Prep Sports

Wanted: More female coaches

Justis column: Girl athletes need role models

Cedar Falls volleyball coach Matthew Johnson talks to his team during a timeout at the 2018 state volleyball tournament
Cedar Falls volleyball coach Matthew Johnson talks to his team during a timeout at the 2018 state volleyball tournament in Cedar Rapids. Woods thinks more diversity is needed in the coaching ranks. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

More than 40 years after the enactment of Title IX, the law mandating equal opportunities for males and females in education, there still seems to be a preponderance of males coaching female athletes at all levels.

A coach can be a teacher, mentor, friend and even a father/mother figure all at the same time. For a coach in an opposite-gender sport, it can be tricky to connect with the female athlete. However, the men I have spoken with or read about said there are rewards to coaching women along with some commonalities.

Chris Wood is in his third year as head coach of the Cedar Falls High School girls’ track and field team after spending the previous two years as an assistant. He also was an assistant coach for one season for the boys’ cross country team and was a volunteer coach for the boys’ soccer team. He coached softball one year at Don Bosco High School and has coached all ages and genders at the youth sports level.

“I have found that coaching males and females have far more commonalities than what people might expect,” Wood said. “Why I have enjoyed coaching the girls’ track and field team is I have found that our female athletes often ask ‘why’ more often than our male athletes. Our female athletes are more curious about the purpose of specific workouts or how it is going to benefit them in the long run.”

Matthew Johnson has been the Cedar Falls High School varsity volleyball coach for seven years. He was head boys’ seventh and eighth grade track coach at Peet Junior High for four years and also has been an eighth-grade boys’ basketball assistant at Holmes Junior High.

“There are huge differences between coaching girls and boys, just like there are big differences based on what age and ability level they are at,” Johnson said. “In general, female athletes tend to be more team driven and focused on how they feel and what the culture of the team is, while male athletes tend to be more individual focused. Females tend to have less ego.”

A recent article posted in A Coach’s Diary (Sept. 3, 2020), the author, who is a dad and a girls’ coach, said, “I spend most of my time building up my high school girls’ confidence, and I spent most of my time managing my high school boys’ confidence.

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“I was always finding ways to get my boys to have more realistic expectations of their abilities, as they would usually overestimate their abilities and performances. I find that I spend an almost equal amount of time building up my girls and getting them to understand how good they are, because they usually underestimate their ability and performance.”

Johnson doesn’t feel like he has changed his coaching style to coach girls.

“They still like to be pushed, they still are competitive and they don’t mind having a male coach get after them,” he said. “I feel like the most important thing for male coaches when dealing with female athletes is actually more the peripheral things like building culture and being more in tune with the climate and atmosphere of their players.”

Wood agrees female athletes face challenges male athletes may not because of how they are coached at younger ages.

“(Females) may be treated unfairly due to opportunities to compete or be told they can’t do something more often than they are given the chance to try it,” he said. “Not only have I found this to be a tremendous mistake, it hinders our athletes’ confidence to try new things or to fail and learn from that experience.

“Science has proven that ‘under stressful conditions women tend to respond by forming more connections with others and by looking for support from their community,’ contrary to how males prefer a more alarmist or aggressive response. My athletes that have performed best have always felt that they have the best support system. Myself and our coaches strive on building a welcoming, accepting community that is there to help them grow by learning to fail forward.”

Wood said one statement heard at a coaching clinic has stuck with him. Paraphrasing, he said, “male athletes have to win to feel good about themselves, female athletes have to feel good about themselves to win.

“This most certainly isn’t the case for every athlete we coach, but it does serve as a great reminder to coaches working with both genders, all athletes are different. You must adapt to the needs of that athlete. Building a relationship of trust is priority number one and then you can help them in their sport specific needs.”

Johnson and Wood think there should be more females coaching females.

“Young females have not had a lot of female coaches/role models so less aspire to that role themselves,” Johnson said. “I think it is important to have good coaches. I always have had a mix of males and females on my coaching staff and our athletes respond positively to all of them. Athletes respect good coaches.”

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“Without question (our) sport needs more diversity in the coaching ranks,” Wood said. “Our athletes need to see themselves in their coaches, they need to be surrounded by mentors that have fought many of the same battles they did. But I want the most positive adult model I can have for our athletes, regardless of age, race or gender.”

Nancy Justis is a former competitive swimmer and college sports information director. She is a partner with Outlier Creative Communications. Let her know what you think at njustis@cfu.net

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