Women as Youth League Coaches
By Doug Abrams
With planning for spring youth league seasons underway in many communities, Renee Moilanen contributed a thoughtful article late last month in The Daily Breeze (Torrance, Calif.). The theme was that sports programs serve players best by assuring qualified women opportunities to coach. Her reminder is timely and right.
Moilanen reports that dads “dominate” youth sports coaching ranks nationwide, with moms comprising only 13% of soccer coaches and 6% of baseball coaches. Many youth leaguers, said NorthJersey.com writer Kara Yorio two years ago, finish their playing days without ever having a female coach.
Overcoming the nationwide under-representation of women in youth league coaching benefits boys’ teams, girls’ teams, and mixed teams. In the short term, many women today bring equal or greater knowledge and experience to the playing field than many men. In the longer term, playing for talented female head coaches or assistant coaches teaches youth leaguers lifelong respect for gender equity. This column discusses both the short-term and longer-term benefits.
Knowledge and Experience
First, the short term benefits. . . . Forty-five years after Congress enacted Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, many of today’s young and middle-aged women grew up playing sports in youth leagues and beyond. Their playing experience stacked up well to that of their male classmates. Today qualified women, like qualified men, can teach boys and girls plenty because individual skills and team strategies are gender-neutral.
Rick Wolff once told me about a particularly fruitful season that his son spent in youth hockey as a ten-year-old more than two decades ago. “He played for a female hockey coach for a year when he was a squirt,” Rick said, “and Joyce was one of the best coaches he ever had. She knew hockey, she could skate and stick handle, and she could communicate.” In just one sentence, Rick pinpointed three markers shared by effective coaches, male or female.
In his book, It’s All for the Kids: Gender, Families, and Youth Sports (2009), Michael A. Messner found that gender stereotypes still lead some sports programs to steer men and women down different paths, even when a woman’s athletic experience equals or surpasses a man’s. “The head coach—nearly always a man—is the leader and the public face of the team; the team parent—nearly always a woman—is working less visibly behind the scenes, doing the ‘housekeeping’ support work; assistant coaches—mostly men, but including the occasional woman—help the coach on the field during practices and games.”
Players’ skills development is bound to suffer when the board of directors appoints a less experienced head coach – male or female — over an applicant with greater experience. Players are the losers when their sports program overlooks qualified women or consigns them to cheer from the stands. Or channels qualified women into roles as “team moms” who arrange postgame snacks, organize road trips, and perform other similar important but auxiliary chores that can be done equally well by mothers or fathers who do not seek to coach.
As Messner intimates, gender stereotypes do not influence only appointments to head coaching slots. On most of the youth hockey teams I saw in 40 years or so, coaching staffs included inexperienced or less experienced male assistants, including fathers who began paying attention to the game only when their own children enrolled. The assistants were not ready for head coaching, but most contributed by helping to conduct practice sessions, supervise the team, and lead on the bench. After a season or two, some of these assistants assumed head coaching positions. Many inexperienced or less experienced female assistant coaches can make similar contributions before perhaps graduating to head coaching later on.
Now for the longer-term benefits of naming qualified women as youth league coaches. . . . Youth sports competition teaches youngsters not only game skills, but also citizenship lessons, including lessons about gender equity. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette urges programs to “acclimate all kids to women coaches from a young age” because “a more diverse mix of men and women coaching . . . would help change assumptions that tend to form early.”
With about 35 million children playing each year, sports is a prime engine for influencing assumptions of boys and girls destined to collaborate with one another as adults in the workplace and the community. Behavioralists and child psychologists debate the relative influences of biology and social environment on children’s emerging attitudes. But these professionals generally agree that “nature” and “nurture” can each affect socialization by shaping early perceptions.
Nicole LaVoi is right that “when females occupy coaching positions it provides evidence, for boys and girls, that women can succeed and be powerful.” Children are more apt to develop these perceptions when their sports programs appoint (as the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Matthew J.X. Malady advises) “the right coach, not the right gender.”
Challenges and Opportunities
When it names a woman coach, the youth league’s board of directors may face skeptics at first, particularly on boys’ teams. The selection process begins with advertising and other outreach that welcomes both men and women to coach in accordance with their qualifications.
The next, and sometimes equally challenging, step is to maintain an environment that supports every coach’s effort to succeed with players and their families, including some who may initially be wary of a female head or assistant. Brooke de Lench, executive director of MomsTEAM Institute of Youth Sports Safety, writes about how she overcame skepticism and wariness several years ago to lead her sixth- and seventh-grade boys’ soccer team to a nearly undefeated season marked by sportsmanship and fair play. It was “simply a joy,” she says, “to see the power that sport has in bringing people together.”
Two generations after enactment of Title IX, old ideas sometimes fly below the radar screen. When Messner conducted interviews for his book just a few years ago, most male youth coaches said that they had never thought about how sometimes subtle, but nonetheless formidable, barriers can channel qualified women away from youth coaching to seats in the stands or service as “team moms.”
As our nation continues to make strides toward gender equity on the playing field and beyond, youngsters and their families are better off when sports programs do think about these barriers. And when programs appoint the most qualified men and the most qualified women to coach the boys and girls whose short-term and longer-term betterment the programs seek to advance.
Sources: Renee Moilanen, It’s Time For Women To Step Up To the Plate — For the Sake of Their Little Leaguers, Daily Breeze, Jan. 27, 2017; Kara Yorio, North Jersey Women Defy the Notion that Only Men Can Mentor Youth Teams (Sept. 27, 2015), http://archive.northjersey.com/news/north-jersey-women-defy-the-notion-that-only-men-can-mentor-youth-teams-1.1419598; Michael A. Messner, It’s All for the Kids: Gender, Families, and Youth Sports (2009); Matthew J.X. Malady, Why Don’t Any Women Coach Big-Time Men’s Sports? And Why Don’t We Care?, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Oct. 7, 2012; Nicole M. LaVoi, Occupational Sex Segregation In a Youth Soccer Organization: Females In Positions of Power, Women in Sport & Physical Activity Journal, vol. 18, p. 25 (Sept. 2009); Brooke de Lench, A Mother’s Touch: Coaching a Boys’ Soccer Team: One Mom’s Story, http://www.momsteam.com/team-parents/coaching/women-as-coaches/a-mothers-touch-coaching-a-boys-soccer-team.