Your Kid’s Not Going Pro

A Youth Sports Blog

Where the women coaches at?

with 3 comments

One out of my 6-year-old son’s five T-ball coaches is a woman. Various studies say that sounds about right for that level — depressingly so. However, I’m not so sure the researchers are 100 percent right as to why 20 percent would, in most cases, be considered a fairly high ratio of female-to-male coaches.

3154176261_7784ce4c5fA rare sighting.

On Wednesday night (or tonight, if you’re reading this on Wednesday), the University of Minnesota’s Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport is hosting a discussion on why the number of female coaches is so low, especially given we’re almost 40 years into Title IX throwing open the doors of gyms and gates of fields to girls.

Given the guest list, the answer is going to be: because the Man is keeping them down. The guest speaker is University of Southern California sociology and gender studies professor Michael Messner, whose research has purported to show that the lack of female coaches in youth sports has to do with men’s effort to keep old-time gender roles ingrained. This is the abstract from “Separating the men from the moms: The making of adult sex segregation in youth sports,” published in the February edition of Gender & Society:

Based on a multiyear study, this article analyzes the reproduction of adult gender segregation in two youth-sports organizations in which most men volunteers become coaches and most women volunteers become “team moms.” We use interviews and participant observation to explore how these gender divisions are created. While most participants say the divisions result from individual choices, our interviews show how gendered language, essentialist beliefs, and analogies with gendered divisions of labor in families and work-places naturalize this division of labor. Observation reveals how patterned, informal interactions reproduce (and occasionally challenge) it as well. We show how (mostly) nonreflexive informal interactions at the nexus of three gender regimes—youth sports, families, and workplaces—produce a gender formation with two interrelated characteristics: an ascendant professional class gender ideology that we call “soft essentialism” and a “gender category sorting system” that channels most men into coaching and most women into being “team moms.”

If you have absolutely no clue what that means — try dropping a few “(mostly) nonreflexive informal interactions” and “soft essentialisms” at the next soccer board meeting — maybe this excerpt from the first chapter of Messner’s latest book, with the dripping-with-irony title “It’s All for the Kids,” will make things clearer. Like most youth sports books, it wouldn’t exist without the Shocking Moment involving My Own Kid:

Back in 1995, when we arrived at our six-year-old son Miles’s first soccer practice, I was delighted to learn that his coach was a woman. Coach Karen, a mother in her mid-thirties, had grown up playing lots of sports. She was tall, confident, and athletic, and the kids responded well to her leadership. “Great, a woman coach!” I observed cheerily. “It’s a new and different world than the one that I grew up in.” But over the next twelve years, as I traversed with Miles, and eventually with his younger brother Sasha, a few more seasons of AYSO (American Youth Soccer Organization), a couple of years of YMCA youth basketball, and over decade of Little League baseball, we never had another woman head coach. It’s not that women weren’t contributing to the kids’ teams. All of the “team parents” (often called “team moms”)—parent volunteers who did the behind-the-scenes work of phone-calling, organizing weekly snack schedules and team parties, collecting money for a gift for the coaches—were women. And occasionally I would notice a team that had a woman assistant coach. But women head coaches were very few and far between.

The research findings stretched me beyond a simple study of sex segregation in youth sports coaching. My observations and interviews led me to explore how youth sports fit into families and communities. I gained insights into how peoples’ beliefs about natural differences between boys and girls (what sociologists call “gender essentialism”) help to shape men’s and women’s apparently “free” choices to volunteer (or not) for their children’s activities. I discovered ways in which gender divisions of labor in families relate to more public displays of masculinity and femininity in activities like youth sports. And the study gave me provocative hints about how gender beliefs, family structure, and youth sports are key elements in constructing symbolic boundaries in a community that is defined (often covertly) as “white” and “upper middle class.”

Not to minimize the problem of a lack of female coaches, but it sounds to me like under academic trappings, Messner has done what just about all of us involved as parents and coaches in youth sports do — take our own experience, combine it with our ingrained biases and determine This Is How the World Works.

Not to say that Messner, or the Tucker Center, is completely off-base in saying there is an old-boys’ network that exists in youth sports. Their first mistake is assuming any boy can get in it — or that a woman cannot. Being involved in youth sports coaching and management is much like getting involved in politics. Those who are involved are really, really involved, and oftentimes make decisions based on their own interests. If they happen to benefit everyone, well, all the better, but that’s not always necessary. I’ll admit, I have no academic basis — that’s just my own observations ladled with my biases, probably.

Nicole LaVoi, the associate director of the Tucker Center, told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune that leagues tend to ask the dads, while women are saying, “Ask us. Invite us.” From the article:

In her study of mothers, LaVoi discovered that many would like to coach — and they had concrete, workable suggestions that could bring more women into the ranks.

Some said they wanted to feel more competent before taking the responsibility of leading a team. Training clinics expressly for women would help, they said, by providing an unintimidating and welcoming environment in which to develop their skills. They also advocated female mentors and co-coaches as ways to build confidence and make it easier for women to get into coaching.

Others said having fewer games overall and more in their own neighborhoods would ease the time crunch that keeps some off the sidelines.

All of these are wonderful ideas. However, in a youth sports environment that is mostly volunteer-run, the chances of any and all these ideas being put into place is quite slim.

Again, reflecting my own experience, I don’t believe that leagues are intentionally trying to keep women out. Believe me, most leagues are desperate to get anyone who passes the I-didn’t-molest-children background check. Most leagues either don’t have the time, resources, or organizational ability to set up training or mentoring programs for anybody, women or men. I’m fortunate my baseball and softball league hosts one session with the local high school coaches to share their wisdom with us parent coaches.

Plus, forget fewer games or games closer to home. The schedule isn’t going to be rearranged for anyone’s convenience.

And that takes me, finally, to a major reason, one offered by my wife and other women I know, as to why they aren’t coaching: they don’t have time. After all, they’re busy at work, raising kids and juggling everything at home. Not that dads aren’t doing the same, but it ain’t the same. Last year for my daughter’s softball team, I wanted to get for an assistant a mom who had played softball in high school. She sent her husband instead — she said she was busy at work, raising kids and juggling everything at home. If there’s some soft essentialism going on, it’s that these particularly busy women didn’t want one more goddamn thing on their plate, while men were more apt to see coaching as something they could make time for (probably because their wives were doing everything else, but that’s for another gender study.)

Here’s another theory I was given by a female sportswriter friend of mine: As women’s sports have become more popular, more men have found it acceptable to coach them.

I agree with Messner that it’s great to have a female coach. I would agree that perhaps leagues can take steps to attract more female coaches — something, anything to send the signal that they’re not just looking for guys.

Where I split from Messner is that I (and maybe it’s because I’m a man in a War Against Soft Essentialism) don’t see this as an issue of the Man keeping women barefoot and pregnant at home. I also believe that women (in most cases) are indeed making a free choice, not some unconcious decision made because men have somehow brainwashed them, or some such thing. If we are to have more female youth sports coaches, league officials, coaches and parents need to realize that individuals have their reason for not coaching.

I encouraged the mom to coach on my team, mainly by making it clear you didn’t have to be a baseball genius to coach T-ball. (I did the same thing with the dad coaches, too. After all, I am no baseball genius.) All I know is, each woman has her individual reason for not coaching. Assuming there’s only one reason isn’t going to grow the ranks of female coaches.

I encourage women (and men) to comment. Like most, I’m basing my conclusions on what I’ve seen in my own immediate circle. I’m curious to hear what others’ thoughts and experiences might be.

3 Responses

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  1. Interestingly enough, my son’s 5 yr old baseball team played a team that had 2/4 coaches that were women. I’m not sure who was the head coach – but the women were definitely vocal and involved in the play of the team on the field.

    One possibly positive way to look at this situation – is it that the moms are less involved in on-field play or that the dads are more involved? In my own household, my wife is a stay-at-home mom and I work outside the home. I look at baseball (and other sports) as something special that I can teach my sons and be involved in their lives.

    Again reflecting on my own house, my wife enjoys watching sports (college football especially) but she didn’t grow up playing any sports. I think as we move forward in time, to the children of the 1980’s having children, the mix of coaches will change. This generation had a higher participation in sports by females and this will carry forward to their children.

    Dennis Murray

    April 22, 2009 at 11:37 am

  2. My experience is that it varies by sport. I have been coaching middle school volleyball for a number of years, and my recollection is that at least 50% of the coaches of the teams my daughter played against were women. With my son’s volleyball team so far this year, all of our opponents were coached by women. For his basketball season that has just passed, only two coaches out of some 20 or more teams that they played were women.


    April 23, 2009 at 10:46 pm

  3. Thank you for your blog in raising more awareness on this issue and providing additional insights and opinions. In Messner’s book he actually does talk about how many men also feel left out of the “old boy’s network” and face many of the same barriers to coaching that women perceive and face. Neither Messner nor I are making the claim that men are overtly scheming to keep women out of coaching, but there are many subtle ways in which this happens that are much more complex than merely saying “women don’t want to coach”.

    I wrote a two blogs about the lack of female coaches in youth sport and why it matters 9 and how to help increase the number of female coaches in youth sport 9 I agree with you that many women are just too busy to even think about coaching and are juggling many roles. I don’t think we disagree…not that much anyway! I also agree that implementing the strategies is much more difficult than writing about it, but if one thinks it is an important issue…it is a starting point!


    April 27, 2009 at 1:22 pm

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