What if the athletes were boys, not girls?

question_mark_3dIn a previous blog, I wrote about a male soccer coach in Minnesota who had his U12 elite girls’ team throw a game to the U13 girls’ team in the same club (Minnesota Thunder Academy).

A great MN female youth soccer coach I emailed with has a great point about this scenario. She writes,

Could you imagine if a coach had told a team of highly competitive boys to purposely throw a semi-final game to get an invitation to go on to a regional tournament? I believe people would be outraged – I definitely don’t think the sentiment would be “ Let’s move on, we have learned from the mistake.” This team he asked to purposely lose is a hand picked, highly skilled, immensely competitive group of girls and he asked them to bow out of a game – and most people seem to be okay with it! I can pretty much guarantee this would have NEVER happened if this was a boys team. I am not even touching on the fact that this was against any and all spoken/unspoken rules regarding coaching ethics. I am very concerned that a coach of his caliber would have his girls team lose on purpose because it was the “classy thing to do” – I ask myself would he have done this if he was coaching boys? That question hasn’t even come up in the communities because, I am saddened to say, I think most people still look at girls sports on a different level than boys. The playing field definitely does not seem to be level.”

Well said Coach!

From sports, to horse racing, to movies, to politics….sexism abounds

I’m going to jump contexts for this blog as I can see a trend unfolding. That trend would be overt and covert sexism against women in positions of power. It was present when Hillary Clinton ran for President (read here, here and here), it was present when Pat Summitt got her 1,000th win this winter, it occurred when Rachel Alexandra won the Preakness, it is present in the new Star Trek blockbuster movie, and it is starting up with President Obama’s Supreme Court nomination of Sonia Sotomayor. For example, today in the New York Times, in an article titled Sotomayor’s Sharp Tongue Raises Issue of Temperament the reporter wrote “Ms. Sotomayer’s sharp-tongued and occasionally combative manner — some lawyers describe her as “difficult” and “nasty” — raises questions about her judicial temperament and willingness to listen.” Would a reporter write the same verbiage to describe a male Justice? I have never heard a man have “a sharp tongue”, this is sexist language at its finest. I know I’m not the only one who has noticed this emerging trend (read here, here, and here). Keep an eye out for continued sexism surrounding Sotomayor’s nomination and confirmation hearings….all the way through the summer!

How Not to Coach Soccer: A Lesson From Minnesota

iStock_minority girls soccer_XSmallWhen I’m not writing about gender, the other part of my research, teaching and outreach pertains to youth sport—mainly studying and trying to improve sport parent sideline behavior, and helping coaches be more effective. When a story broke last week about a Minnesota club soccer team, many of my colleagues and former students forwarded the story link to me which got quite a bit of press here in Minnesota and around the country.

In short, two of the Minnesota Thunder Academy (MTA) teams played each other in the State Cup final to see who would advance to the Regionals—it was the 12-and-under girls v. the 13-and-under girls. The game ended with penalty kicks, when Coach Abboud asked the younger girls to pass the ball nicely to the opposing keeper, in essence throwing the game to the older U-13 team, instead of taking the penalty kicks to win the game. Chaos, tears, frustration, confusion, emergency meetings at all levels, commentary, opinions, anger, a public apology from Abboud, and parental support for the coach ensued. To read all the details go to, the Inside Minnesota Soccer article, the Star Tribune article, and Coach Mark Abboud’s own contrition on his blog.

Let me put this incident into a broader context of youth sport trends. The MTA is one of the most elite of soccer clubs, for “serious soccer players”, meaning they hand pick the best kids from other clubs around the state. In fact, the MTA girls recently joined the inaugural Eilte Clubs National League…yes, “national” league for 13-year-olds.

Winning_iStock_000005893466XSmallSome would argue this type of sport club is the poster child for everything that is wrong with youth sports-specialization, not developmentally appropriate, a win at all cost philosophy, year-round training, privatization, overuse injuries, burnout due to high stress and anxiety, dropout, overzealous parents, highly paid coaches with big egos, treating children like “mini-professional” athletes, and highly structured and governed adult-run clubs and organizations (to name a few).

red card_iStock_000003976608XSmallSport provides many “teachable moments”. Good coaches teach athletes to give full effort, focus on what they can control, treat opponents with respect regardless of the situation, and accept the outcome with grace. One decision by a coach does have an impact on everyone involved, and this is a cautionary tale of how not to coach because, simply put, it taught the wrong lessons. In soccer terms, this coach deserves a red card, and possibly more severe sanctions.

P.S.-A critical gender note. Notice the Minnesota Thunder Academy that houses both boys’ and girls’ teams is the namesake of the men’s team (the Thunder), and not the women’s team (the Lightening).thunderightning

“Marginalization of women and girls—one of humankind’s oldest problems”

Recently U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered the commencement speech at Barnard College, an all women’s college located in New York City. Her speech had many good points, but there are two excerpts in particular which inspired this blog. First, Clinton states, “Marginalization of women and girls goes on. It is one of humankind’s oldest problems.” Given the dialogue generated around my past blog (and at Women Talk Sports) pertaining to whether Twitter is good or bad for women’s sport and if sex sells women’s sport, Clinton’s remarks about the use of social media are particularly relevant.

In her speech Clinton challenges the women of Barnard, and all of us indirectly, to use social networking tools to better the lives of girls and women. Clinton says, “But now, it [news] is beamed worldwide by satellites, shared on blogs, posted on Twitter, celebrated in gatherings. Today, women are finding their voices, and those voices are being heard far beyond their own narrow circumstances. And here’s what each of you can do. You can visit the website of a nonprofit called Kiva, K-i-v-a, and send a microloan to an entrepreneur like Blanca, who wants to expand her small grocery store in Peru. You can send children’s books to a library in Namibia by purchasing items off an Amazon.com wish list. You can sit in your dorm room, or soon your new apartment, and use the web to plant trees across Africa through Wangari Maathai’s Green Belt movement.

And with these social networking tools that you use every day to tell people you’ve gone to get a latte or you’re going to be running late, you can unite your friends through Facebook to fight human trafficking or child marriage, like the two recent college graduates in Colombia – the country – who organized 14 million people into the largest anti-terrorism demonstration in history, doing as much damage to the FARC terrorist network in a few weeks than had been done in years of military action. (Applause.)Clinton at Barnard

And you can organize through Twitter, like the undergraduates at Northwestern who launched a global fast to bring attention to Iran’s imprisonment of an American journalist. And we have two young women journalists right now in prison in North Korea, and you can get busy on the internet and let the North Koreans know that we find that absolutely unacceptable. (Applause.)

These new tools are available for everyone. They are democratizing diplomacy. So over the next year, we will be creating Virtual Student Foreign Service Internships to partner American students with our embassies abroad to conduct digital diplomacy. And you can learn more about this initiative on the State Department website.This is an opportunity for all of us to ask ourselves: What can I do?….no matter what you’re doing, you can be a citizen activist and a citizen diplomat.”

So while the jury is still out on whether social media is good or bad for women’s sport, how we might train female athletes to use it effectively, if female athletes can “have it all” (i.e., promoting sexy, feminine, yet strong athleticism) or if by doing so they are reproducing the same old gender stereotypes that undermine women’s athletics, or if sex truly does or does not sell women’s sport, we do know a few things.

Girls and women in sport, and unfortunately in many other contexts, continue to be marginalized. I invite everyone—women and men alike—who care deeply about sport and physical activity as a means for female empowerment and positive development, should reflect on Clinton’s remarks. How can we become “citizen diplomats” and use social media for the greater good of helping develop, grow and sustain women’s sports?

Note: As a related aside, when I was coaching Women’s Tennis at Wellesley College (’94-98), an all women’s college and the alma mater of both Secretary Clinton for former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, the book store had a great t-shirt. On the front it said, “Wellesley trains women to be secretaries”…and on the back it said “Secretary of State”.

(photo credit to Secretary Clinton blog)

Why Mothers Coach

iStock__mom coach soccer_XSmallIn a study where we interviewed mothers who were also youth sport coaches, we wanted to know why they were coaching. A majority of the time the primary focus, including my recent posts on female youth sport coaches, is on the barriers that limit or prevent mothers, and females in general, from coaching. So, in honor of all the mothers everywhere who spend their time and energy coaching their own and other people’s children—Happy Mother’s Day and thank you!

A major reason many mothers coach is because it provides time for them to spend with their child(ren). One mom said, “You know it gave us another chance to spend time together in a different way other than just being at home or being in a social situation, and so I really enjoyed it and she did, too. Even though she was the coach’s daughter it worked out.”

Mothers in our study coached because they saw a need for female coaches and good coaches in general, and felt coaching provided an outlet to share their experience, passion for sport and sport knowledge with their children. Mothers discussed the importance of providing positive role models—particularly for girls—and felt coaching was fun and rewarding.

Thanks to the many women—mothers and non-mothers alike—who coach our children and youth! You are the missing piece of the youth sport puzzle.

“You Gotta Be Tough”

3-fingers1I thought a triad of blogs about female coaches in youth sport was appropriate given the amount of emails I received and blogs written in response to this topic. It seems like there is a need to continue the conversation.

To that end, the video of Michael Messner’s talk delivered on April 22, 2009 for the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport 2009 Spring Distinguished Lecture, “You Gotta Be Tough”: Challenges & Strategies of Female Coaches in Youth Sport, is now available to view free of charge. Messner is a professor of sociology and gender studies at the University of Southern California.

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.