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Coaching Through A Gender Lens

By Womens' Sport Foundation, 04/10/19, 1:45PM CDT


How to Maximize Girls Play and Potential

Key Findings

1. GIRLS LOVE SPORT. Overall, the vast majority of girls (93%) loved or liked their sport a lot, and this was key to their desire to continue their sport participation. Liking/Loving the sport was identified as the most prominent factor for predicting girls’ intentions to continue playing their sport in the future. Indeed, nearly two-thirds of girls (64%) reported planning to play in high school and beyond. The top predictors found to influence girls’ liking/loving their sport are centered around social and mastery aspects of participation and include being with their friends, really liking the coach, not being afraid to try new skills, not being one of the least-skilled players on the team, having goals related to their participation in sports, and perceiving sports as very important in their lives.

2. THE POWER OF A COACH. Coaches play a central role in getting and keeping girls involved in sports. Girls’ liking of the coach was directly associated with future intent to keep playing sport, importance of playing, and love for the sport. Experts, as well as girls and parents, identified several features of coaching practices and strategies critical for supporting girls’ participation that align with two major dimensions of coaching: 1) the importance of a mastery-based coaching approach, and 2) the need to build supportive relationships within the context of sport.

3. GIRLS WANT TO HAVE FUN AND BE CHALLENGED. The majority of girls (85% or more) reported that their coaches created a positive environment that encourages safety, fun, skill building, and healthy competition. The girls cited supportive coaching practices that reward effort or trying a new skill over winning, encourage learning from mistakes while staying positive, and promote integrity and honesty. However, when asked directly about whether the coach places more emphasis on fun/skill development or winning, only about half of parents and girls (49%) said their coach was more focused on team members having fun, and 83% of parents agreed that coaches should put more priority on having fun.

4. BUILD SUPPORTIVE RELATIONSHIPS. Building supportive relationships within sport is a critical ingredient for engaging and retaining girls in sport. Key relationships include those between the coach and player; those among the players through friendship and team cohesion; and those between other influential individuals that are involved in the athletes’ daily lives, including parents, friends, and others in their schools and communities.

5. GIRLS ARE STRONG AND ATHLETIC. Do not underestimate girls’ ability. Girls are powerful, strong and very capable, and they need to be treated this way. Coaches who don’t meet girls’ needs and interests for competitiveness, or who “are too soft on girls, don’t push them enough or treat them as fragile,” send detrimental messages to girls that they are different and/or not as capable as boys or that they are not taking girls’ sport as seriously. This can result in girls’ lower perceived competence, sense of belonging, and investment in their participation.

6. COMPETITION IS A WINNING FACTOR. An emphasis on winning was also perceived to be a highly positive coaching behavior when combined with an emphasis on fun and skill development, a combination that was predictive of girls’ intentions for long-term sports participation. Healthy forms of competition are ideal for fostering girls’ engagement. Competitiveness, including liking to win, competing against other teams/individuals, and even friendly competition among teammates, was one of the primary reasons girls provided for why sports are “fun.”

7. GOALS MOTIVATE GIRLS. Goal setting is a particularly important part of coaching so that having a coach who sets goals is not only predictive of girls liking the coach, but also of girls loving the sport and intending to play in the future. Seventy percent of girls have goals related to playing their sport, with the majority of these goals focused on their own improvement in the sport, whether that is becoming better generally, working on a specific skill, or making the high school team. Although less common, some girls also discussed even higher achievement goals of acquiring college sport scholarships or becoming professional athletes.

8. FEMALE COACHES ARE IMPORTANT ROLE MODELS. Girls more readily identify with and see a female coach as a mentor and as a role model, which, in turn, can help counter stereotypes and boost girls’ confidence, self-efficacy, and sense of belonging. Female coaches were overrepresented (85% and above) on sports viewed as more feminine (e.g., gymnastics, dance, cheer) and on all-girl teams (66%), but highly underrepresented (35% or lower) on sports viewed as more masculine (e.g., baseball/softball, basketball, soccer, martial arts) in which girls are likely to face greater gender barriers for continued participation. Programs indicated female coaches were key to girls’ participation and retention, yet noted challenges in recruiting female coaches. Despite female coaches receiving more positive ratings (82%) than males, nearly three quarters (73%) of girls said they think very highly of their male coaches. It is equally important for female coaches as for male coaches to use a gender-informed approach in their coaching practice to help promote engagement and offset the barriers girls experience in the sport context.

9. PARENTAL INVOLVEMENT IS KEY. The more parents participate, the more likely it is that their daughter loves their sport, intends to play throughout high school and beyond, and thinks playing sport is very/extremely important. While over 90% of programs responded they build relationships with parents and get them actively involved, and 75% of programs indicated parental education was a part of their programs (e.g., meeting with parents, providing materials), the most frequent challenge programs reported when coaching girls was engaging and communicating with parents.

10. GIRLS STILL FACE GENDER-RELATED CHALLENGES. In contradiction to the numerous cultural messages that tell girls that sports are “for boys,” our national sample of girl athletes and their parents both highly endorsed (97%) that sports are as important for girls as they are for boys, and 75% of girls and 70% of their parents reported that it is extremely or very important that they play sports. However, these girls did report experiencing some of the additional gendered challenges of being a female athlete. For example, nearly one-third (32%) of the girls reported that sometimes boys made fun of them or made them feel uncomfortable while they practiced. Nearly one-third of girls (31%) expressed that appearance-related reasons were part of their motivation for their participation. Over one-third of girls (36%) said they intend to drop out of sport prior to high school.