How Narrowing the Gender Gap in Youth League Coaching Would Serve the Players
By Doug Abrams
Late last month, the Bergen Record and NorthJersey.com carried two articles about the under-representation of women in youth league coaching ranks nationwide. The University of Minnesota’s Nicole LaVoi estimates that women coach only about 10% of boys’ teams, and barely a higher percentage of girls’ teams. Many youth leaguers, says writer Kara Yorio, finish their playing days without ever having a female coach.
This column describes how the stark imbalance, and the gender stereotypes that help fuel it, disserve both boys and girls. The disservice begins on the field because in several sports, many women’s playing experience equals or exceeds the playing experience of many men. Experience typically translates into knowledge. The disservice can last into adulthood because playing for female head coaches or assistant coaches teaches boys and girls life lessons about gender equity in our society.
Experience and Knowledge of the Game
More than 40 years after Congress enacted Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, the United States has many young and middle-aged women who grew up playing sports in youth leagues and beyond. Many mothers and other women today can teach boys and girls plenty about skills, and Yorio profiles female youth league coaches who measure up.
A local youth sports association restrains player development when the board of directors appoints an inexperienced head coach over an applicant considerably more experienced in the game. An association teaches skills best by assembling the deepest possible coaching pool, and not by artificially restricting the pool’s size. Associations fail in this mission when subtle cues consign qualified women to seats in the stands, overlook women who wish to coach, or channel them into auxiliary roles as “team moms.”
In It’s All for the Kids: Gender, Families, and Youth Sports (2009), Michael A. Messner found that traditional expectations often push men and women in different directions, even when a woman’s resume shows years of athletic experience. “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.”
Traditional expectations do not end with head coaching slots. Boards of directors also assemble applications from parents and other adults who seem better suited for assistant coaching positions because they lack background in X’s and 0’s, but can help the head coach lead the youngsters.
On most of the youth hockey teams I have seen in the past 40 years or so, the coaching staffs included one or more inexperienced or less experienced male assistants, including ones who began paying close attention to the game only when their own children enrolled. Many of these assistants likely never played hockey as kids. The assistants might not have been ready for head coaching, but most made positive contributions by helping to conduct practice sessions, supervise the team, and provide leadership on the bench during games.
Many less experienced female assistant coaches can make these contributions as well as many less experienced men can. Assistants – men and women alike — may graduate to head coaching after gaining more experience. In their advertising and other outreach seeking qualified coaches, youth sports associations should foster coaching education by specifying that both men and women may serve in accordance with their individual talents.
Youth sports teaches youngsters not only playing skills, but also lifelong citizenship lessons. These citizenship lessons should include ones about appropriate gender roles. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette correctly urges youth leagues 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 who will spend their adult lives working in gender-neutral settings. Behavioralists and child psychologists debate the relative influences of biology and social environment on children’s attitudes. But these professionals generally agree that “nature” and “nurture” can each affect socialization because experience can develop and change attitudes during childhood and adolescence.
Girls perceive a female coach as a strong role model, and boys learn greater acceptance of gender equality when they perceive a woman in a leadership position. 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 local sports associations appoint (as the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Matthew J.X. Malady advises) “the right coach, not the right gender.” The association’s next, and sometimes equally challenging, step is to support each coach’s effort to succeed with players and their families, including some players and families who may initially be wary of a woman’s appointment to a head or assistant position.
The Challenges Ahead
For some people, stereotypes die hard. Just a few days ago, Major League Baseball’s playoffs suggested that challenges remain for advocates of gender equity in sports leadership at all levels, including youth leagues. ESPN’s Jessica Mendoza became the first woman to offer on-air commentary throughout a nationally televised playoff game. Mendoza is a prominent former softball player, a four-time first-team Stanford University All-American and a two-time Olympic medalist, one gold and one silver.
I agree with most reviewers that her articulate, insightful contributions met or exceeded the standards generally set by male on-air television sports commentators. But I was not surprised to read the usual brushback from some website readers and at least one radio sports talk show host, many of whom seemed taken aback by an accomplished female athlete’s appearance in the broadcast booth of a so-called “male” sport.
According to Maury Brown, writing in Forbes, “Mendoza has become a rising star in the broadcast world, not because she’s a woman, but because she’s proven to be a solid baseball voice.” For her part, Mendoza told USA TODAY’s Nancy Armour that “It’s 2015. I just want to get to the point where as long as you’re good at what you do, it shouldn’t matter who you are, what your gender is. . . .” This aspiration defines the essence of a meritocracy.
Youth sports associations need to rise above timeworn gender stereotypes and double standards, even when the board of directors might face doubters at first. For his book, Messner questioned male coaches about the informal channeling of women away from youth league coaching to be the “team moms” who organize road trips, arrange for postgame snacks, and perform similar auxiliary chores. Most coaches said that they had never thought about the prevalence or impact of informal channeling. Players and their families would be better off if more sports associations did think about it nowadays, and if they acted on their better instincts for the boys and girls they serve.
Sources: Kara Yorio, North Jersey Women Defy the Notion that Only Men Can Mentor Youth Teams, http://www.northjersey.com/news/north-jersey-women-defy-the-notion-that-only-men-can-mentor-youth-teams-1.1419598 ; Kara Yorio, For Women, a Gender Gap Persists On Youth Coaching Sidelines, http://www.northjersey.com/news/for-women-a-gender-gap-persists-on-youth-coaching-sidelines-1.1419557 ; 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); Maury Brown, Jessica Mendoza Will Be Back Next Year As Baseball Analyst For ESPN, Forbes, Oct. 9, 2015, http://www.forbes.com/sites/maurybrown/2015/10/09/jessica-mendoza-will-be-back-next-year-as-baseball-analyst-for-espn/ ; Nancy Armour, Jessica Mendoza Took Long Road to Historic ESPN Analyst Job, USA TODAY, Sept. 10, 2015.