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Ask any group of coaches if they think male and female athletes require different coaching approaches and you’re sure to spark a lively debate. When I ask coaches who have experience coaching males and females whether it is best to coach them differently, they overwhelmingly say “Yes!” Similarly, research with coaches confirms that this is a commonly held view.
Two recent personal experiences illustrate the strong views on this issue that pervade coaching practice. In the first situation I was attending a coaching workshop. With authority the lead instructor of the clinic proclaimed that you can’t coach females and males the same; “You should be more blunt and direct when coaching boys because they aren’t as sensitive as girls.’
In the second situation I was meeting with two successful experienced national team coaches – one male and one female – both of whom coach female athletes. They couldn’t agree on whether you should use completely different approaches when coaching males or females. However, they did agree that male athletes were quicker to move on from team conflict whereas arguments among female athletes would often fester and disrupt team performance.
When pressed to explain their perceived need to adjust their coaching style based on athlete gender, coaches justify doing so based on their personal experience. And this anecdotal evidence oftentimes fits a familiar narrative (e.g., Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus). Well-known coaches such as 21-time national women’s soccer championship coach Anson Dorrance reinforce this view. Referencing his experience coaching both male and female teams, he believes males often are over-confident while females tend to lack confidence: “In coaching women, there is more of a need for 'ego-boosting.' With men, it is more 'ego-busting.”
There can be no denying that there are some real and important gender differences for coaches to consider. For example, male and female brains have important structural and functional differences. Certain parts of the female brain are larger than the male brain, and vice versa. Also, the male brain is designed to process serotonin –a key factor in regulating mood and emotion – over 50% faster than the female brain. And gender is typically the single greatest predictor of many mental health conditions. Males are much more likely to succumb to drug and alcohol addiction whereas females experience much more depression and anxiety.
Some additional gender differences that can have direct implications for coaching relate to memory, communication, and relationships.
• Memory: Females recall experiences with more detail and emotion, males typically remember the ‘gist’ of an experience (big picture); the female brain is designed to see events in emotional high-definition.
• Communication: When stressed due to conflict females focus on nurturing (‘tend and befriend’) whereas males tend to withdraw; female brains are wired to have stronger and more elaborate verbal communication skills (cables connecting the right and left hemispheres of the brain are thicker in the female brain).
• Relationships: Physical activity and competition are the preferred method for building relationships among males; females prefer to bond through talking and sharing stories.
Coaches should at least consider these important gender differences when thinking about their approach to coaching. For example, when teaching new material, males may benefit more from having an opportunity to first try it without paying too much attention to the minor details or each component of the skill or tactic. Females, on the other hand, may be more ready to work on component parts of the skill or tactic immediately after a vivid demonstration by the coach.
When teaching athletes how to handle interpersonal conflict or control and use emotions appropriately, it may be more useful for females to have time to talk about the issue in a group setting. For example, time can be set aside at the start or end of practice sessions to talk about team issues. Female athletes may also benefit more from spending time in social situations outside of their sport, such as watching movies or eating meals together, to build relationships with their teammates. On the other hand, when coaching males it may be more effective to have athletes engage in competitive games to allow them to resolve conflict through physical activity. To build team cohesion outside of practice, males may benefit most from being active together in low-key competitive situations such as mini-golf, go-karting or bowling.
Lastly, male athletes may be more motivated to practice and learn new skills when their performances are compared to teammates. Conversely, female athletes may respond best when their progress is charted against their own performance standards.
While male and female athletes may differ in some important ways, coaches should also understand that in general, males and females are much more alike than different, something referred to as the gender similarities hypothesis. In fact, comprehensive reviews of research on this topic show that the few gender differences that do exist often can be explained more by environmental or cultural influences than genetics. In the end, coaches should hold the same high standards for their athletes, whether coaching males or females. Yes, female athletes may sometimes respond differently than male athletes to training demands and performance stressors. However, championship coaches such as Russ Rose, Anson Dorrance, Geno Auriemma or Pat Summitt are living proof that coaches should not shy away from creating tough and demanding practices when coaching female athletes. All athletes, regardless of gender, respond best when coaches set challenging, yet realistic, training and performance goals and emphasize skill development and improvement (often referred to as a mastery approach to coaching).
Avoid the pitfall of assuming you will always need to tailor your coaching approach to the gender of your athletes. Any coaching strategy may work just as well for either female or male athletes. The best approach is to familiarize yourself with what is known about some of the potential differences between male and female athletes and then get to know each of your athletes on an individual basis. Showing your athletes that you are genuinely interested in their unique needs, motivations, and learning styles – while being sensitive to potential gender differences – is the surest way to find the ‘right’ coaching approach for helping your athletes reach their goals.
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