It’s about this time of year, as football winds down and the Super Bowl approaches, that sports fans like me start their countdown to MLB Spring Training. Thirty-eight days, 16 hours and 45 minutes to go — yes, there’s an app for that — ’til Pitchers and Catchers report. Opening Day seems just around the corner.
Yet, with all the recent sports scandals rocking the country, I find myself focused on something entirely different. I’ve been thinking, “Why aren’t more women getting involved in it all?” Not merely to stop the ‘horseplay,’ but to assert our own unique influence in these matters? We may be outnumbering and outperforming men in some of today’s most competitive races, but when it comes to our country’s ball fields, the opposite is true.
When Congress passed Title IX 40 years ago, many correctly believed it would be a breakthrough for women and sports. The law not only provided equal financial support for girls’ teams in schools, but changed attitudes about female athleticism. Girls, who once avoided gym class, now found it cool to become athletic, even muscular. Thousands went on to Division I schools, graduating with a high degree of competence in their chosen sport. Generations of women — many now reaching prime coaching age — have enough training and experience to teach others to play. But, while an unprecedented number of number of of young girls are participating in sports, few women are braving the role as coach.
One only has to look at the amazing achievements of those who have risen to the challenge (like Pat Summit, Tennessee’s legendary college basketball coach and April Heinrichs, who led the USA soccer team to Olympic victory) to see what women can contribute to sports. While we might never see females as head coaches on men’s professional teams, youth sports are a different matter. Surely a woman’s perspective and presence on those fields would be welcome to many a parent concerned over coaches crossing the wrong lines out there.
Yet the NCAA reports that over 90 percent of the coaches for both male and female sports teams are men. According to the New York Times the demands of the working mother are partly to explain for this predilection, explaining that athletic women who eventually become moms already do too much of the multi-tasking — working and caring for their homes and kids. So, almost by reflex, they leave coaching to the dads. On the professional level there are other issues. USA Today says that as women’s sports became more popular and lucrative, the professional coaching jobs became more attractive to men. The Women’s Sports Foundation reports that, since 1972 (when Title IX was enacted), female head coaches of intercollegiate women’s teams went from 90 percent down to 42.4 percent. Some believe it’s because women lack the credentials of more experienced male coaches, while others say it’s the men doing the hiring and they often pick one of their own.
Having coached boys’ teams for over ten years, I can tell you that the issues keeping women off ball fields — from the peewee to professional level — go beyond our lack of interest, free time, experience. It’s our approach to sports, to our fellow coaches and players that differs, and it’s this very difference that presents unique challenges. Do we assert our distinctive perspective? Bring our own winning ways to team competition? Or is this one of those glass ceilings better left unbroken, so that men continue to dominate the field?
I suggest we confront these challenges and start by inserting ourselves among young athletes. Here are some of the ways that I, and three other female coaches I know, brought our influence to the field of youth sports. In my case, I refer to a six-year stint as the pitching coach for a nationally ranked boy’s travel baseball team, assisted by four former Division I male college players. The other three female coaches were involved in their sons’ high school soccer, basketball and tennis teams, also assisted by male coaches. We are all women with much on our plates — I am a mother of three and a full time psychologist, the others also working moms. But we are all passionate about sports and our children and determined to combine the two.
What Women Bring To Coaching:
Preparing to Play – Guys (and kids) want to get out on the field and play. And who blames them? But, female coaches tend to emphasize the importance of warming up, stretching and muscle preparation in order to avoid injury. For example, I was very protective over my pitchers’ arms, which meant long warm-ups before games and low pitch counts during them — an annoying restriction to the boys and some of the coaches. Perhaps it’s a different kind of awareness of our bodies, but women coaches pay attention to the long-term health of their players, a focus that men — and even some parents — sometimes ignore.
Practice Makes Perfect – Similarly, female coaches seem to place greater value on practice over playing games. Although few young players prefer it, their growing bodies learn through repetition. Perhaps it’s something mothers know instinctively — how many times do we practice tying laces? Some male coaches believe that practice is over-rated and that players need more competition to succeed. On my travel team, I campaigned for routine drills until they became a regular part of our practices. Ultimately, the coaches agreed that our boys were more consistent players as a result. It also taught them the value of hard work, skill building and discipline — useful tools for life off the field as well.
Learning from Mistakes – Yelling, kicking and breaking bats were not uncommon reactions by my male cohorts when players made errors. They were balled out, ridiculed, even humiliated on the field and in the dugout following bonehead mistakes. Suicide drills (fast, short sprints performed until exhaustion) were used as “teaching” tools, but I viewed them unhelpful punishments. While errors frustrated everyone — coaches, parents and especially the player — the women I talked to more often pulled players aside to speak to them firmly, but quietly. Outrage seemed inappropriate. My tactic included warning players that unless we saw improved effort and performance, they wouldn’t start the next game. While not always the best move for winning games, it modeled limit setting over bullying.
Form over Stats – Female coaches tend to be more focused on the team experience and less on individual scores and stats. For guys, the end of games almost always led to checking standings, batting averages and on-base percentages. Obviously winning matters a lot to all coaches — I’m not talking Mommyball vs Moneyball. I recall being as fired up as the rest of them when our team qualified for Cooperstown’s Tournament of Champions one year. In my excitement, I even wrote an article about city boys from NY facing rural teams that practiced year-round — a story that made it to the cover of Junior Baseball Magazine. But the value of stats never took precedence over the whole gestalt; team building, learning baseball and creating lifelong memories.
Sportsmanship – While every youth sports game ends with a handshake, female coaches tend to take this ritual more seriously. They make a point of teaching players how to lose without tantrums, excessive trash talk or unsportsmanlike behavior and win without too much showboating. Interpersonal skills, so often more developed in women, are used in dealing with players, parents, umps and other coaches. Mutual respect is expected on and off the field in ways men under emphasize. While clearly not true of all male coaches, some not only tolerate bad behavior, but engage in it themselves as well.
Having Fun and Horsing Around — It’s a tricky area that I’ve discussed with other female coaches, given the current atmosphere in youth sports. While male coaches tend to horse around with boys in ways women obviously can’t, being available when players need another point of view is invaluable. One season, I was told by a couple of boys that a coach from another team gave them the “creeps.” I knew that he was very physical with the boys, wrestling with them on and off the field, but on further inquiry I found out more. They had been to his house for overnights and he offered to share hotel rooms with them when they traveled to tournaments. I heard enough to report his behavior to the head of the league — not without some ambivalence, since he was a great coach — but as a result, his participation abruptly ended. In retrospect, I’m glad I spoke up.
Maybe most important, in the end, is that coaching affords women an opportunity to serve as role models. Having started holding practices with my son and his fifteen teammates when they were seven, I am told that they barely noticed I was female back then. During our six years together, I was just “Coach Viv,” even to my son, now 18, who occasionally slipped and called me “mom.” The boys took for granted that I could throw and catch, do fungo and pepper, just like the guys. I knew baseball and that’s what mattered. They treated me, as I did them, as if we were working as a team, regardless of our differences.
I was their pitching coach, the one who first taught them how to find the strike zone with a fastball, curve and change-up. And I was the one who walked to the mound to help them when they lost it. Whey the got discouraged, frustrated or felt like crying, I calmed them down so the tears didn’t flow. Most important, I offered them a different way to approach the game and to view women. Some of these boys received full rides to Division I schools to play ball. Every so often they call to tell me what they’re up to — like one who found out he was being scouted by the Mets. I am delighted by their accomplishments, but even more that they care to let me know.
Women have broken so many glass ceilings in recent years. Coaching sports is another one that is ready to come crashing down. We need more women out there on the fields — training both male and female athletes — to bring our influence to the game and to these players’ lives.
Vivian Diller, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice in New York City. She serves as a media expert on various psychological topics and as a consultant to companies promoting health, beauty and cosmetic products. Her book, “Face It: What Women Really Feel As Their Looks Change” (2010), edited by Michele Willens, is a psychological guide to help women deal with the emotions brought on by their changing appearances.