The Field Where Men Still Call the Shots

The Field Where Men Still Call the Shots

The lack of female coaches in youth sports can make lasting impressions on boys and girls.

A girl stands next to a punching bag, looking like she is about to punch.
Nacho Doce / Reuters
For teenagers aspiring to make it onto a high-school sports team, the summer-vacation days of sleeping in are drawing to a close. By mid-August, many hopeful athletes will be exerting themselves before a cadre of school coaches, striving to demonstrate their fitness or conceal their summer sloth. Younger kids, too, soon will be back on the playing fields—if they ever left—and will begin training for their miniature versions of  various varsity sports.

Maggie Moriarty was one of those kids. Long before she began competing for the women’s lacrosse team at Holy Cross College, she shined on dozens of youth and school athletic squads. As a tiny, ponytailed 5-year-old, Moriarty played soccer on the town league, adding lacrosse and basketball the next year. Her athletic prowess followed her to high school, where every fall she played varsity soccer as the team’s scrappy midfielder, and every spring she excelled from the attack position as a four-year varsity lacrosse player. By the time she graduated in 2016, she held her high school’s record for assists.

As is true for many serious young athletes, sports have shaped Moriarty’s life and identity. She recalls vividly one soccer game during sophomore year, when her team tied a local rival in the county tournament and it was her turn to take the penalty kicks. Moriarty blew a shot, the team lost, and she crumbled, a puddle of sweat and tears. She also remembers the jubilation she felt as a high-school senior when her lacrosse team clawed its way back from a three-goal deficit and seized the state championship.

Her coaches have been towering influences, providing guidance, leadership, and comfort when needed, as with that ill-fated penalty kick. (“My soccer coach gave me huge hugs after that game,” she said.) Her most influential coaches guided her for years, some through outside clubs as well as school. Her high-school lacrosse coach, she said, played an especially pivotal role in her life: “He had more of an impact on me than any of my teachers.”

Moriarty estimated that as many as 20 coaches guided her various sports teams before college. What united all her head coaches, across sports, was gender: All were male.

Much attention and worry has been devoted to the decline of female coaches at the collegiate level since Title IX was passed in 1972. This landmark legislation prohibited discrimination on the basis of sex in all educational programs that receive federal funds, and its passage compelled colleges to ramp up the number of athletic teams for girls to stay on par with what they offered boys. While nudging a record number of girls into athletics, Title IX also contributed to an unexpected and steady drop in the number of female collegiate coaches of women’s teams, from 90 percent in 1972 to 43 percent in 2014. In response to Title IX, many colleges combined male and female athletic departments, which in turn often meant that men now oversaw women’s teams; the law also meant pay parity for women’s-team coaches, the now-lucrative salaries attracting male coaches to female sports. These phenomena, among others, pushed women out of college coaching.

What’s gained scant notice is the even greater scarcity of women coaches in youth sports organizations and secondary schools. According to a 2015 survey conducted by the Sports and Fitness Industry Association, one of the few national organizations that carries out research on youth sports, only 27 percent of the more than 6.5 million adults who coach youth teams up to age 14 are women. Scarce data of any kind is collected on coaches, but a 2014 report on high-school coaches in Minnesota found a similar discrepancy: Across the state, just 21 percent of high-school head coaches, and 28 percent of assistant coaches, were women. The same study found that 42 percent of girls’ teams, 2 percent of boys’ teams, and 21 percent of co-ed teams were headed by a woman. As for assistant coaches, the numbers were similarly small, except the all-boys’ teams had no female assistant coaches at all. Enormous numbers of children experience this imbalance in athletic role models: The Aspen Institute’s Project Play surmises that up to 57 percent of kids ages 6 to 12 play team sports annually, even if it’s just one season a year.

These early—and for many prolonged—experiences with predominantly male leadership can leave lasting impressions on both boys and girls.

Given the historical context of youth sports, perhaps the lopsided numbers of male and female coaches makes sense. Early promoters of organized athletics for kids believed that team competitions would help boys develop the critical manly attributes they would need to contribute to an industrial society. Luther Halsey Gulick, a social reformer and leading figure at a Massachusetts YMCA who rose to prominence in the 19th century, added team sports to the Y’s slim menu of athletic options and introduced interscholastic sports to New York City’s public schools. He had an evangelical mindset: “The fundamental qualities to be cultivated in the boy are those of muscular strength, the despising of pain, driving straight to the mark, and the smashing down of obstacles,” he wrote in A Philosophy of Play, which was published in 1920, shortly after his death. “The world needs power and the barbaric virtues of manhood, together with the type of group loyalty which is based upon these savage virtues.”

Military leaders and heads of business also seized on the benefits of organized youth sports, said Tom Farrey, the head of the Sports & Society Program at the Aspen Institute and author of Game On, via email. Athletic teams would divert aimless city boys into healthy pursuits and shape them into reliable workers, solid soldiers, and fellow patriots. Sports would serve as an introduction into this respectable world, with the coach acting as a boy’s first boss or commanding officer.

Few youth coaches today would bluntly encourage the cultivation of savage virtues. Still, a century later, most boys playing sports see the same face of leadership in the people at the helm of their teams.

Why so relatively few women decide to coach for high-school or youth sports teams is unclear. After all, thousands of girls who grew up playing sports under Title IX are qualified to coach, and many are parents themselves. But the management of such teams, all of it volunteer, typically splits along gender lines. According to a 2009 study by the sociologists Michael Messner and Suzel Bozada-Deas, men typically coach, and women typically serve as “team moms,” organizing the snack schedule, managing logistics, and collecting money for coaches’ gifts, among other administrative work. In the researchers’ view, this imbalance stems from “institutional gender regimes” that divide the work between men and women based on traditional roles. The well-documented gender gap in confidence may also be part of the answer. And some mothers who might otherwise enjoy leading their child’s athletic team are vetoed by their offspring. “My kids didn’t even want me to cheer; I’m their mother!” said Kathleen Feeney, a mom whose two sons who played on ample youth sports and high school teams.

Yet the preponderance of male coaches, even kind and gentle ones, has consequences for boys. “Boys are denied the ability to see women operate in leadership roles that males most respect,” Farrey said. “This has deep implications for our society as boys grow into adulthood, work with, and decide whether to empower, women,” he added. Exposure to female coaches can pay dividends for boys.

Consider Leland Jones, a 20-year old junior at the University of California, Berkeley, who grew up in New Jersey and graduated from high school as one of the state’s top distance runners. Until the ninth grade, Jones had been coached only by men. But as a freshman, he and his teammates were trained by a small squad of coaches that included a nationally ranked woman runner who assisted both girls’ and boys’ cross-country teams. Jones never doubted her mettle. She sometimes came to practice with ice bags the size of grapefruits taped to her quads, the better to relieve the muscle pain from her own early-morning workout. Other times, she joined in the teams’ hardest runs—multiple half-miles at race pace, repeat sprints up extreme hills—before stretching with the group and offering training advice or racing strategies. It was her zeal for running as well as her kindheartedness that made her such an effective coach, Jones said. “She was definitely a role model,” he added.

Of course, for girls, the absence of women coaches means a dearth of female role models in powerful leadership positions. And same-sex role models matter, particularly for women. The University of Toronto social psychologist Penelope Lockwood, who has studied the impact of race and gender in role modeling, found that girls benefit from same-gender role models more acutely than boys. Female role models act as “inspirational examples of success” and “guides to the potential accomplishments for which other women can strive,” Lockwood concluded.

Naturally, the lack of female coaches also signals to girls that coaching is not a career option that’s open to them. If the overwhelming majority of coaches they encounter are men, young women would logically conclude that sports and coaching are better left to the males. And the research bears that out: Girls who were coached by men were less likely to pursue coaching careers than those led by women. “When you only see men in positions of power, you conclude ‘sports are not for me’,” said Nicole LaVoi, the co-director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota.

More generally, girls who see just males in charge of teams may develop the distorted belief that leadership roles are reserved for men—and that aspiring to lead means adopting a masculine style of governance. To be sure, men don’t manage with punishment and threats any more than women lead with lollipops and cuddles. But research shows that men and women, in general, have different leadership styles: A 2013 symposium at Harvard Business School on women leaders that included a meta-analysis of the research on male and female managers found that women have a “more participative, androgynous, and transformational leadership style,” while men “adopt a top-down, ‘command and control’ style.” Also notable was that male and female leaders differed in their ideals and outlook, with women favoring “benevolence” and “universalism” more than their male counterparts. If female athletes have only male coaches, they’re apt to experience a kind of leadership that can controvert what feels natural to them and insinuate that they lack the faculties to lead.

And if female athletes have only male coaches, they could also be apt to disengage with sports altogether. Indeed, Risa Isard, the senior program associate at the Aspen Sports & Society Program, wonders if the scarcity of female coaches at younger levels helps explain why girls still trail the number of boys who start and continue playing—even though more girls play sports today than ever before. By age 14, girls drop out of sports at twice the rate of boys, just at the time when girls stop speaking up and asserting themselves. And non-participation has a health consequence: Compared to girls who play sports, inactive females have worse grades, graduate from high school at lower rates, and are more likely to become pregnant. “Girls respond well to female coaches, and good coaches keep kids in sports,” Isard said. Thus, the shortage of female coaches has a potential health consequence for those girls who connect better to fellow females, and who opt out or quit when women coaches are absent.

For the majority of sporty girls and boys who will rarely if ever answer to a female head coach, the absence of women leaders in this slice of their lives may feel inconsequential. It’s just sports, after all. With any luck, boys and girls have ample role models of both genders in other places—at home, in school, at work. But athletics are deeply important to many Americans, a reality that’s visible in the genuflecting before professional and college players, and in the robust participation rates for kids in club, town, and school teams. And sports are a window into society, revealing the larger culture’s values and hang-ups. In this regard, it would be strange to think of sports as any different from business or politics, where many more men than women similarly go on to lead.

Farrey of the Aspen Sports & Society Program wonders how the country would be different if young men who played sports were coached by qualified women. “Would we have more female CEOs and senators if every male in America had an effective female coach growing up? Would Hillary have been elected President? My guess is absolutely, yes.”

About the Author

  • Linda Flanagan is a freelance writer and high school cross-country coach. Her work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and Newsweek. She is a regular contributor to The Huffington Post.
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