In June 2014, current World No. 2 men’s tennis player, Andy Murray, did the unthinkable: He hired a woman – former French No. 1 Amelie Mauresmo – as his coach. Two months later, former Women’s National Basketball Association player and current San Antonio Spurs assistant coach Becky Hammon took a major – and high profile – step toward breaking down barriers for women in coaching by becoming the first female hired as an assistant coach in the NBA. In July, Jen Welter was hired as an assistant coaching intern for training camp and the preseason to work with Arizona Cardinals inside linebackers; she is believed to be the first female coach within the National Football League. WNBA Hall of Famer Nancy Lieberman followed suit, becoming the second woman to join an NBA franchise when she accepted an assistant coaching position with the Sacramento Kings in August. This past July, Hammon led the Spurs to a summer league championship, which sparked discussions over whether she could soon be a head coach in the NBA.
These clearly are hugely historic – and necessary – positive steps in the direction of gender equity in coaching. But reading all the much-deserved press on these stories has also given me pause, because there are some quite disturbing numbers regarding women in coaching at the youth, high school and collegiate levels that need to be addressed. Immediately if not sooner.
A lot has changed for women in sports over in the last 50 years. The passing of Title IX in 1972 has completely altered the landscape of women’s sports in this country – as in there actually is one. And to clarify, the federal civil rights law prohibits sex discrimination in education as a whole, not just in athletics. It also doesn’t pertain only to females, but to overall gender equality. In this particular post, however, I am honing in on one particular aspect: Women in coaching.
In the 43 years since Title IX became a law, female participation in sports has sky- rocketed. In 1971-72, only seven percent of 3,960,932 total student-athletes in the United States were girls, according to the National Federation of State High School Association’s yearly participation survey. In the most recent release, 42 percent – 3,267,664 – of this country’s 7,795,658 high school athletes during the 2013-14 school year, were girls. The most astonishing statistic, in my opinion, is that as participation numbers have reached new heights, the percentage of women coaching women has drastically declined.
In 1974, more than 90 percent of women’s teams at the collegiate level were led by female coaches, according to studies revealed by the University of Minnesota’s Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sports. Per the center’s most recent release earlier this year, that number has dropped to 40 percent. A year ago the Tucker Center expanded its research to high school sports within the state and found that women coached only 42 percent of girls teams during 2013-14.
Now, on one hand, this is a reflection of tremendous growth in women’s sports and the level of respect and admiration female athletes now garner from their male counterparts. As female sports have become more popular, and therefore more lucrative, coaching women is now a more viable option for men looking to pace the sidelines. But, while there is nothing new – or negative – about men coaching women, I can’t think of any greater role model for a young female athlete than someone who has literally already traveled the exact roads that lie ahead for her. I mean, who better to pave the way for the next generation of females in sports than, you guessed it, women?
There are a plethora of reasons – challenges – that explain the discrepancy, ranging from tradition, to awareness, myths and stereotypes. Here are three major obstacles I believe need to be tackled first if these dire statistics are going to be reversed.
1. Now that there is more credibility – and money – in coaching women, men are flocking to these positions. And, guess what? Most of them have more field experience than women. Adding to that, a recent report released by the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports at the University of Central Florida revealed that only 8.2 percent of athletic directors at NCAA Division I member institutions are women. So, I’m not pitting boys versus girls here, but I would think given the choice, it would only be natural for a male athletic director to be drawn to interview and hire male coaches with more experience than a woman looking for her first major coaching position. Especially if they’re from an older generation. All of these factors could discourage women from even applying right off the bat.
2. Traditionally, people tend to associate good coaching with aggression and yelling. A common stereotype is that women are too emotional or are not demanding enough on their players and therefore cannot draw the best out of them. But a good coach is someone who can adapt his or her style to each individual. Everyone responds differently; if a top athlete shuts down completely when shouted at or called out in front of his or her teammates, there’s no sense in going that route. Being a good coach, therefore, is not pegged by gender. Women are perfectly capable of being strict and carrying high expectations for their charges. And there are men whose success is rooted in a more gentle approach.
3. This might ruffle some feathers but I think we as women and girls need to own our part in this issue and do a better job of supporting each other. Hear me out. I wrote a story last year on the influx of young females who recently graduated college and returned to the county my newspaper covered, to coach softball – most of them played collegiately. While the national rate of women coaching softball teams is 34.5 percent, per the NFHS, the number here in Montgomery County is 64 percent. I went into my conversation with those coaches ready to discuss the major advantages of women coaching young females. While most of them agreed it is beneficial in many ways, several of them spoke to their own personal preference of playing for male coaches.
I am going to attribute this 99.89 percent as a symptom of what they – and even I – experienced growing up. It is estimated that only 10 percent of youth sports coaches are female. I never had one. Not for tennis, softball or basketball. And change can be difficult. Youngsters are impressionable and there are stereotypes regarding females; that women are competitive with each other, don’t make good leaders or can’t win championships. Without any first-hand experience to draw on, all young female athletes know is what they are told or what they assume based on their environment.
If girls are exposed to female coaching early on, they won’t have to rely on stereotypes. Coach-athlete relationships, especially at the youth and high school levels, can play an integral role in how a child feels about a given sport. Plus, growing up is hard. It’s important for kids and adolescents to have someone they trust and feel comfortable opening up to. Often times, coaches fall into that category. When a girl has an issue she is uncomfortable sharing with her mother, it is still important she seeks help from a responsible party and a female coach might be the best person to relate, or confide in. In 11 years worth of interviews with high school athletes, I have seen firsthand many very important coach-athlete relationships among women coaches and their young pupils. Enviable ones.
I didn’t appreciate that possibility when I was younger because it was never presented to me. But as an adult, all I want is for young girls and women to have strong and trustworthy female role models. It could be life altering. And, let’s be honest, who better to show girls and young women that they can achieve their dreams if they work hard enough than a woman who has achieved her dreams?
Jennifer Beekman, Spark Sports analyst
Follow me on Twitter: @jen_beekman