Gender Differences in Coaching

Good coaching is good coaching, regardless of athlete gender.

Male and female athletes are much more similar than they are different. There is just as much variability within females and within males, than 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 APA keynote from Janet Hyde titled “The Gender Similarity Hypothesis”).  Similarly, despite widespread opinions, anecdotes, quotes from famous coaches (i.e. Anson Dorrance), and popular press “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 different.

The only statistically significant difference, but has a very small effect size, is that female athletes prefer more democratic leadership styles from their coaches.

The Self Determination Theory states ALL human beings have 3 inherent needs-belongingness, competence and autonomy (I call them The 3C’s = care, competence and choice). Similarity.

Here are some common stereotypes I hear about coaching girls: more emotional, take criticism personally, too sensitive, hold grudges, need to talk and socialize, value relationships more, less competitive, need a cohesive team, lack killer instinct, and are better listeners. I would argue, yes this is true for SOME girls, but it is also true for SOME boys.

A Mars/Venus “difference” approach to coaching exaggerates, promotes, and reinforces outdated and dangerous gender stereotypes that are potentially harmful to BOTH males and females.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, communicating, motivating and leading girls. Similarly, if coaches believe boys don’t value connections and friendships, this too erases boys’ need for feeling a sense of belongingness. Coaching based on opinions, beliefs and popular press coaching books of inherent difference is dangerous and can limit the experiences of athletes, regardless of gender.

Coaching science researchers have demonstrated that good coaching is good coaching.

NOTE: If you would like to read a more in depth critique of this topic, please consult: LaVoi, N.M., Becker, E., & Maxwell, H.D. (2007). “Coaching Girls”: A content analysis of best-selling popular press books. Women in Sport & Physical Activity Journal, 15(4), 8-20.

Vonn Watch: Part II

Ok, so if you didn’t agree with my critique (and many didn’t!) of the February 8, 2010 Sports Illustrated cover of Olympian Lindsey Vonn that can be interpreted as sexualized, the photographs of Vonn and other female athletes in the 2010 SI Swimsuit Issue being released today (shown here below) might help illustrate some of my original points.

Sports Illustrated 2010 Swimsuit Issue

I became aware of these pictures, from a news story in the Minneapolis Star Tribune that ran today which stated, “Minnesota skiing sensation Lindsey Vonn is among a quartet of Olympic athletes featured in this year’s Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue that is out today in print and online.”  The online version of the SI Swimsuit Issue includes video clips of the Olympic Stars doing their photo shoots.

The critique here is the same, when we DO see female athletes (some of the best in the world at their respective sports!) which happens in only 6-8% of all sport media, they are more often than not in poses that highlight physical attractiveness, femininity, and can be interpreted as sexualized. Is it coincidental that the four female Olympians portrayed here are all blond, attractive, feminine looking, and sexy according to societal norms?Arguably, the Vonn SI cover can be interpreted (or not) as sexualized, but these images are clearly sexualizing in nature and tone.

The obvious target market for the Swimsuit Issue is men.  Therefore, the idea that “sex sells” is viable and research does support that sex sells. What I want to argue however, and some emerging research is supporting, that sex sells sex…but sex does not sell women’s sport.

The point being, by seeing Vonn on the cover of SI, these images of female Olympians, or any other female athlete… does it make the male demographic more likely to attend and pay for a ticket to an event where these women are competing, buy merchandise, or read a story about them? Researchers say it is unlikely. So yes, sex sells sex but it likely does not promote women’s sport or female athletes in a way that helps to grow women’s sport in a meaningful and sustainable way.

The last point I want to highlight is these type of images also reinforce to consumers what is most important and valued in terms of female athletes and females in general, and meaning is constructed from what is chosen to be included and not included. If you want to read more about  how the sexualization of females affects everyone, particularly young girls, go to the American Psychological Foundation’s Task Force Report on the Sexualization of Girls. The report can be downloaded for free, and in short states, “The proliferation of sexualized images of girls and young women in advertising, merchandising, and media is harming girls’ self-image and healthy development. This report explores the cognitive and emotional consequences, consequences for mental and physical health, and impact on development of a healthy sexual self-image.”

Therefore,  I hope to see many more images like the one below in the weeks to follow, as Vonn (who I really hope is healthy enough to race given her shin injury) and other female Olympians have great potential to be positive role models, not only for girls, but for us all.

To see a video segment of me talking with KARE11 reporter Jana Shortal about why sexualized images of female athletes are problematic,  click here.

Lindsey Vonn, Great Athlete..in action, in uniform, on the slope.