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A chance to listen: I’m not just a coach, I’m a female coach


Maya Hamilton is an Assistant Swim Coach at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota.

Blog written by Kinesiology graduate student Maya Hamilton.

Sometimes the research on the lack of females in coaching and the issues they face seems like a broken record. There are countless theories that try to explain the steep decline in the numbers of females coaches since Title IX, the discrimination, lack of support, limited access, and work-family conflicts female coaches face, etc., etc. But maybe the record isn’t broken, it’s just waiting for people to really listen. Sometimes we need to step back and remember why all of this is important. We need to hear the voices of the women themselves.

The women behind these voices are reaching out to make themselves heard even where the voices are unexpected. My current research is on the ethical professionalism of collegiate coaches, not specifically on issues of women in coaching. But as I went through the data I collected on coaches’ ideas of what it means to be a professional, I couldn’t ignore what I read: Females were making sense of their role as a professional coach not simply as a coach, but as a female coach. They were not prompted in any way to discuss their coaching in relation to their gender, but much of their understanding of themselves as coaches seemed to come from their experience navigating a male-dominated profession.

I want to take this space to share the voices of some of these female coaches.

Responding to the question of “What does being a member of the coaching profession mean to you?” one coach wrote: “Now, when I look at this question, I think of it more in terms of what does it mean to be a professional woman in coaching, since my sport is still male dominated and archaic in how they think about women.” Another coach situated herself in the profession, saying her thinking “as a female” didn’t always align with the dominant view of “the boys club” (referring to her coaching peers).

Other coaches addressed the expectations and stereotypes placed on female coaches as minorities in the profession. One coach wrote about her personal struggles of “how to be confident when coaching every day next to a legend in the sport — my male counterpart.” Another wrote, “peers expect a softer coaching style [from women], but [they expect] the same results.” She went on to say that female coaches are expected to be more caring, so if they act tough, “stereotypes prevail.” Another described stereotypes placed on her due to her lifestyle: “As a female coach who has no children (by choice), people see me more as a Sue Sylvester than a woman who has made these life choices”  [Sylvester is a single, power-abusing cheerleading coach on the TV series Glee].

Almost all female coaches spoke of the difficulty of navigating the work-life balance. While male coaches also brought up conflict balancing work and non-work life, they primarily wrote in general terms (for example, “I struggle keeping a balance between my professional and personal commitments”). Female coaches, on the other hand, were very specific in the conflicts they face. Multiple coaches spoke of the difficulty of being a great coach, a great wife, and a great mother.  Two coaches’ words specifically stand out. The first wrote, “I want to be the BEST at everything . . . a coach, wife, mother, etc. I haven’t felt that I’ve been able to give 100% in any capacity (either at home or with my athletes). . . . Work or family? Recruit or go home to play with my girls?” The other spoke of her own struggles but also how her role as a female in the profession is perceived: “Work-life balance is a huge topic. . . . especially as a mother of young children. I have seen the type of assumptions that can negatively impact one’s working environment and career, including being told that women with children [need] to spend more time with their families.”

Reading the words of these coaches, hearing their voices, and observing how these women frame themselves not just as coaches but as female coaches, makes the issues facing women in the coaching profession real. I don’t hear a broken record; I hear women who deserve to be heard.

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