Why Women Matter in Sport Coaching

Having women in athletic leadership and sport coaching matters. Women coaches matter because they provide diversity in the workplace. Women coaches matter because they provide a visible career pathway for young women to enter the coaching profession. Women coaches matter because they can relate differently to young women than men because they are a same-sex role model. Women coaches also provide role models for boys as well as girls. I think young men and women should have the opportunity to have a variety of role models and gender is one component of that.

Among “big time” schools, the University of Minnesota is doing quite well in comparison to their peer institutions for the percentage of women coaches of women’s teams. It ranks 5th out of 86 institutions, which reflects our history of long-standing commitment to gender equity in our athletic leadership.

The Research Effort for Women In Sport Coaching

As a former college coach, now academic, I think it’s important we bring awareness to the fact that women coaches face many barriers their male colleagues do not, and it’s what has driven me in my academic research at the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport. It’s also what has prompted me and my colleagues to develop the annual Women in College Coaching Report Card. For the last three years, we’ve released this report in an effort to reverse the decline of women in the coaching profession, bring awareness to the issue and create a national dialogue. Over that time, there have been no perceptible gains or losses among the 86 institutions we have been tracking―the percentage of women coaching women’s teams had remained around 40% (±.5). So, depending on your perspective, you can perceive that statistic as positive or negative. However, in light of the record number of female sport participants, the historic decline in the relative number of women coaches from over 90% in 1972 to a near all-time low of 40%)is a notable and counterintuitive trend.

This trend can be attributed to three broad, intersecting discriminatory factors that a large majority of male coaches do not encounter: sexism, male power and homophobia. When those three factors are considered along with the many other individual, organizational and societal level barriers, including outdated and traditional gender stereotypes about women in leadership (i.e., that women are less competent and less suited to lead than males), it paints a pretty clear picture as to why women are not entering, or staying in, the profession.

First Book Dedicated to Women in Coaching

In addition to the Report Card, I am writing with colleagues, the first-ever book solely dedicated to women in the coaching profession. “Women in Sport Coaching” will be published by Routledge Publishing and is set to be released in 2016. As the editor, I will be writing some of the chapters along with authors I’ve recruited from the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada. Together we’ve taken an intersectional approach to women in sport coaching. The book will tackle the complexities of different intersectional identities of women, such as gender, sexual orientation and race and how those impact one’s coaching career. The book will be a distillation of research done on women and coaching to date with the goal of providing a holistic account of experiences of women in the coaching profession.

Organizations As a Voice For Women

I’ve been involved with espnW, a digital and social brand extension of ESPN, since its inception five years ago. Its goal is to serve women as fans and athletes, which is currently an underserved demographic. I’m also in charge of research and advocacy for the Alliance of Women Coaches. The Alliance supports and inspires women coaches, in addition to helping increase the number of women in the coaching profession. Given the current climate for women coaches, it is immensely important that the Alliance exists. One of the biggest barriers for women coaches, according to my data, is a lack of an all-female network. The Alliance provides a space for networking, professional development and a national voice for gender equity and women in the coaching profession.

These two organizations, while very different, are important for girls and women in sport. Research shows that most young women have never been coached by a woman at any level. Only 40 % female athletes at the college level have been coached by a woman, between 20% and 30% at the high school level and less than 20% in youth sports. From top to bottom, just 40% of all women’s teams are coached by women. We need these numbers to increase because we know that women coaches matter.

If you are a woman interested in coaching or know young women that may be interested, here are five tips for all women aspiring to enter the coaching profession:

  1. Find a mentor. Your mentor can be male or female, but it’s important to have support and guidance.
  2. Get engaged in a network. Become involved with one or more professional networks. Again, support is needed in order to succeed.
  3. Choose your life partner wisely. Coaching is a profession that requires a lot of nights and weekend travel. Women that have a supportive partner are more likely to succeed and flourish.
  4. Invest in professional development. Nobody cares more about your career than you and that takes investment, such as the 2015 Women Coaches Symposium (held on the U of M campus on April 17th).
  5. Become politically savvy. Be knowledgeable in navigating your organization or institution. Because of the multiple and complex barriers you’re going to face, you can’t go in blind. Go in with your eyes wide open so you can know what you’re facing.

For additional information on what’s being done to increase gender equity in sport coaching please visit and sign up for my blog, One Sport Voice.

Nicole M. LaVoi, Ph.D.

About the Author

Nicole M. LaVoi, Ph.D.

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