Of the approximately 4.1 million youth sports coaches in America, only an estimated 650,000 are women. A recent study in the journal Gender & Society found an even wider gender disparity, with only 13.4% of American Youth Soccer Association coaches women and only 5.9% of Little League baseball and softball coaches.
The reasons for the relative lack of women coaches are many. Some see it is the vestige of the sex-segregated sports system that existed before the passage of Title IX. Anecdotal evidence, including the research in the Gender & Society study by researchers at the University of Southern California, shows that many male athletic directors, whether they be at the college, high school, or club level, still tend to hire, or in the case of youth sports, appoint, other men as administrators, coaches and assistant coaches. Too many men still hew to the gender stereotype that males are more competent and authoritative when it comes to sports than women. Most women at the youth sports level simply "go with the flow," with the result being perpetuation of the sharp division of labor in youth sports along gender lines (men as coaches and women as team parents).
The absence of woman coaches in youth sports has been termed by Scott Lancaster, former director of the National Football League's youth football development program and author of Fair Play: Making Organized Sports a Great Experience for Your Kid," one of the "most backward traditions in sports today." Women, particularly, mothers, are, he says, "the greatest untapped resource in youth sports."
In fact, there are many reasons why woman, far from being ill-equipped to be good youth sports coaches, actually have natural advantages over men when it comes to coaching at that level and make excellent youth sports coaches:
- Women are natural teachers. and women generally have a better overall capacity to be organized and prepared to provide a quality experience to all kids involved.
- Women tend to be less authoritarian leaders. Women tend to lead by consensus, a leadership style that even boys prefer, rather than employing a more authoritarian form of leadership. Women tend to connect by empathizing and establishing relationships.A mother's instinct to be a calming influence and peacemaker and to want to emphasize how every player is the same, not different, serve her well as a youth sports coach, where playing favorites or allowing teammates to bully or tease other teammates can create a hostile psychological climate.
- Women are natural nurturers. Science has proven that women are generally more adept than men at detecting mood from facial expression, body posture, and gestures, and thus knowing if a child is unhappy. Because they tend to be more emotionally open and have good communication skills, mothers are able to motivate and relate well to players, which is essential if a child is to have an enjoyable sports experience.
- Women tend to want to find a balance between competition and cooperation. A woman's focus is more on teamwork, arising out of her belief that the best result comes when everyone contributes and the most is gotten from everyone's individual talents. Women tend to reject the common supposition that competition must consist of winning and losing and of displays of power, dominance, and control, for better or worse. "What we need to be teaching our daughters and sons," says Alfie Kohn, author of No Contest, "is that it's possible to have a good time - a better time - without turning the playing field into a battlefield."
- Women care about all children, not just their own. More than 9 in 10 mothers surveyed in a landmark 2005 study of mothers agreed with the statement, "After I became a mother, I found myself caring more about the well-being of all children, just not my own." As Martha Farrell Erickson and Enola Aird, co-authors of the study observed, mothers have a "special sense of responsibility for children in general."
- Women are process- rather than result-oriented. This is what youth sports should be all about: an emphasis on the process (developing skills, both physical and social, and having fun) rather than the result (wins and losses).
- Mothers want to protect children from the pressures of the adult world. Nine out of ten mothers questioned in the Motherhood Study, and most child psychologists agree, that exposing kids too fast to the pressures of the adult world is a bad thing; that childhood should be a time when children are protected from, not intentionally exposed, to large parts of the adult world. Many mothers are concerned about the "disappearance of childhood" as the late author, media critic, and NYU professor Neil Postman, called it, and see themselves, in a sense, as what Postman called the "overseers" of children. As coaches, mothers tend to resist the concept, increasingly prevalent in today's youth sports, that intentionally exposing children to the harsh realities of the adult world (cut-throat competition, sorting out of winners and losers) at ever earlier ages is somehow a good idea. As former U.S. Women's Volleyball Team coach Terry Liskevych observes in Fair Play, "What moms bring [to youth sports] is a different and positive perspective and what's right and wrong in the area of a child's development."
- Women have been socialized to place a high value on sportsmanship. One of the most important lessons a youth sports coach can teach players is the value and importance of good sportsmanship. A study by the Josephson Institute of Ethics found an ethical and moral gulf between female and male high school athletes in terms of their tolerance for poor sportsmanship. The authors of one 2005 study suggest that the ways in which girls are socialized may promote a lower tolerance for poor sports behavior.
- Women are safety conscious and risk averse. Studies show that serotonin levels in the brain are inversely related to risk-taking behavior. Evolutionary biologists believe that a woman's higher levels of serotonin, combined with her instinct to survive by avoiding risk, prompt women to be more careful about safety so as to avoid exposing their children to an unreasonable risk of injury.
- Women are good at teaching boys healthy masculinity. Female coaches can teach male athletes that they don't have to conform to society's male gender stereotype by hiding their emotions, pain and injuries; that it is possible to be emotionally open and still be a man. Canadian professor Alexis Peters, an expert on masculinity, violence and ethics in sports, argues in a February 19, 2004 article in the Calgary Herald, "the root of the problem is not men, athletes or sport themselves ... The issue is adults who forget what it is like to be a child and impose ‘real man' values into youth sport." The presence of women as coaches of boys raises, as Drexel University professor Ellen Staurowsky argued in the classic 1990 book, Sport, Men, and the Gender Order: Critical Feminist Perspectives, "profound questions about male supremacy and directly challenges the patriarchal notion that maleness is a key prerequisite for coaching and for leadership." In other words, more woman coaching boys could, by changing the way men think about masculinity, help destroy the myth that women are somehow lacking the qualities to be leaders in society.
- Women coaches are role models for girls and teach them to celebrate being a female athlete. Women coaches break down gender stereotypes by proving that women can be just as competent and tough as men. As Professor Staurowsky told me recently, the presence of woman in large numbers as coaches at the youth sport level would help boys and girls see that "women can coach, thus affecting their vision of how sports systems operate."
More time to coach
Nearly nine in ten mothers in the Motherhood Study say spending more time with their children is a high priority. Coaching their son or daughters team is one way to do that.
According to the Census Department, the number of stay-at-home moms (23% in the Motherhood Study) rose in past decade, reversing three decades of decline. One out of five mothers works part time. As more and more woman work part time or become stay-at-home moms, more and more are turning towards volunteerism. As an article in The Wall Street Journal entitled "The ‘Pick Me!' Parents" documented, so many mothers are rushing to volunteer at schools that many schools are having to turn them away or hold lotteries and setting volunteer quotas. As the Motherhood Study revealed, others are already involved in their communities in groups working to improve the lives of mothers, children and families.
Yet there is, as of yet, no glut of mothers volunteering in youth sports. Mothers either don't volunteer to coach, are told they aren't needed, or are only needed to fill traditional roles, like team administrator.
The bottom line: Any mother who wants to coach should be able to coach. It is that simple.
Adapted from the book, Home Team Advantage: The Critical Role of Mothers in Youth Sports (HarperCollins 2006) by Brooke de Lench, Executive Director of MomsTeam Institute of Youth Sports Safety.
Updated June 5, 2015