Given my role as the Associate Director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota and my work with coaches, I am often asked how coaching females differs from coaching males. I’ve asked hundreds of coaches this question, and there is one thing I can state for certain: based on his/her experience, every coach has a personal opinion on this topic! The goal of this column is to share some science-based ideas about psycho-social aspects of gender and coaching. This is not to discount knowledge coaches have derived from experience but may provide a jumping off point for dialogue and reflection.
To start, research indicates male and female athletes are much more similar than they are different. There is just as much variability within females and within males as there is between males and females. Despite the popular “Mars/Venus” perspective that females and males are vastly and inherently different, psychological research has not proven this true (see American Psychological Association keynote from Janet Hyde titled “The Gender Similarity Hypothesis”). Similarly in sport, despite widespread opinions, anecdotes and popular “coaching girls” books that are not evidence-based, research in coaching science and sport psychology does not support the idea that coaching males and females is vastly different. The only statistically significant difference that I can find in the research is that female athletes prefer a more democratic leadership style from their coaches—but the evidence is weak and mixed. Effective coaching is effective, regardless of gender.
Here are some common stereotypes I often hear about coaching girls: more emotional, take criticism personally, too sensitive, hold grudges, need to talk and socialize, value relationships more, less competitive, cry a lot, need a cohesive team, are less interested in sport, lack the killer instinct, and are better listeners. I would argue, yes, this is true for some girls, but it is also true for some boys. Overgeneralizing leads to false assumptions and embracing a Mars/Venus difference perspective to coaching may reinforce gender stereotypes that are potentially harmful to both males and females.
For example, if a coach believes or uncritically accepts that boys are inherently more aggressive and competitive, the coach may have different expectations and ways of structuring practices, interacting with, communicating to and motivating girls. Similarly, if a coach believes girls are emotional and expect them to cry, but that boys shouldn’t show emotion when upset, sad, angry or frustrated—this erases the fact boys have feelings too! The key point here is that how a coach thinks about coaching in general, and gender (i.e., coaching males vs. females) specifically, affects how he or she coaches.
Effective coaches know their athletes, adapt to the situation and coach the individual regardless of gender.