Sunday, November 15, 2009

Why Can't a Woman Coach a Man?

When my boy's volleyball team got mashed by the St. Catherine's team, the boys had no problem. They just got whupped and knew it. It did not matter to them that St. Kate's team was coached by a tall lean mother of one of the boys. They did not know she was one of the best high school coaches in the state or had played volleyball in college. All they knew was that a better coached and better lead team had beaten them. It said as much how good their coach (that's me!) was and about how good the other coach was then it said anything about the gender of the other coach. Too bad that attitude stops at grade school.

In college and high school sports the percentage of men coaching women is actually rising. The recent appointment of Nancy Lieberman to head the Dallas Maverick's development league team represents a rare exception where a maverick owner will take chances and appoint a woman, a highly skilled, successful and accomplished player and coach, to coach a men's professional team.  It should not be this way--nothing about coaching skills to spot talent, motivate, teach skills, integrate players and skills into a team concept, scout and create game plans or react and adjust during a game suggest women cannot coach men.

All over America women--moms or ex-college or high school players--are coaching boys teams. Sometimes out of necessity--no one else would step forward so a mom desparately is reading books for how to coach soccer or volleyball (what the heck is header anyway?) the night before. Boys are growing up in  world where they are used to being coached by women--except football which remains resolutely an all male bastion given the attractions of its organized mayhem and soul destroying violence.

Women have been breaking, slowly, but surely glass ceilings all over. Men flourish with female bosses. The military succeeds with female generals. Women start more new businesses than men. So why do we face such an interesting assymmetry in elite sports at college and professional level where no women coach men but lots of men coach women. Women leaders in government, business and nonprofits are garnering successes and creating highly effective modes of leading. They expand the talent pool and range of leadership styles. Their successes represent one of the great moral successes of the last fifty years.

So what makes the authority structure of sport immune from moral progress that now infuses so many other areas of life?

It's not completely grim. Women's sports have grown up along side men's sports. Immense explosions of female participation have occurred at grade school, high school and college level sports. Largely driven by Title nine demands, this growth was spawned by top down opportunity. Title 9  forced some significant cross subsidization from the major revenue sports. Most of the energy for progress for women has focussed upon gaining women's teams, creating viable markets for them and slowly moving more women into women's coaching ranks--women coaching women. Many sports simply transferred the dominance of men coaching men's teams into coaching women's teams. In some sports like Volleyball, men migrated from a dying sport, men's Volleyball, to an emerging sport women's Volleyball.

The landscape of women's sports from age 6-22 is transformed. The number of good women's coaches has grown exponentially and strong pipelines are growing within women's sports, but unlike men coaching women; very little cross over occurs with women coaching men beyond grade school. No groundswell of movement occurs, the energies still focused upon growing women's sports and teams.

But the authority structure matters. The patterns of authority revealed in sports echoes and inlfuences perceptions an fans. When men coach women, it sends a strong signal reinforcing deeper authority archetypes. When women coach men, it transforms the possibilities and teaches the players and the spectators that old shibboleths like men won't take orders from women; women aren't strong enough (no one argues smart enough anymore) to earn the respect of men; women can't raise families and devote the time to coaching; women' don't have the experience. It also opens up more lucrative economic opportunities for women given the wealth disparities of men and women's sports.

None of the arguments holds water especially now that strong pipelines of trained, knowledgeable and successful women players and coaches exist. But the resistence will be fierce, not necessarily from players--if the women coaches lead well and they win, players will go along and many of them have been coached by moms and women earlier. The  resistance will come from boosters, fellow coaches, and politically powerful groups. A classic court settlement in 2003 reflected this when a local high school ignored their very qualified girl's basketball coach and hired a less experienced man to coach the boy's high school team after intervention from the school board.

Oddly enough I think the breakthroughs will come at the pro-level and high school level before college with its supposedly liberal biases  (although if you believe this you don't hang around many football coaches). The demand to win fast is too great. The pressures of recruiting open new coaches to negative recruiting all the time, and coaches will use this mercilessly against an "other" coach especially a unique target like  a women trying to coach in a male only club. The politics, the recruiting dynamics, the media vulnerability of colleges all militate against it. Only in very rare cases, like Rick Pitino hiring Bernadette Locke Mattox as an assistant coach at Kentucky form 1990-1994. She contributed to a national championship run. Mattox later coached Kentucky women's program to the NCAA and now coaches in the professional league. But with a few random exceptions, nothing followed. Nonetheless I'd like to see superb women coaches recruit for men against men; I'd like to see how mothers of players would respond to a female coach who could win and develop the player, all other things considered--who would you trust your child with?

If women are to coach men in the high profile sports, it will start in the professional ranks, not in college. If it does start in college it will happen, as it does now and then, in Olympic sports like the picture of the Swarthmore Head coach of men and women's swimming at the start of this piece. It will grow in high schools as much for economic reasons or moving the known experienced coach from girls to boys teams.

The proven talent pool of qualified  coaches exists. The ability to change public expectations already exits. The symbolic power and frame of the change would be appropriate. All we need is courage and vision from the ADs and Owners.

(Picture courtesy of


  1. Good topic. I can't help but to think of Ashley McElhiney when reading this post. She is the first women's head coach of a professional men's basketball league. You may not remember the name, but she made headlines when the owner (also a woman) of the ABA team she was coaching tried to fire her in the middle of a game.


    Nevertheless, she was very successful during her short stint as head coach. Her team went 21-10 and her players had lots of praise for her.

    I don't think there is much debate about it. Women can coach and they can coach men. It would not surprise me if some lower level Division I college program hired a woman in the next few years. It'll add publicity and an established women's coach can probably be hired for less than an established male coach. I'm sure there will be some demand from programs with some visibility if she is successful.

    I think you are right in saying that boosters (at least with the schools that have them) might be a detriment, but many want a winner no matter what. Universities are pretty risk averse. I think that is a major issue. I think the concern, unfounded or not, is that women will not be able to recruit as well. I always hear that schools want to hire coaches that can "be on the same level" as the recruits. Maybe there is something to be said about that, I don't know. Can a woman be on the same level as a male recruit? It may add an additional challenge, but I think it can be done.

    Anyway, it is just another reason why I wish recruiting did not exist. What good does it do? Coaching should be about mentoring and teaching, not headhunting.

    A. G. Dube -

  2. Thank you, I want to coach college football so badly. For some reason, I think I can do it to. I know it will be a tough road, and long, but I can do it.

  3. If the sports are already integrated, then sure, women can coach. If it's a professional sport like the NBA, NFL, NHL or MLB and not a single women can crack into the sport at this level, why would they coach in it? If no women has ever been able to compete at these levels, how can they understand the players and game enough to coach it? There are differences at these levels, until the WNBA merges with the NBA and women have the talent and athleticism to play with the big boys, leave the coaching to the men.

  4. I think women can do it, and even bring an added value to these sports since they bring a new and fresh way of thinking. It's not all about masculine tactics and gun-ho attitude. In the future we will see more and more women couching and getting involved in high ranks of major league sports.

  5. A note to anonymous: most Olympic coaches have never competed personally at the Olympic level but have successfully coached Olympians, so why couldn't a women do the same in male dominated pro sports?

  6. Women are not designed to be athletes! Bring this pc topic up whenever we see women getting destroyed in the NBA, NFL, and any other sport!

  7. I am a female who has coached men's high school and AAU basketball for 13 years. I believe the women are just as capable as the men but we don't receive the opportunities to ourselves. I've coached over 50 college basketball players, 30 college football players and 2 NBA players but cannot even get an interview for a boy's high school varsity position. A man with my resume and ability to connect with players and parents would be coaching college by now and I'm still coaching JV basketball. Actually, I'm not coaching that either now. Upon not receiving the varsity job, the new coach that was given the job (less qualified than I am) didn't want a female assistant and fired me. So, I am currently one of the most qualified unemployed high school coaches in Florida. Can female coach just as well as men? Yes! Can we receive the same opportunities as men? No!

  8. Anynonmous on Feb 15th: you are ignorant. Coaching has nothing to do with playing. I've had 9 knee surgeries, am 5'4 and no I couldn't play in the NBA. But neither could you and I could coach circles around you.

  9. "Anynonmous on Feb 15th: you are ignorant. Coaching has nothing to do with playing. I've had 9 knee surgeries, am 5'4 and no I couldn't play in the NBA. But neither could you and I could coach circles around you."

    Sounds like you're just full of yourself and shit. You have no idea of my career or accomplishments but make assumptions based off of your self inflated opinion.
    You sound like a 2nd rate coach, Full of self serving bias and Illusionary superiority!

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