of sports are more important than skills. Because girls, on average, have a harder time than boys competing against each other (a preference for cooperation over competition that appears hard-wired in females), they need to be able to support and get along with their teammates in order for the team to function. Girls need to feel that the other girls on the team don't view themselves as better athletes.  A good coach doesn't single girls out as stars.  She gives girls plenty of opportunities for team camaraderie to allow them to enjoy the social aspects of sports.

  • When working out a problem, she should smile and look her player in the eye, which reassures her that she is a good person. She empowers her players by putting herself in her player's place to validate her feelings. Because girls have better hearing than boys, a coach of a girl's team modulates her voice and avoids yelling (of course, a coach shouldn't be yelling at boys either).

Coaching Boys

While coaches of girls' teams generally provide lots of positive encouragement, avoid insulting players when they make mistakes, compliment them when they do well and try their best, and are more inclined to de-emphasize winning, believe sports are all about having fun, making friends, and being nurturing, most coaches of boys' teams don't do the same thing.

However, the "assumption that all male athletes benefit from a certain (i.e. male) coaching style is as ridiculous as the notion that all female athletes respond better to a kinder, gentler, nicer coaching style," says Ellen Staurowsky, Associate Professor of Sports Studies at Ithaca College and a former college Director of Athletics and men's soccer coach.  "Different athletes respond in different ways, depending on who they are, what their goals are, and what motivates them.  And good coaches know how to tap into those differences and adjust accordingly."

Avoiding Reinforcing Gender Stereotypes

A good coach doesn't:

  • tell boys they need to suppress their emotions (contrary to Tom Hanks' famous line in A League of Their Own, there is crying in baseball). Indeed, he encourages emotional openness. 

  • motivate boys by engaging in gay- or girl-bashing, such as by asking a boy who isn't displaying what he deems the appropriate level of aggressiveness in football, "Do you want to trade in your shoulder pads for a training bra?" 

  • act like a drill sergeant or treat young athletes like warriors in battle. 

  • believe that sports are a place for "boys to become men,"

  • push players to be tough and play with an injury. 

As a fourteen-year-old girl told a California newspaper, it is a myth that all boys  "are 'macho' enough to handle criticism, whereas girls might 'break down and cry' ... [B]oys only act macho because ... [we] raise them to be 'real men,' to 'suck it up,' and not show emotion.  It is such a shame that we do not let them live up to their potential for growing into sensitive, caring men" by reinforcing gender stereotypes in the way they are coached.

Adapted from the book, Home Team Advantage: The Critical Role of Mothers In Youth Sports (HarperCollins 2006) by Brooke de Lench, founder and Editor-in-Chief of MomsTeam.com


Share your thoughts

Does your child's coach adjust his coaching style to account for gender differences, while, at the same time, trying to avoid reinforcing culturally-based gender stereotypes?  Do you think girls should be coached differently than boys?  Do you think a more "in your face," macho coaching style is appropriate for boys?  Share your thoughts by commenting on this article or participating in our forum.







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