Why female coaches tend to be grossly under-represented in individual sports

Since the United States passed its Federal Title IX law, individual sports have actually seen fewer female coaches nationwide – and Penn is no exception.

Credit: Tamsyn Brann, Christine Lam, Miriam Minsk

Across the country, the number of female coaches in college sports is declining. Additionally, Penn has the lowest number of female coaches on its female teams in the Ivy League.

But why is this a trend? And what is the life of such coaches really like?

All athletic directors have their own methods of hiring and all coaches interact with their respective teams differently, but both within Penn itself and across the NCAA as a whole, team sports tend to be have a very high rate of female coaches, while sports of a more individual nature have been hiring male coaches in increasing numbers – and this is no coincidence.

Penn is perhaps one of the best examples of this concept. Penn has six women’s programs in true team sports: basketball, soccer, field hockey, volleyball, lacrosse and softball. Five of the six head coaches of these six teams are women; the only exception is Mike McLaughlin of women’s basketball.

In contrast, of Penn’s nine women’s teams with more important individual aspects, only one coach is female: women’s tennis Sanela Kunovac, who declined to interview for this story. But why is this the case?

For starters, a major factor is the occasional overlap involving a coach simultaneously in charge of the men’s and women’s teams. In a real team sport like basketball or football, factors such as the design of different game manuals and the management of totally separate staff make it impossible to train two teams in the same sport.

But in a sport like swimming or track and field, the dynamics are different. Male and female athletes learn the same techniques, and their teams don’t necessarily have different tactics. As a result, it is no longer possible for a single coach to lead two teams in these cases. Penn took full advantage of this, with track and field, swimming, cross-country and fencing being led by a head coach for both men and women – a male coach in each case.

“We felt this structure worked well for us,” former Penn Athletic manager Steven Bilsky said in July. “Mike Schnur [swimming], Steve Dolan [track and cross country], Andy Ma [fencing] and Jack Wyant [squash] all of them produced teams that made a national impact. … It is possible that if this model changes in the future, there will be more head coaches in total at Penn. ”

But the “overlap” factor is only a small part of sports teams. There are other explanations for the imbalance between team and individual sport, one of them being that, for many people in the hiring process, playing experience is a near-indispensable condition of the game. ‘successful training.

Most American men don’t grow up playing sports like field hockey or softball, and even in lacrosse, the men’s and women’s games have two entirely different sets of rules. As such, when the time comes for athletic directors to find potential coaches in these sports, it is often almost impossible for these coaches to be men if schools are looking for candidates who have been in the sport before.

Much of this is reflected in the statistics for the Ivy League and the NCAA as a whole – the Ivy League has eight female coaches in women’s lacrosse and softball and seven in field hockey, while Division I itself has eight coaches in women’s lacrosse and softball. same also had significant biases among women in field hockey (83.5 percent), women’s lacrosse (91.2 percent) and softball (64.3 percent) as of the 2016 school year. -17.

Again, in individual sports the concept is often largely reversed. If a man played golf in college, he can teach golf swing mechanics to male or female golfers; if a man has jumped high in competition, he can teach “Fosbury Flop” to athletes of any gender.

Therefore, there is no individual sport in which women make up even half of the Ivy League’s female head coaches – and nationally, women’s golf and women’s gymnastics are the only individual sports where women made up at least 40 percent of head coaches nationwide. .

“[What doesn’t change between men and women] that’s what it’s like every day to go out to work and have a work ethic and deal with the ups and downs of the sport, ”said McLaughlin, the only male head coach of the women’s Ivy League. of basketball. “I feel comfortable, but I don’t have that experience, because I haven’t played women’s football. And what I do not understand sometimes, I ask my assistant coaches who have played on the women’s side. I’m going to ask, “what is the best solution to this, how did you feel when you were in this position?” ”

But overall, the most important factor in increasing the number of female team sports coaches may be the least statistically quantifiable – the ability to build relationships with players behind closed doors.

Needless to say, male and female athletes are different in many ways, both on and off the field. With the way athletes interact with their teammates in the locker room, their social life, and the general life issues each of them may face, there are some things that only men can understand about men, and that only women can understand about women.

“I support a rule that in every women’s team there should be a female staff member. I think it wouldn’t be any different if I coached a men’s sport, I think there should be a man on that staff, ”said Penn’s women’s football coach Nicole Van Dyke. “You have to make sure you have people to associate with; there are things women might not feel comfortable talking to men about.

While teammates from all sports interact with each other, members of a cross-country or golf team don’t necessarily need synergy or chemistry with other student-athletes. to succeed.

In team sports, however, individual work cannot go beyond this. It is impossible to see a basketball or field hockey team improve without training as a collective unit greater than the sum of its individual parts.

Teammates in these sports testify that they really need a sense of “family” to be successful, and their environment off the pitch is a major enabler of this notion – a notion that a coach can make or break.

“This dressing room dynamic is huge, and I think having strong assistant coaches to be able to help run the dressing room, to meet the needs of the players when they need them, is an area where we have done exceptionally well. “Said McLaughlin, whose three assistant coaches are all women.” The health of a locker room is huge in sports; some people who don’t play sports don’t understand … [of female assistants] with the ladies it’s great.

Interestingly, women’s soccer appears to be the only exception in terms of female team sports coaches. Including Van Dyke, the Ivy League has just three female coaches, and across the country a meager 26.6% of female DI teams are led by women.

Naturally seeking more equality in this area, Van Dyke expressed disappointment at the lack of development of female coaches at younger age levels, but was still optimistic that football could gradually catch up.

“I’m not against men who coach women. I was coached by a man [at CSU Bakersfield], and one of the greatest gifts he has given me is that he has given me the power to want to coach. And so other men can do the same; men can empower their wives to continue and be coaches, ”she said. “I don’t want this to be seen as job theft by men – I think we need to partner with men. ”

Football aside, however, it seems these nationwide trends are relatively set in stone. The studies of recent years are undoubtedly correct about the sharp drop in the number of female coaches – and regardless of the causes of the shortage of female coaches in individual sports, at least in team sports, it seems that women leaders are here to stay.