We are Game Changers: A Workshop to Prepare Women to Coach Youth Sports Recap

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by Dr. Julie McCleery

This weekend, my colleagues and I at the University of Washington’s Center for Leadership in Athletics hosted an event for women coaches. While the initial idea was to provide training for women who had never coached or had little coaching experience, we found the event attracted experienced coaches as well. In calls I received prior to the event, long-time coaches told me how necessary this event was and even though it wasn’t explicitly for them, they wanted to attend to help foster dialogue and build community amongst women coaches. I couldn’t agree more, and that is what led me to envision an event to support, encourage, and motivate more women to go into coaching.

 

Below is the transcript of my opening remarks, which draw a line between the dearth of women in coaching and the national conversation about evolving notions of leadership:

Welcome. We are so excited you are here today. This event is really a dream come true for me. I have been coaching, in some form, for 27 years and with each year I’m more aware of the need for building the community of women coaches. Today, this community is here to help you take the next step on your coaching journey. Whether that step is coaching for the first time or moving from assistant to head coach or getting ready to coach high school basketball after years of coaching U8 soccer.

We want to provide you with the motivation you need to take those steps and connect you with a community who can support you in taking them.  We also hope that you leave here today with some coaching tools.

More importantly, we want to help you realize that many of the tools, skills, and strengths you need to coach, you already have. As Glinda the Good Witch would say, “you’ve always had the power.” We’re not handing out any ruby slippers, but by the end of today we hope you will see the strengths you have and see yourself as a coach.

Beyond that we want to help you understand why you SHOULD coach, or for those of you who are already coaching why you are needed to stay in coaching for the long haul.  At the Center, as we were thinking about this event, we discussed why we feel like we have the moral obligation as women to coach – or to make it possible for other women to coach. We feel that sense of moral obligation because there are some big challenges we think all of us, collectively, have the power to solve through coaching.

Coaching Shortage

Most directly, we are trying to address the shortage of women coaches. These headlines (below) are from 2017. At a time when the world is changing, and more women are running for office and taking their place in the boardroom, the sports world is lagging behind.

 

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In fact, the percentage of women coaching women’s college sports teams has declined in the last 40 years, holding steady at about 42%. Forty-two percent of women’s collegiate sports teams are coached by women. With only 3% of men’s teams being coached by women that leaves the total percentage of women college coaches at right around 20%, which looks a lot like the numbers in youth sports.

Figure 1: NCAA, 2017

So while women’s coaching participation in youth sports hovers around 25%, programs, including high schools and middle schools, struggle to find enough coaches. This coaching shortage can easily be solved if we include the other half of the population in the pool of available coaches.

Why Should You Coach?

Beyond this shortage there are other challenges we think can be addressed by bringing more women into coaching. We aim big at the Center for Leadership in Athletics, so when I say I think we can bring about world peace by having more women in coaching I’m only partly kidding. I think we can solve big problems and make a great deal of change. So what can we change? What’s the big WHY of “Why you should coach.” First and foremost, you can change kids’ lives.

Change Lives

Anyone who has coached, or had a coach, knows that this is probably the most rewarding aspect of coaching, and we all have stories about the small and the big ways we’ve had an impact on a player. On a small scale, a few years ago, a 10-year-old baseball player I was coaching excitedly explained to me how he used the goal setting we did on our team to set goals for improving his classroom behavior and that was helping him do better at school. Moments like that, and the notes I’ve received from players and players’ families years after I have coached them, remind me of the personal rewards of coaching and also the great personal responsibility we have to treat each athlete with care and intention. Because what you do as a coach makes a difference.

Each one of you has the power to make a difference for a child.

Change Youth Sports

Collectively, you also have the power to make a difference in youth sports.

Youth sports has a range of problems – those problems mean that sport, for many kids, is not living up to its potential as a space for healthy physical and social development. We believe sport can be a place for growth and character building, as I’m sure many of you do, but some challenges need to be addressed if it truly is to do so for all kids.

Participation in youth sports has been declining. There are a number of reasons but one of the most salient ones is what we call the “adultification” of youth sports.

That means adults are imposing a sports model based on intense focus on a single sport, with a lot of competitions in which winning is the primary goal. That approach is developmentally appropriate for fully grown professional athletes but not for 8-year-olds.

This hyper focus on competition has many side effects including increased injury, high rates of burn out and attrition, and, frankly, kids not enjoying sport. And we know that kids don’t even want this kind of adult model. When they are asked what they find fun in sports, winning and tournament travel ranks near the bottom of the list. What’s fun for them is having a good time with friends, participating and getting better.

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Figure 2: Aspen Institute, 2017

So how do we know women can address these things and change youth sports?

I want to be careful here about over generalizing and suggesting all women coaches behave one way and all men another way because that is not true, but there is some research that points us to how women are potentially positioned to confront and address some of these problems.

  • Mothers instinctively understand the problems of adultification; they are more inclined towards preserving childhood and playfulness (Postman, 1982).
  • Having women as coaches helps change some of the unhealthy perspectives that are prevalent in sport and teach a “healthy masculinity” (Lavoi, 2009; Staurowsky, 1990).
  • Mothers also tend to be more invested in all kids and not just their own (Erickson & Aird, 2005 ). In our research, we have found that expert coaches are committed to the growth and development of each and every kid on the team.
  • Women, in general, lean towards a more collaborative model of leadership (Harvard Business Review, 2007).

I know these generally stated traits don’t define all of us – I myself might lean slightly more towards a competitive style of leadership. However, the important point is that if you feel like some of your strengths and values are not aligned with the youth sports culture as it’s currently configured, that’s exactly why you’re needed!

Change notions of leadership

After we change youth sports it’s time to take on the world. Really, we think women, as coaches, have the capacity to change notions of the leadership more globally. While women have made some gains in business, politics, and academia there is still a long way to go. And there is a certain paradox to the fact that women have not made more gains

Women, in general, are rated higher on important leadership characteristics like compassion, integrity, and value-based decision making (Harvard Business Review, 2013; Pew Research, 2017). However – despite women’s high ratings on most leadership competencies - men and women (including young people) regularly express preferences for male leaders (Harvard Business Review, 2007; Harvard Graduate School of Education, 2015). Hmm… that’s so hard to imagine? Can you think of an example of when that happened recently?

In addition, when women leaders exhibit these traits, like warmth and compassion, they are not rewarded for them because they are expected of them whereas men tend to reap approval for exhibiting these traits. This suggests that there is still difficulty with women in positions of leadership and still starkly gendered notions of what leadership looks like.  Young people develop their ideas of what leadership is based on who they see in those roles and what they experience with them. That’s where you come in. Sports offers a space to uncouple leadership from gender and help young people – help all people - see leadership differently, more broadly. With 40 million young people playing youth sports, we can change how they think about leadership just by being on the field.

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And the good news is that you already have many of the leadership skills and strengths that you need for coaching.  You have the power – it’s in there. Today is about connecting with that power and changing the world.

An updated version of the coaches resource list can be found here.