More Women in Coaching: Some Thoughts on How to Get There
Some recent events have prompted me to think seriously about things we can do to positively impact the number of women in coaching -- sport coaching and performance coaching. First and foremost was my own departure from US Ski & Snowboard, where I was one of two women on the athletic development staff, one of only four total female coaches in the entire organization and one of a very few women to work in high performance in the US at the NGB level.
What was I thinking by leaving? I was thinking lots of things.
I knew there was a high probability my position would be filled by a male coach (it has been-- and I'm super supportive of this young man's ability to have a tremendously positive impact with all of the snowboard athletes), but in the long run, I felt I would be more free to speak, act and positively influence the entire profession working independently.
Don't get me wrong. I had and still have some angst about leaving and not being there for the female athletes, not being able to directly mentor the one current female intern, not being there to support and collaborate with Tschana Schiller (the other excellent female athletic development coach) and not being a leader of and mentor to the young men in the High Performance department. And I can say young, because at 49, I very much was the "elder stateswoman" on staff, second in age only to the venerable Bill Sands.
I decided to give up some very important daily opportunities to influence and lead in order to reach for some larger, nationally oriented goals, while also re-charging my emotional and physical batteries. Life is a balance of choices.
Here are some very honest observations, opinions and thoughts from a female coach.
1. Organizations like US Ski & Snowboard, the NSCA and CSCCA, all need to very purposefully and intently identify, mentor and support female coaches.
We need NGBs and coach certification organizations to proactively identify and support women in coaching and in sport leadership. To find the best of the best and help them stay in the game. To identify female athletes at the higher levels who might have an interest in staying in the sport and then nuture that interest into professional coaching mastery.
Not task forces.
Not women's breakfasts or luncheons at the national conferences.
Not just one "women's specific conference" every other year.
Do more. Make tangible efforts to identify, teach, support and hire.
Talent ID followed by purposeful support.
Those of us who have broken through to the higher levels of coaching have done so because we have had men in positions of influence actively support and help us move into a position to earn an opportunity. Women can only have those doors open if they have the opportunity to network with people of influence. If you really want women in the mix, this cannot be left up to chance. There has to be intentional effort, by both men and women in positions of influence, to get more women in the world of sport and performance.
Coaching education and national level coach development systems have to intentionally look for women who have a chance to thrive as higher level coaches and then support them. Coaching education departments can and should be more than just a revenue stream for these organizations. You are the people who know the sport at the grassroots levels and who can identify and recruit those individuals who have what it takes to be successful. Coaching education departments need to help put women in the pipeline and then help of support them up through the ranks.
Sport and performance coaching are very much fraternities. Male oversight of and leadership are the norm. This will not change without intentional effort to put capable women in visible positions, for all to see their skill and competence. Only then will old attitudes and biases really start to fade.
2. Smaller professional networks have to feature, invite and support female coaches to speak and attend.
I have had the great fortune of being a part of Vern Gambetta's GAIN Network since 2009. Vern invited me to attend in 2009 and then asked me to first speak in 2010. It has been one of the most important developments in my career as a coach, as it has given me the opportunity to learn from, network with and become a person of influence in the world of athletic development and sport performance. I cannot thank Vern enough for his support.
I believe I am one of only five women to have been included as faculty/speakers at GAIN in its eleven-year history. For several years, I was the only female speaker and one of a small group (< 10) of female attendees. This year, I'm bringing one young female coach and hope to see more women in attendance. I am glad to see a new female speaker, Grace Golden, PhD, in the line up.
I was also the only female speaker at the USOC High Performance Strength & Conditioning Symposium, last May in Colorado Springs. This was a tremendous honor and opportunity offered to me by symposium organizer Tim Pelot. I believe there were about six other women in the audience of about 120 professionals.
Tim has announced a 2019 edition of this event, and I'm very excited to see that Dawn Scott, Fitness Coach for U.S. Women's National Soccer Team, and Teena Murray, Director of Sports Performance at the University of Louisville, are on the list of speakers.
One of my personal and professional goals is to invite and bring as many talented young female coaches to these two events as possible. He doesn't know it yet, but I am going to bug Tim about the acceptance process for the 2019 event and see if we can't target a few more high-performing, young female coaches to apply. I know the event is geared toward more "experienced high performance professionals." However, there just aren't a ton of women with many years of experience in high performance organizations, so let us go out and identify those who have potential to be future leaders in the profession, mentor them and open the pathways for them to earn that experience.
People like Vern and Tim have the ability and opportunity to open doors for others, just as they opened it for me. Now my mission is to help get more women involved in high quality learning and networking events like these and support that process. A secondary aspect of this mission includes being active on sport performance podcasts, helping other female coaches get a shot at an interview. I want to thank Martin Bingisser and Nick Garcia of the HMMR Media Podcast for including me in their line up twice over the last year. Podcasts can give female coaches a voice, an opportunity to contribute to and be respected by the wider professional coaching community. Women need a voice and visibility in the professional ranks if we are to be accepted as peers and leaders.
3. Big sport organizations have to do some serious self-reflection and review of hiring processes and culture. There is a great deal of work to be done here, in spite of all of the accolades for female athletes in this country, particularly in the Olympic sports.
As I told a group of young coaches last week, I never really noticed I was a "female coach" until I was a part of a national sport organization. I noticed women primarily in "gendered roles" in the organization: administrative support / team managers, sports medicine (physical therapists), marketing, membership and fundraising. Sport coaching staffs, high performance leadership and the executive offices were overwhelmingly male, even for women's teams and for specific female athletes.
This is not a criticism, but an observation of what exists. To be fair, US Ski & Snowboard has hired women for two of the executive positions (CFO and Director of Human Resources) and I am happy to see that. But the current reality is that women still overwhelmingly occupy the lowest-paying, support staff positions. They are still very much absent from leadership, coaching and athletic administration positions.
You cannot become what you cannot see.
But I'm not sure the men in charge really ever notice there is a discrepancy, because they are never in the minority and it's completely "normal" in sport for men to be in charge and for men to be coaching women. And when it comes to hiring coaches and high performance staff, the people in charge of that process tend to be men. And what do we know about hiring? People tend to hire people who are in their network and who are like themselves.
You cannot change what you cannot see.
Many organizations, be they NGBs or NCAA institutions, are working on making their processes more professional. This is good. We have to move past the days where head coach, assistant coach and performance coach positions are hired behind the closed doors of "the old boys' network" and not open to others outside of personal networks. I applaud US Ski & Snowboard for hiring Nichole Mason as the new snowboard slopestyle and big air rookie team coach. She has definitely proven herself with the development of 2018 Olympian Chris Corning and new rookie team member Jake Canter.
Male coaches and administrators must be open to the idea of women working alongside them on a daily basis. I would thing this especially important when traveling nationally and internationally with young female athletes. All athletes, especially female athletes, deserve the opportunity to work with good female coaches. Organizations that have mostly male coaching staffs and administrators should take the time to carefully and genuinely listen to the needs and concerns of their female athletes. You might be surprised as to what you hear.
If diversity and inclusion are truly goals for an organization, open, professional hiring practices are essential. Language, conduct and fair treatment matter if organizations want to retain female staff. Genuine support for women and understanding of the subtle and not-so-subtle issues faced by women in coaching must be recognized. If organizations are struggling to figure out exactly why there aren't more women in their coaching ranks, maybe its time to hire someone to evaluate the hiring practices and illuminate overall culture. This individual can also act as an advocate for pay equality, a fair system of promotion and an equitable allocation of resources to female and male teams. That someone needs to report to the board of directors, not be beholden to anyone in paid leadership. It will require brutal honesty and a genuine willingness to evolve as an organization.
So those are some of my thoughts. I'm interested in constructive conversation and in hearing from others working on this issue. We all have to be more proactive and reflective --- individuals and organizations --- if we want to level the playing field in coaching.