Here’s a story that haunts Dee Stephan, the founder of the successful Dodgers LAX girls’ league: She and her husband, desperate for coaches for a different fledgling town program, called a parents’ meeting. One mom in attendance had played for a Division I school, but though her husband coached their son’s team, said she was “too busy” to coach her daughter’s. Instead, a couple of dads volunteered, neither of whom had any real knowledge of the game.
Dee’s experience goes a long way toward explaining the gender imbalance in the youth sports coaching ranks: A 2015 study by the Sports and Fitness Industry Association found that only 27% of the more than 5.5 million youth coaches are women. That is not simply a cosmetic problem. “We know girls respond to women coaches,” says Risa Isard of the Aspen Institute’s Sports & Society Program. “For anyone concerned about keeping girls engaged in sports — and interested in sports as a means of emotional development — they need to see a woman leading a team with confidence.”
A cause for concern for young female athletes …
The lack of female coaches is also worrisome to sports advocate Angela Ruggiero, a four-time ice hockey Olympic medalist. “If sports is a means of education it’s crucial that we provide leadership that looks like the people being led,” she says. Angela, who has been a member of the boards of both the International Olympic Committee and the Women’s Sports Foundation and is today the CEO of Sports Innovation Lab, has found male leaders to be less likely to think about the discrimination female athletes endure. Why would they? After all, most never had to deal with it themselves. And, of course, that disconnect has consequences. “Recruitment and retention strategies at the coaching level impact participation levels,” Angela says.
… And young male athletes, too
Risa, though, says it’s not just girls who are negatively impacted. She points to a recent article in The Atlantic about the lack of female youth coaches, in which her colleague, program head Tom Farrey, explains, “Boys are denied the ability to see women operate in leadership roles that males most respect. This has deep implications for our society as boys grow into adulthood, work with, and decide whether to empower, women.”
Angela, who played for both male and female coaches, couldn’t agree more. “I loved being asked to talk to Boy Scouts and boys’ hockey teams,” she says. “Because they will grow up to be men who know women can accomplish great things.”
Ways to level the playing field — or at least the sidelines
- Don’t take no for an answer
Dee, who has now been coaching for 37 years, has gotten better at fighting her way through the initial reluctance of potential coaching candidates. “Sometimes you need to beg women to get involved, but if you get them to do it they don’t regret it.” Her staff is now 100% female. Risa follows a similar plan. “Don’t just say we need a volunteer,” she says. “Take the extra step and call to tell them why you know they’d make a great coach. It doesn’t hurt to be able to say you have someone to mentor them if they agree.”In her experience, Angela has found the confidence gap to be a huge impediment. A famous study done by Hewlett-Packard found that women only went after promotions if they believed they met 100% of the qualifications of the new job, while men only needed to feel that they met 60% of the requirements. That manifests in coaching too. “Women who played Division III sports feel less prepared than men who played junior varsity in high school,” Angela says. “A lack of experience never stops dads.”
- Look Beyond Moms
It’s easy to forget that parents are just one coaching source, says Risa. There’s no reason to ignore child-free millennials, who often want to invest in their community. Similarly, empty nesters and retirees may be looking for opportunities to stay in the game. At New Jersey’s Metro Lacrosse, the majority of the coaching staff, 90% of which is women, is recruited from its alumni network. Whether or not they are moms matters not at all.
The Bright Side
These days, the gender imbalance is rightly top of mind with many youth sports officials. Not least, the Positive Coaching Alliance, the Alliance of Women Coaches and the LA84 Foundation have joined forces to increase the number of women coaches. Last fall, LA84, a supporter of youth sports programs and public education, hosted its sixth annual Foundation Summit and included a panel called Game Changers: Getting Women Coaches in the Game, which covered the challenges of recruiting female coaches and the discrimination they face.
For her part, Dee expects the effort she spends to maintain the all-female coaching staff of Dodgers LAX will pay dividends down the line: “My hope is that all of my players, regardless of where they end up in life, know they can coach and give back to the game they love.”