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Michael Messner
Michael Messner
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Secrets of Successful Women Coaches

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There are very few women coaches in my community's youth sports leagues: only 13% in AYSO and 6% in Little League Baseball and Softball. While I found very little overt sexism or hostility toward women coaches, their stories told of informal (but very powerful) processes that discouraged them: being informally pushed away from coaching at the entry level; feeling a constant sense of scrutiny from other adults ("is she really qualified to coach my kid?"); being made to feel like an outsider in the midst of an "old boys' network"; having to contend with men's sometimes "intimidating" loud voices on the playing fields.

As one woman who decided not to coach told me, "I just couldn't take that." Others who did try coaching lasted only for a year or two, before bailing. But in my study I met a few women who did manage to survive—and even thrive—in youth sports coaching. How did they do it? I found that these women developed strategies—both at the entry-level, and then after breaking in to coaching—to contend with the gender challenges they faced as "the woman coach."

Breaking into Coaching

At the entry level, persistent assumptions about men's "natural" abilities as coaches, along with powerful informal group processes, tend to channel women — even those with interest and athletic experience—away from coaching, toward being "team moms." Here is how women have successfully broken through:

  • Volunteer (assertively). The pipeline to becoming a head coach runs through assistant coaching. Nearly every head coach I interviewed started as an assistant coach, a much lower-key and lower-pressure position. But women who wanted to assistant coach often had to be extra-assertive about it—going beyond simply signing up on the volunteer sheet, making a follow-up phone call, or advocating for herself at an initial team meeting. A year or two as an assistant helps to build experience and confidence. Next year: Head Coach!
  • Jump in and do it. I saw a mom—highly skilled in baseball—who had been channeled away from coaching and was instead appointed "team mom." She refused to be discouraged, showing up for practices, finding opportunities to jump in and pitch batting practice or help kids with fielding techniques. Eventually, the head coach recognized her value, and she became an assistant coach.

Breaking the Glass Ceiling

Nearly all of the women in my study coached one or two years, and then either quit, or cycled back to continue to work with a younger sibling. But a few did breakthrough the glass ceiling, coaching older kids' teams. How did these successful women coaches deal with the heightened scrutiny, while gaining respect of others and building their self-confidence? Here are some tips I learned from them:

  • Take coaching classes. Even if you have playing experience, coaching classes can be very helpful in learning how to run a good practice. Women coaches I spoke with were sometimes critical of the "Old Boys" tone of these classes, but did not allow themselves to be put off by it. Knowledge is important, especially for those who know they are going to be subjected to an additional layer of scrutiny from other adults.
  • Decode the secret language of coaches. Lots of what a coach knows is learned informally, not from books or clinics. Successful coaches are keen observers of other coaches, especially those coaching in higher age-brackets. One woman told me that she felt isolated, as though she was not privy to a "secret language" that the more-established male coaches spoke with each other. This sometimes made her feel clueless. She dealt with this, in part, by carefully observing the styles and strategies of the more experienced coaches.
  • Find a mentor. Several women coaches told me that they were recruited into coaching and then mentored by a more experienced coach. Often (though not always) this mentor was a man. Though the general culture of youth sports coaching is still not fully supportive of women coaches, there are individual men who see women's involvement as a good thing, and are actively mentoring newer women coaches. Many successful women coaches have benefited from these guys.
  • Look the part. When people hear "coach," they often implicitly think "man." So a woman coach is often not even recognized as the coach by kids, other adults, umpires or referees. Therefore, like women in professional fields of employment, women coaches are often very conscious of the importance of looking the part of a coach. One soccer coach, for instance, told me that she wears a whistle around her neck. Not that she ever used it, however, she just wore it: "It makes me look like the coach."
  • Speak your mind. Women coaches tell me that they sometimes feel drowned out or intimidated by the "yellers"—loud men coaches and fathers on the sidelines. One coach said, "I don't put up with that. I just don't. There's no reason why I should, so I don't. I'm sure that when it comes to your business or whatever career you are in, you're not like that. You know, it's the same type of thing [in coaching]. I mean, why should you feel inferior to a man? There's no reason for it. And I [am] well known … I speak my mind."
  • Put on your game face: A woman who has succeeded in coaching softball at the older girls' age level told me she has a strategy with new umpires. Before the game starts, she says, she puts on "my game face … I put them in a position where they have to show me what they know. I'll ask about equipment (‘Have you taken a look at those bats? I was looking at a bat over there and I'm not sure if it's legal.') I'll ask them some questions that will make them … become a little bit defensive almost—and I don't do it to attack, I just do it to let them know I'm very thorough and I want to make sure everything is just right."
  • Co-coach a team. A few of the women who moved up and coached older kids did so with a man as a co-coach. For these women, men co-coaches seem to serve as buffers who insulate them from some of the more corrosive and discouraging scrutiny and isolation that a lone woman coach might experience.
  • Build a network. A woman soccer coach told me (with an ironic chuckle) that she was helping to build an "old girls' network" that aimed to recruit and support more women coaches. Newer coaches told me that having this network in place had made a huge difference. Numbers do matter: In AYSO, women coaches were up to 19% in the final year of my study, creating the possibility of such a network. Little League is still dominated by men, leaving the handful of women coaches as isolated tokens.

Individual Strategies are Limited

These successful strategies can be summed up in a single quote from a woman softball coach: "You gotta be tough." As I spoke with these women, I came to see them as courageous pioneers. But I also concluded that the individual strategies they developed are very limited. Not all women are willing to be"tough," just to be able to coach their kids. Nor should they have to be. Moreover, the women who did act more competitive, tougher,and more assertive than many of the men found that they ran head-on into the same sort of double-standard that women face in corporate life or the professions: if you are not competitive and aggressive, you are not taken seriously; if you are overly so, you are seen as pushy, or as having, as one woman told me, "a chip on my shoulder."

Clearly, the most successful gender strategies are group ones, like building a network of support that not only encourages other women, but also creates the possibility of broadening the culture of youth sports, making it more inclusive of women, and also of a wider range of men. In my next piece, I will outline some organizational changes that can be made in youth sports—changes that can take the pressure off of individuals to squeeze themselves into a oppressively narrow mould, and that can instead help to broaden and humanize youth sports coaching.

Michael A. Messner is professor of sociology and gender studies at the University of Southern California. His latest book is It's All for the Kids: Gender, Families and Youth Sports (University of California Press 2009).