What I Learned From Coaching Boys

This past fall I coached high school boys’ soccer for the first time. Over the last 8 years, most of my coaching experience has been with adolescent girls. My first opportunity to coach was with a high school girls’ team, and at the time coaching girls seemed natural and obvious. I don’t remember actively thinking that coaching boys was, or was not, a possible alternative. I was just confident that I could relate to girls and eager to be a strong female role model.

What I learned coaching high school boys has been massively important to my practice. (Note: Gender is complicated, fluid, and changeable. Gender is not a binary—girl/woman and boy/man. Sport, however, segregates us into these two gender categories, which can marginalize athletes who do not identify with these rigid categories. This is a controversial topic worth addressing in the future, but not one I tackle here). The experience has not only influenced what I view as quality coaching, but also helped me clarify a longstanding debate about whether we should coach girls and boys differently. Before I offer my stance, I’d like to frame the debate. Next, I raise some critical points for both camps to consider and conclude by drawing on my own experience coaching boys.

Stance 1: Coaches should coach girls and boys differently         

            Proponents of a gendered coaching approach hold that there are differences between boys and girls to which coaches need to attend in order to be effective. Sport psychology practitioner Jeff Janssen details some differences in this special report. For example, girls/women tend to be more coachable, less confident and receptive to criticism (taking it personally), and more strongly view team chemistry as essential to a successful team and sport experience relative to their male peers. Janssen acknowledges that these differences may by gross generalizations, but argues that they should usefully guide our coaching. Other renowned coaches, such as UNC Women’s Soccer Head Coach Anson Dorrance, have echoed how central these considerations are in their coaching. Read Dorrance’s book (“The Vision of a Champion: Advice and Inspiration from the World’s Most Successful Women’s Soccer Coach”) or this article and you’ll get the gist.

This perspective also aligns with findings from a recent study that I did. I interviewed high school head coaches with experience coaching both boys and girls and asked them to explain how, if at all, they adapt their coaching. Here is a response from one coach:

“You can’t go over and yell at a girl like you can a boy. You can go over to the side and do that to a boy, but the girls—some will start crying. I think it comes from the ‘meathead’ football culture. From the time they are little playing football or wrestling, they are always getting yelled at and they build up a tolerance and understanding of— if he hits me across the head, it is nothing personal. Girls don’t have a lot of ‘meathead’ coaches. They learn a little different and take things differently.”

A key implication for coaches that support this perspective (keeping in mind that men dominate the coaching profession, even in girls’/women’s sports) is that men may have to re-examine aspects of their coaching in order to effectively coach girls/women.

Stance 2: Coaches should coach the individual—regardless of their gender

Critics of a gendered coaching approach argue that gender is a non-issue; coaches need to consider the individual athlete. That is, regardless of our genetic predispositions, how we are socialized, or the interaction between these two factors, there is more individual variation than differences across groups. For coaches who adopt this viewpoint, categorizing girls/women and boys/men runs the risk of making faulty generalizations that may undermine our ability to coach effectively. Perhaps you’ve coached a girl who is responsive to constructive criticism and can “handle” a hard-nosed coaching style but worked with a boy who shuts down under these circumstances. Prioritizing the needs of the individual athlete aligns with athlete-centered coaching, an approach well supported by research and increasingly prevalent. Despite its popularity, athlete-centered coaching often only peripherally accounts for broader social forces (e.g., gender norms and ideologies) relative to individual athletes. A response from another coach from my study nicely captures this stance:

“There are some individuals that I can raise my voice to. Others, it will set them back for days. I wouldn’t say it is a girl-boy thing. I have to know who the [athletes] are.”

Now that we’ve framed these two perspectives, how can we reconcile this debate? To do so, I identify some critical points that coaches in both camps might consider and conclude with an alternative approach and illustrative examples from my first season coaching boys. 

What other considerations might we make?

When coaches know what makes athletes “tick”, but also know them as people (i.e., background, social identities, past experiences, and personal tendencies) they can better support their performance, motivation, and development. An athlete’s identity, like our own, is complicated. As coaches, we want to be careful not to reduce players to group labels and imply that all individuals who belong to an identity group are the same. In line with athlete-centered coaching, we need to attend to and embrace individual differences. That said, coaches also need to account for broader social dynamics—and aspects of an athlete’s social identity such as gender—because these forces impact us.

How we are socialized can affect all players regardless of how they identify. For female athletes, broader social factors are important for coaches to acknowledge because social structures and norms (think: “she throws like a girl”) that operate in/though sport can marginalize girls and women (though Nike’s recent “Dream Crazier” advertisement challenges some of these harmful gender stereotypes and ideologies).

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Girls absorb these messages from a young age, which may be a big part of why they tend to lack confidence or internalize criticism. Gender biases which designate girls as more emotional and inclined toward connectedness, however, may also be why girls tend to more freely experience their own and attend to others’ emotional states. For male athletes, physicality is synonymous with masculinity, an association that may empower boys and men to be—generally speaking—more confident in sport spaces relative to their female peers. And while the hard-nosed coaching that we believe boys “can handle” may make them take criticism less personally, these practices may also prevent them from openly acknowledging/experiencing emotions and developing sensitivity towards others’ emotions. Taken together, these behavior patterns not only reinforce particular notions of what it means to “be a girl/woman” or “boy/man” and foreclose others, but problematically make these socially constrained behaviors seem natural.

How we, as coaches, account for these social influences is where my personal opinion departs from stances framing this debate. For me, quality coaching necessitates that I distinguish beliefs about how we can from how we should coach.

That girls and women should be coached differently because they tend to be less confident and responsive to criticism is problematic. First, there are numerous counterexamples of female athletes who defy these gender stereotypes—who are confident and respond adaptively to constructive feedback. Second, if coaches shy away from creating tough, demanding climates because we don’t “think” females can handle them, we fail to empower girls and women with opportunities to develop these competencies. We make gender differences seem natural (i.e., “that’s just how girls are”) and fail to narrate to our players how social norms can be oppressive. In doing so, we perpetuate biases that further marginalize girls and women.

That boy and young men should be coached differently because they can handle a more hard-nosed, tough style of coaching is likewise problematic. We need to be careful not to assume that just because we “think” boys can tolerate a more abrasive coaching style that they should.

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On this point I need to own my coaching mistakes: I made this faulty assumption, whether consciously or not, coaching my high school boys’ team this fall. I found myself being overly assertive and stern. I gave out less positive reinforcement when my athletes did something well and more corrective instruction and barked out commands more than I had ever done before. I was over-coaching, perhaps overcompensating. But, why?

If I am honest about why I changed my practice, I think it was twofold: 1) I thought I needed to do so be taken more seriously as a young female coach, and 2) I was performing coaching behaviors normal to that sport context. After one training session, it finally hit me. I left the field and asked myself, “are these boys really more receptive to this coaching style? And, assuming that they can take it, does that mean they should be?”  

As the season went on, I carefully watched how players responded. Some players put their heads down and weathered the storm. More often though, I saw the opposite. Boys shut down: they lost focus, tuned out instruction, got frustrated, and underperformed. One memorable moment at the end of the season made my coaching error all the more visible. Going into our first playoff matchup against a longstanding rival, I facilitated a session with players to talk through their doubts/fears and purpose for playing the upcoming game. The first few comments were surface level, but after one team leader courageously opened up, younger players followed. The discussion became rich, emotional, and inspiring. Like we all do, these boys had doubts, fears, and hopes. They feared missing the overtime penalty kick and letting a teammate down, but they wanted to play for each other. The thoughts and feelings were there. They just needed the space to acknowledge and express themselves.


What I learn from coaching boys

            As a coach, I need to hold my athletes to high standards. I can do so, however, without barking out instructions or dismissing how/that my athletes feel. I need to be cautious about excusing poor coaching behaviors with the “boys can take, and should learn to tolerate, it” mentality. Failing to keep these assumptions in check can undermine my coaching—and limit opportunities for these young men to attend to and express their emotions. In doing so, I not only thwart their development but perpetuate gender biases that can be altogether disempowering.

This experience has refined my view of quality coaching in three ways:

1) Quality coaching requires that I account for athletes’ identities, including gender.

2) Quality coaching requires that I consider how broader social factors impact athletes, given their social identities, but also focus my attention on the individual and away from group generalizations.

3) Quality coaching requires that I think critically about what we assume our athletes can and should handle. I should be cautious not to foreclose opportunities for either female and male athletes to develop skills (e.g., responsiveness to criticism or emotional awareness/intelligence) that challenge gender norms/biases—what we “think” they can handle.

 

 

 

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