Female athletes should not be treated the same as male athletes.
I’ve felt this way for a while, but now…I’ve got some science to back me up!
I am taking a night class called Gender, Leadership and Management as part of Beyond Sticks’ plan to refresh our Play Beyond the Game curriculum for the summer of 2014. A lot of the reading on gender reminds me of a great book I read this summer, Top Dog: The Science of Winning an Losing and how men and women compete differently. (Moms and Dads, this book is awesome for understanding what type of competitor you’ve got on your hands, male or female).
All this research, combined with 5 years of coaching experience makes me realize the issues female coaches deal with can be VERY different.
There are a lot of reasons why women and men’s teams are different, but a big hurdle we have that men don’t is pretty surprising. A lot of team drama stems from the simple fact that…we…like…best…friends.
Why is this a hurdle? Aren’t friends a good thing? Don’t men have friends too? Of course they are, and of course men have friends, but best friends make team culture different. Even in experiments with young kids, boys tend to like to socialize in groups, where little girls tend to gravitate towards socializing in pairs. Do you see tons of boys posting #happybirthday to my #BFF with a collage of pictures of them since they were six on Instagram? I didn’t think so. We love our best friends, nothing wrong with that.
But because we love our friends, while boys tend to “dig their crew”, male teams have an easier time pointing out a leader and existing in a group hierarchy. Women tend to focus on the commonalities between us, on how we are equal, and all equally valued. All these differences in how we socialize from when we were young even lead us to speak differently.
Do you see how in a team, with different skill levels, different ages, and different levels of leadership this strong female urge towards equality could become an issue? This urge to avoid hierarchy can have problems? Me too.
In research, when a random group of young girls and a group of young boys are given a simple team task, it almost always takes girls longer to get a task done as they are worried about taking on roles of leader or creating a hierarchy, as it will disrupt one-on-one relationships (from Top Dog). This doesn’t seem to matter in boys, they just barrel onwards, not worrying so much about feelings.
So how does this translate to coaching? How can we use this knowledge? First, as coaches, we need to realize that group socialization (our teams) is not what girls gravitate towards naturally, as they threaten individual relationships, based on equality. As coaches we need to work hard to make our team environment safe and comfortable. This means that we need to avoid hierarchies forming between small friend groups and work harder to build a team culture of trust more so than in a boys team. Easier said than done, I know.
3 things I’ve noticed that help:
1. Pair Girls Up. If you can’t beat em, join em. Especially in preseason, I pair the girls up, for fitness or other activities not with their friend. (often young players with other players, but definitely break up cliques) Working in pairs with new players helps build rapport throughout the team, and this is what women are best at anyways. We become a group of 18 individuals that have 17 other girls they have relationships with, and then we focus on the group.
2. Don’t yell. Pair groups are much more fragile than teams, and recognizing that makes you realize yelling sometimes just causes more chaos with women. Where you often see male coaches ripping into their teams for not being good enough, I’ve found this never works with girls (there is a time for yelling though, but not when it comes to performance). Putting them down doesn’t focus on how everyone is important, and how the relationship between them is important to on field dynamics; it just creates a blame game situation, where girls feel that they are the worst in the team, and that they let their friends down. In the words of the very successful UNC soccer coach, “you need to show the girls you care about them” (Top Dog). If girls feel they have a strong relationship with YOU, they are often willing to work much harder for you. You aren’t their best friend, but you certainly can and should care about their feelings.
3. Have that touchy feely meeting. “In a group of people, a number of competing ideas can be expressed, without an accompanying sense of confrontation”(Top Dog). So bring on the team meeting after a tough loss or an issue, you just have to be careful in teams that the blame game doesn’t happen. I’ve worked with teams where group confrontation is taken as something personal, and goes quickly from group talk into a one-on-one “conversation, where even a mild different of opinion can be perceived as a threat.” ( Top Dog). In our team, when something goes wrong, I often have players write issues down and pass them in so either the elected captain or myself can address them, as even older girls often are reluctant to speak due to worry about hurting peoples feelings. And instead of sitting on the problem too long, our staff works to focus on what the solution can be.
It is the realization that women do have specific team needs that has led to our “Avoiding Girl Drama” at our Play Beyond the Game summer camps. Have you noticed other ways girls teams operate that is unique? Feel free to share!