Women “On the Field”: Strategies for Increasing Female Youth Sport Coaches

Given that less than 20% of youth coaches are female, which I wrote about in my last blog I wanted to post some strategies that developed from the voices of mother-coaches that I interviewed with colleague Sarah Leberman (Massey U, NZ). The women identified many creative ways to increase the number of female coaches in youth sport.

To achieve this goal is much more complicated than convincing women they should coach or throwing up our hands and claiming “women just don’t WANT to coach” as the person below suggests in a letter to the editor in the StarTribune He states, “If a woman wanted to coach she would seek a coaching job. It is wrong to assume because there are not a lot of women coaches that there is some conspiracy to not have them coach. A more common-sense assumption is that they don’t want to coach. Just as not many men go into nursing or shop because they would prefer to do something else. Is there a conspiracy among women to keep us from shopping? Ridiculous.”

Yes women have “choices” but their choices are shaped by the gendered context of youth sport in which men hold most of the positions of power (i.e., club directors, youth sport organization Presidents, Head Coaches). Many women want to coach but they encounter what sociologist Mike Messner (USC) calls in his book a glass ceiling and “chilly climate”, due in part to the existing “old boy’s club” that controls youth sport.

Increasing the number of female coaches will take a variety of strategies at the individual, family, organizational and societal level. Arguably, the hardest levels to change are family and societal norms. A majority of women are still the primary caretakers of children and responsible for household organization which makes taking on coaching a “third shift”. The juggling of the worker-mother/wife-coach roles is exhausting and makes it challenging and/or overwhelming for many women to continue to coach or to agree to begin coaching. Changing societal gender norms and family division of labor is out of my control(!), but implementing some “easier” strategies at the youth sport organizational level might result in more women “on the field”.

Click here to see the handout I made on Strategies for Increasing Female Youth Sport Coaches

If you have other suggestions or strategies to increase female youth sport coaches, I would love to hear from you.

Youth Sport Needs More Female Coaches

swim-girl-under-water_istock_000006357654xsmallA lot of my research is done in youth sport contexts, including examining the barriers that prevent females from entering into youth sport coaching. While the under representation of female coaches at the collegiate level is given attention (See Acosta & Carpenter’s longitudinal report and the 2009 NCAA Report on Gender Equity in College Coaching and Administration:Perceived Barriers), less is known about the youth level.

In some recent research I’ve done combined with that of colleague Michael Messner (Professor of Gender Studies and Sociology at USC) we found that less than 20% of all youth sport coaches are female. Messner’s new book It’s All for the Kids: Gender, Families, and Youth Sport is a must read on the many barriers female coaches face and how gender hierarchies and inequalities are reproduced in one of our most popular social institutions—youth sport. Messner recently wrote a great op-ed in a So-Cal newspaper titled “Let’s have more crying in baseball” which is also a must read.

How is it that despite record participation numbers for girls and women across all levels of sport, that females are not entering into youth sport coaching? (look for a future blog on barriers..it is a complex issue!) The vast numbers of Post-Title IX women and former female collegiate athletes who clearly have experience and expertise to offer youth athletes are not translating into more coaches. Both Messner and I discovered that when women do coach youth sport, they are often relegated to “less prestigious” teams—recreational level, girls’ teams, or younger age groups.

Why does it matter if less than 1 in 5 youth sport coaches are female?

istock__mom-coach-soccer_xsmall Female coaches provide a rich opportunity to influence social change, challenge stereotypical beliefs pertaining to gender and leadership, and provide visible, active role models for children and youth—especially for girls. Access and exposure to female role models in positions of leadership (i.e., a coach) is particularly important to girls, as they have fewer such role models in their lives than do boys—and this is especially true in sport contexts. Girls are more likely to emulate and identify with a matched-gender role model (i.e., daughter-mother rather than daughter-father)—therefore the visibility of female coaches may have a positive impact on girls’ motivation and self-perceptions. In the absence of female coaches and role models, female athletes may devalue their own abilities, accept negative stereotypes, fail to realize their potential, and limit their own sport career aspirations.

In order for youth sport to be realized as a mechanism for social change, females must be seen in equal numbers in all positions of power within this important social institution. Much work remains to achieve this important goal that will benefit all children.

If you are in the Minneapolis/St. Paul Area and want to hear Professor Messner talk about “You Gotta Be Tough”:Challenges & Strategies of Female Coaches in Youth Sport on Wednesday, April 22, 2009 7-9pm, visit this website for more information. You can also read Rachel Blount’s column Studies blow the whistle on lack of women coaches in the StarTribune.

The invisibility of female professional sports

This might seem insignificant to some, but it is another example of how female professional sports are erased. Last night I was at the Sugarland concert at the Target Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Near the end of the concert Sugarland played a cover of the Bon Jovi song “Who Says You Can’t Go Home” that Jennifer Nettles and Bon Jovi recorded together.

During this song on the giant screen behind the band they showed logos of all the local professional sport teams in Minnesota….except one. Any guesses which one was left out? If you guessed the WNBA franchise Minnesota Lynx—you would be correct. The Twins, Vikings, Wild, and Timberwolves were included and when each logo appeared, fans in the audience cheered loudly for their favorite team. What made this omission even more ironic was the fact the Sugarland concert was held in the Target Center where the Lynx (and Timberwolves) play!

lynx
I’m sure Sugarland and their producers didn’t intentionally leave out the Lynx, but it is an example of how womens’ sports get erased—telling the public what is valued and important, and what is not.

What do online biographies of NCAA coaches tell us?

I’m posting some information on a research project poster that a graduate student, myself and a colleague developed for the Sport, Sexuality, & Culture Symposium held March 18-20, 2009 at Ithaca College.

Examining Online Intercollegiate Head Coaches’ Biographies:
Reproducing or Challenging Heteronormativity and Heterosexism?

Pat Griffin and the It Takes a Team curriculum she helped develop has raised attention to the many ways that GLBT athletes and coaches experience prejudice and discrimination in overt and subtle ways. We were interested in analyzing heterosexism on university-sponsored athletics websites. Online biographies are a universal component of intercollegiate athletic websites and provide the public with an accessible “up close and personal” source of information about coaches and teams. This project extended work of sport media scholars who contend that coverage and framing of athletes and coaches present females in heteronormative ways in print (Fink & Kensicki, 2002; Kane & Buysse, 2005), broadcast (Billings, Halone & Denham, 2002) and new media (Jones, 2006; Maxwell, 2008).

Online biographies of NCAA Intercollegiate Head Coaches of the Big Ten Conference (N = 226) were examined for patterns of textual representations that reaffirm heterosexuality as the norm.

sssc-conference-2009_poster

We found two interesting trends:
1. The pattern of underrepresentation of female coaches in the Big Ten was apparent.
2. A complete absence of diverse sexual orientations was reflected in biographical narratives.

To read more about the trends that emerged from the data, see all the results, or download the poster click here.

Marketing Sports: “Wine & Pampering” v. “Beer & Back Waxing”

So after posting my last blog “Are Women Sport Fans?” I had a couple conversations with colleagues about female sport fans and how we “market” sport to women which spurred some additional thoughts. As I mentioned previously, females comprise 53% of WNBA and one-third or more of all MLB, NBA, and NHL fans.

Have you ever wondered about the typical ways women are “enticed” to attend professional men’s sports(i.e., “wine & pamper yourself events” that also teach women the rules of the game? This assumes that women don’t attend sports purely because they love the game, know the rules, follow the stats, or are passionate about their favorite team and player(s). Women ARE sport fans…but we so seldom see them in the sport media it is assumed they don’t exist. It also assumes that women don’t know the rules of the game and therefore don’t attend for that reason. If women just KNEW the rules it would increase their likelihood of attending! Women have to be lured to attend sports through things society tells them that women like…manicures, being pampered, wine tasting, and hanging out with the girls.

So let’s apply similar logic to attracting male fans (the coveted sport demographic) to women’s professional leagues, for example the WPS or WNBA. Are parallel events like “beer & back waxing” days offered for men? Or days that teach men the rules of the game? No? If not, then it must be assumed that all men are already sport fans and KNOW the rules the game. But this hasn’t translated into increasing numbers of male fans….yet. What do you think is the most effective way to increase the number of male sport fans at womens’ sports?

Key point: one-third or more of sport fans are comprised of females….men’s and women’s sports NEED female fans to survive! What if that one-third of the female fan base stopped attending men’s sports? To ensure the survival of women’s pro leagues that many of us are passionate about, is not the sole responsibility of female fans. Men’s pro sports rely on both male and female sport fans for sustainability, the same applies for women’s pro sports.

I still believe we haven’t gotten it right….yet. What does effective sport marketing to females look like? What does effective marketing of women’s sport look like? To get us started in answering these questions I think back to the May 26, 2006 and an October 9, 2006 Sport Business Journal articles written by a former colleague.

Are Women Sport Fans?

Today I was giving a talk at a local Rotary Club, which I enjoyed very much. It’s fun to talk about my work and (try to) translate it into interesting information for those outside academia. The questions I get are varied and always thought provoking.

The talk pertained to how to develop physically active girls and mentioned the importance of increasing the number of female coaches in youth sport—which is less than ~20%. One attendee asked me if we are to increase the number of female coaches aren’t we assuming that women WANT to coach and like sports enough TO coach? (this is the stuff of another blog…stay tuned). He wondered if I knew of any data about the percentage of females who “support” and attend sport events. I didn’t know off the top of my head, so I looked it up (See Table).are-women-sport-fans1

The answer to his question is “Yes!” women do consume, attend and support sports. Not in equal numbers as do men, but in higher numbers than I think is normally assumed. Notably, females attend the WNBA most frequently and one-third of fans at NFL and NBA games are women. Given recent attention to women’s basketball and the viability and sustainability of the WNBA, those in charge of marketing the WNBA should pay attention to the fact that half of their fan base are women. (I’m sure they are well aware of this fact and then some) But the $1,000,000 question is—How do you market to female sport consumers effectively? I don’t think we’ve got this formula quite right… yet. But I think one reason links back to the question posed to me this morning. I think far too often it is assumed that females aren’t as interested in sports as are men. I also think it is assumed the strategies used to market to sport-loving men, will work with sport-loving women. I hope for the sake of the new WPS and the WNBA that someone who knows a lot more about sport marketing can help us get it right.

Got Milk? Dara (I mean Dairy) Torres does.

The ‘Got Milk?’ campaign has a long history of featuring celebrities and athletes who encourage consumers to increase milk consumption for improved health. dara_torres_milk-adpdf4Athletes for example such as, Diana Taurasi, Steve Nash, Serena Williams, and David Beckham have appeared in the campaign. With the release of her new book Age is Just a Number, swimming Olympian Dara Torres seems to be everywhere, including in the most recent Got Milk? ad pictured here.

While this ad is just one of many Torres’ sexy “see my body at 42” pictures (See TIME cover also pictured here) what ‘Got Me’ is the ad copy.

dara_torres_timeTorres is not featured as Dara Torres…but “Dairy” Torres. Why is this a problem? Dara Torres is a five-time Olympian with 12 medals. Dairy Torres is a fictional character…she does not exist. The play on words at the end of the ad copy also sexualizes Torres (“Lap it up” and Dairy…I don’t need to make the connection for you do I?). These two ad copy examples demonstrate how even the most successful female athletes can be marginalized, often in subtle (or not so subtle) ways.

I looked at numerous other Got Milk? ads featuring athletes, and I did not see one ad that referred to a person by a name other than their own—male or female. For example David Beckham’s ad says “Goal By Beckham. Body by Milk”. Why is it that one of THE most decorated female Olympians who has defied assumptions about optimal performance, age and motherhood is portrayed in this way? To prove my point would a similar ad featuring male Olympic swimmer Micheal Phelps say “Milky Phelps” and end with a tag line saying “Lap it up” or “Suck it up”? The ad for Torres could of simply said, “(Alot of) Medals by Torres. Body by Milk”.

If You Succeed…Don’t Try, Try Again…Coach Men!?

When a coach excels in coaching, for example women’s basketball, why is the coach encouraged or challenged to try a hand at coaching men?

This pattern of comparison has happened a few times this year, ironically to two of the most successful coaches in women’s collegiate basketball. Most recently, Geno Auriemma (Head Coach of the UConn Women’s Basketball team and current National Champions) was praised by Bobby Knight after Tuesday’s championship game. Knight said in response to Auriemma’s sixth national title in women’s basketball, “The guy is really, really a good coach. One of the best that I’ve ever seen in the game of basketball.” Knight went on to say that Auriemma is so good, he could even coach men. When Tennessee Lady Vol Head Coach Pat Summitt won her 1,000th game this year, adding to the fact she has the most wins of ANY coach in college basketball, some argued she is “so good” she should or could coach men. (Ironically I don’t think Knight had similar praise for Summit’s achievements) I have NEVER heard the reverse, such as, “John Calipari is so good, he should consider coaching the women,” or “Roy Williams has won a couple national championships on the men’s side, he could even coach women.” Why?—because this would be perceived as a ludicrous step backwards.

Assuming Auriemma or Summitt would want to coach men, suggesting they could or should is insulting, not complimentary. Such statements are based on the assumption that coaching men is the “real game”, the pinnacle, or more rewarding than coaching women. It also implies that a coach hasn’t “made it” unless s/he has coached men and constructs the women’s game as less valued and important. Similarly, it suggests that coaching men is more difficult and challenging, takes away from the accomplishments of successful coaches in the women’s game, and marginalizes their coaching achievements. Instead of speculation and comparison, let us simply celebrate and applaud their accomplishments.

What Makes an Effective Coach?….It’s NOT Gender!

Ok, ok so there were two male head coaches vying for the NCAA-I Women’s Basketball Championship in 2009—the first time since 1988. Kudos to Geno Auriemma and Jeff Walz, obviously they are effective coaches. Why was this media worthy? The media’s coverage and the public interest in this phenomenon seemed disproportionate and rooted in three major beliefs (and probably more, so please weigh in!). First, is it that we are shocked that is has been SO long—over 20 years!—since males have coached two teams to the national championship in the most visible, well attended and popular sports in women’s collegiate athletics (even though men are the majority of coaches in this sport and level)? Or second…is it that we are surprised that at least one female coach has trained her team into the championship for the past 21 of 28 years (click here to see the breakdown)? Did you know that in the history of the NCAA-I Women’s Basketball Tournament that 75% of the winning teams were coached by female head coaches? Or third, are we celebrating the fact that despite the dearth of female collegiate coaches and the host of social, personal and structural barriers they face, females have managed to thrive in women’s basketball? Or… is it a mix of all three? Whichever way you lean, the bigger questions are—why are people surprised, and why is this newsworthy? I think the disproportionate attention reveals some deep seeded beliefs about male and female coaches and their abilities.

One writer on the NCAA.com blog quickly made the link between two male coaches in the final and why female athletes prefer male coaches. That is a BIG leap and is problematic on many levels as fellow Women Talk Sports blogger Megan Hueter points out. I am also reminded of the Women’s Sport Foundation position paper that refutes myths and commonly held assumptions about the female athlete “preference” for male coaches. I won’t recap all the main points which discuss in short, the effects of rarely seeing females in positions of power in all contexts, the belief that male coaches are more competent, and homophobia. I encourage you to read it.

In the end, after UConn and Auriemma cut down the nets, I am certain of a few things. I’m certain that the reason why all the women’s basketball teams in the last 28 years have ended up playing for a national championship is that they had EFFECTIVE coaches—which has nothing to do with the gender of the coach. I’m also certain the players on those teams were talented. I hope, sooner rather than later, that we can move away from talking about the gender of the coach and turn our primary attention to the characteristics that make a coach effective.

Size Matters: Big Girls on the Court

The Women’s NCAA Final Four basketball games aired Sunday night, April 5. I enjoyed the games, but was distracted by the constant focus on the weight and weight loss of the athletes. Based on water cooler talk and Twitters, many others noticed this trend and were also bothered. Two of the most notable discussions pertained to Oklahoma player Ashley Paris and Stanford’s Jayne Appel—both of whom had “dedicated” themselves in the off season and lost “over 20 pounds”. I lost track of how many times their weight loss was discussed. I know the weight loss of “The Dancing Bear”(aka Draymond Green) a player on the Michigan State men’s team, was also a topic of discussion in the coverage of the men’s tournament…but not nearly to the degree of the female players (Note: when men are “fat” they are often feminized…i.e. “dancing” bear…not “fierce, vicious bear”…but that is a topic for another blog). Why does lopsided gendered commentary about weight matter?

In the case of Appel and A. Paris, sport fans were told the weight loss was motivated by the desire of the athletes to optimize performance and commentators were very quick to attribute improved performance to weight loss. This may be true, however the repeated focus of sport commentary on the weight loss of female athletes also raises concerns and questions.

A constant focus on weight loss may send the message to young girls that in order to be a good athlete, you need to be thin. Thin, lean, disciplined bodies are the feminine norm, while strong, powerful, big female bodies often fall under scrutiny. Young girls who love and play certain sports where big, tall, strong bodies are requisite—like basketball—might be scrutinized (internally and by others). Therefore it is not surprising is that both A.Paris and Appel are “big girls” that play under the basket—positions where you need size and strength. I did not hear any discussion about the weight or fitness of any of the perimeter players. Mixed messages about body size and athletic performance may deter some girls from pursuing sports where strength and size matter, while making “fat” athletic (as some sport scholars call f/athletes) girls feel inadequate or self-loathing.

Decades of research documents sport media coverage more often than not highlights the physical attractiveness of female athletes while downplaying athletic competence. This pattern has consequences. The American Psychological Association states that the high value placed on physical attractiveness can result in girls experiencing reduced cognitive functioning, low self-esteem, eating disorders, depression, diminished sexual health, and internalization of stereotypes. Similarly, the National Eating Disorders Association states, “Media messages screaming “thin is in” may not directly cause eating disorders, but they help to create the context within which people learn to place a value on the size and shape of their body. To the extent that media messages like advertising and celebrity spotlights help our culture define what is beautiful and what is ‘good,’ the media’s power over our development of self-esteem and body image can be incredibly strong.”

Public commentary about the weight of female athletes by coaches (i.e., in practice, public weigh-ins) or sport media on national television is not productive and might be detrimental to girls—let alone the target(s) of the commentary.

Commentary on weight loss also reinforces the idea that if an individual is overweight (which has a “know it when we see it” quality), she is morally corrupt and irresponsible. F/athletes often create resentment and hostility from onlookers who often assume, are taught, and learn that being “fat” or “big” is bad. These themes played out in the constant comparison between the twin sisters Ashley and Courtney Paris. Ashley Paris was described as a hard working, disciplined player who decided to get herself into shape and rededicate herself to becoming the best she could be. In fact, multiple times the commentators said Ashley would go in the first round of the WNBA draft due to her new found fitness level. Conversely, her twin sister Courtney Paris (known most recently for her promise to pay back her scholarship if Oklahoma did not win the national championship) needed to “lean up” and was implicitly constructed as the less dedicated (i.e., lazy), fat, unfit sister—despite the fact she is a unanimous first round pick. There were many times where talk of Ashley Paris’ improved footwork and her newly fit body was combined with talk of “only if” her sister could also “get fit” and improve her game for the next level. While this may be true, Courtney Paris ALREADY IS a good player! In fact she is the first player—regardless of sex, division, or governing body—to score 2,500 points and record 2,000 rebounds in a career, and the ONLY four-time All-American in women’s basketball. Some might ask, “How did Courtney Paris achieve this elite level of sporting success DESPITE her ‘level of fitness’?” or “How can a fat body be a healthy and athletic body?” C. Paris as a high-performing large female body, challenges assumptions and raises many questions.

Many of my colleagues have written about these issues in depth, I am merely borrowing from their critiques (see the special issue of the Sociology of Sport Journal in 2008 dedicated to the social construction of “fatness” in athletic bodies).

With both Stanford and Oklahoma out of the tournament, hopefully we won’t hear anymore female “f/athlete” commentary in the championship game. It is distracting to say the least.

Because sport can be a powerful tool in negating the effects of an over-emphasis on the physical appearance of females, media portrayals and sport commentary of sportswomen become an important tool for teaching young girls to focus on—and honor—what their bodies (regardless of size) can do versus what they can look like. For the Championship game the sole focus should be on the athletic abilities of these great female athletes—who come in all shapes and sizes.