Purpose2Play: Are there differences when coaching boys/men and girls/women?

Dr. Cheri Toledo: Communication is key to understanding some of the differences that male coaches need to be aware of when coaching girls and women.  Deborah Tannen wrote a book call, You Just Don’t Understand, which provides some important information for understanding the differences in how boys/men and girls/women communicate.  She found that boys focused their communication on independence, self-reliance and the avoidance of failure, while girls focused on connection, preserving intimacy, and avoiding isolation. In addition, boys were most interested in sharing content, while girls were concerned with the interaction itself. Girls and women saw disagreement as a threat to intimacy; i.e., I’m not going to disagree because you will not include me or even reject me. Boys and men expressed disagreement as signs of intimacy; i.e., the more I like you, the better our arguments can be. When girls and women want the group to consider their ideas, you’ll probably hear them say, “Let’s …”; showing their need to maintain the connection and avoid confrontation. Boys and men, on the other hand, formulate their request as commands, which shows their orientation to hierarchy and status. Listen for things like, “Give me that … You go over there.”  If you’re a male coaching female athletes, use this information to interpret what your players are really saying.

Some of the new research related to the science of winning and losing tells us that female athletes are under-confident and focused on the odds of success.  Whereas their male counterparts, who are overconfident, think about the likelihood of success. Girls assume that their opponents are as good or better than they are, so it can be difficult for them to compete at optimal levels. This means that you need to provide practices that increase their confidence in stressful situations – time to ramp up practice intensity. Make sure that your players have to earn their starting positions at every practice –those decisions should be data-driven and transparent, not arbitrary.

Interestingly, the research also shows that when a male coach is formulating his half-time talk for his female athletes, it’s very different from the trashcan kicking that he might do with his male athletes. With girls and women, once you’ve had your say, ask your players for their input, “What do you think is happening … what do we need to do?”  This will give them an opportunity to share their concerns and to problem solve for the success of the team.

P2P: What do male coaches need to know about girls and women in order to coach them well?

CT: Mia Hamm, American Soccer star, put it this way, “Coach us like men, but treat us like women.” In part, what she’s saying is we can take tough practices and high expectations; just remember that there are differences … and I would add, that’s not a bad thing. Since there are differences in the way men and women think, effectively coaching girls and women to their optimal levels of performance dictates that male coaches study those differences.

Which leads us to the next issue that arises with girls: social situations will be taken on the court or field. Unlike boys, girls don’t usually compartmentalize their interactions and relationships – if Suzy is mad at Sally, she may not pass her the ball and she certainly won’t talk to her if she doesn’t have to.

As a college coach, when I detected these kinds of issues, I would assign the pair as warm-up partners for the week. I made them work it out – you may have to do that some day. In fact, I almost always assigned weekly warm-up partners and roommates for road trips.

When a male coach confronts a male athlete, it’s not uncommon for him to challenge the coach. When a male coach confronts a female athlete, she will take it to heart. I’m sure you’ve heard the saying, “She wears her feelings on her shirt sleeve.”  It’s true. Girls, especially young and non-elite players, have not learned to separate who they are and how they are accepted from their performance. Make sure that you are giving them five positive responses for every negative response – just an arbitrary number. Give praise for specific behaviors, avoid just giving the information about the skill or behavior – you have to personalize the interaction for the female athlete. By focusing on the positive, you will help your athletes believe that you want them to succeed.  Be sure to avoid sarcasm (which is really a form of anger) because it is easily misunderstood.  Remember, mean what you say and say what you mean.

P2P: Talk about some of the challenges male coaches face when coaching female athletes (at any age)?

CT: Always remember that you are a professional and that you are in a position of power over your players. For the most part, girls and women will not directly challenge your power, but if you do not earn their trust and respect, they might undermine your authority indirectly. So it is important to earn their trust through consistent, mature, and transparent communications.  Help them see that you are there to coach them to be the best they can be.

Men may not understand how to deal with emotional girls and women. Tom Hanks’s character, Jimmy Dugan, in the movie, A League of Their Own expressed this beautifully when he said, “There’s no crying in baseball.”  He was baffled with how Evelyn, played by Bitty Schram, responded to his question about which team she played for. Over time, he figured out how to best get his players out of their funks – this is a skill that will serve the male coach well, because he is going to need it. Men might walk up to a boy and say, “Snap out of it!  Get your head in the game.” That might not work with some girls or women – in fact, yelling will not work with many female athletes. Since disagreement can be seen as a threat to connection, yelling, consistently negative statements, sarcasm, and personal degradation will increase the perceived threat exponentially. Now I’m not saying that men need to sugar coat what their saying or walk on eggshells for fear of hurting a girl’s feeling … I am saying that it is important to say what you mean and mean what you say.

Since girls have such a strong tendency to be others-oriented, it is important to supplement team goals with strong individual goals. In addition, make sure your female players understand their roles – it should be a transparent and obvious process, something that you talk with them about on a consistent basis. Don’t make players’ guess and wonder what you’re thinking about where they fit in.  In my last Q/A, I talked about using down time at matches and tournaments for individual meetings – this would be a great time to define players’ roles.

P2P: Talk about setting appropriate boundaries, the importance of that, and how it can be done.

CT: As I said previously, coaches are in a power position – they need to avoid using that power to gain any inappropriate control over their players.  Since it is more common for girls/women to be compliant with authority figures, male coaches must take the lead to make sure that all interactions with female players are and appear above reproach. Remember, people’s perceptions will always override the facts.  Here are some specific guidelines:

•    Avoid one-on-one situations – always have a third person present, preferably a female assistant coach or other adult. Make sure when you’re talking with a player that others can see the interaction, leave the door open, meet in an open area, etc. Never have a female player stay over at your house or in your hotel room – it doesn’t matter how innocent it is, it’s still dangerous territory. Never drive a player home alone, make other arrangements.

•    Make your program transparent – emails and text messages should be cc’d or sent to groups; even personal information should be shared with assistant coaches and parents.  Open the practices to parents … you might have to tell them that they are there to observe only.

•    All touching must be appropriate – pat a shoulder or upper back, not a butt, and side hugs rather than front hugs. When you are teaching a technique and the player isn’t getting it, use another player who performs the skill correctly as an example, or have a female assistant position the player by touching.  It is better to use your voice than your hands. The bottom line: think before you touch.

Just a reminder … “Coach us like men, but treat us like women” (Mia Hamm).