Note: This story was named a National Winner in the Sports category of the 2007 American Society of Newspaper Editors, Quill and Scroll International Writing & Photo Contest.
Published December 22, 2006
Minnehaha coaches take different approaches with male and female athletes
by Holly Larson
Guys work harder. Girls cry. Or at least that is the perception many of us get when we compare male and female athletes.
It is believed that men are tougher and more committed to athletics, while women are weaker and much more emotional while they are playing sports. Why is there such a difference? Or is there really one at all?
According to studies done at the University of Southern California, there is a psychological difference between male and female athletes.
Female athletes are much more emotional and less receptive to harsh aspersion, while most male athletes tend to take harsh criticism well, sometimes even enjoying it.
“I like when a coach gives me criticism” says M.A. junior Mark Halstensgard, a two-sport athlete. “It makes me a better player. I could never get mad at a coach for doing that.”
On the other end of the spectrum, sophomore Emily Engdahl, a three-sport athlete who has been playing competitive sports for about 10 years, believes yelling at athletes makes them feel worse.
“When a coach yells at me, it makes me feel like a bad player,” says Engdahl. “I still try to fix what I am doing wrong, but I react much more positively when a coach isn’t yelling, but still letting me know what I can improve on.”
Though constructive criticism is meant to be a good thing for athletes, females say that the way it is taken in relies upon the way a coach expresses it to their players.
“It can really break you down if it’s in a harsh tone,” says junior Allie Steinstra, commenting on constructive criticism.“I can usually take it pretty well, but it all depends on the tone of voice.” Female athletes also agree that it is very difficult not to take criticism personally .
Rick Aberman, a sports psychologist who works for
the University of Minnesota as well as running his own private practice open to collegiate and professional athletes, says that another big difference with female athletes is that they tend to be more relationship oriented when they communicate with either a coach or a teammate.
“The key to coaching a woman is communication,” says Aberman. “Females also tend to take a lot of things internally (personally), as if the coach is attacking their personal being,” he says. As a sports psychologist, Aberman tries to deal with male and female athletes in the same way, keeping in mind the communication skills needed to work with a female athlete.
“Judging character is also very important when coaching, male or female,” adds Aberman. “You can never go into a coaching job, hoping to do it the same old way every time.” Aberman believes that there is no set standard for coaching women, and that a coach must get to know each individual player personally before setting a standard. He also added that women athletes especially need good role models.
“Women athletes have fewer role models in leadership positions (athletic wise.)” he says. “So in order to be a successful coach of females, you have to be a good role model.”
Lance Johnson has coached boys and girls for 21 years, and has also noticed the same trend, leading both male and female athletes in different styles. The coaching technique Johnson uses to separate the genders is based on motivation and communication.
“Girls are way more prone to be positively motivated by positive feedback,” says Johnson. “But boys need the positive, too [just not as much.] Positive reinforcement is the best way to motivate any gender.”
Athletic Director Ken Anderson who also has experience coaching both boys and girls, says that constructive criticism can be a good thing depending on which player you are giving it to, but he also believes
acknowledgement of the positive is just as important. “For every amount of criticism you give, make sure
you say something good to the player, too,” he says. Female athletes also tend to form cliques in a team
setting. Out of 10 female athletes interviewed, eight of them said that cliques have developed on their sports teams. Out of 10 male athletes interviewed, only two of them said that they had experienced cliques while participating in team sports. However, females also love being with the team as a whole. According to Johnson, girls are usually much more centered on team unity than guys.
However, when asked about competition within a team (competing for starting spots, playing time, etc.) most males said there was a lot of competition the whole season, while females said most of the competition happens in the beginning and eventually dies down as the team bonds more.
Regardless of what goes on within a team, the biggest difference between male and female athletes is how emotional they are when they play.
“The only difference I see between coaching girls and coaching boys is the emotional difference,” says Josh Thurow, who has coached both boys and girls for about 10 years.
Jim Brush, coach of University of Southern California’s men’s and women’s varsity track teams, commented on the many psychological differences he sees in male and female athletes in an article written in the Los Angeles Times.
“Female athletes are much more emotional, and cannot handle constructive criticism as well.” Brush told the Times.
Several physical differences between male and female athletes have been measured in scientific studies. Though male and female athletes both use the same number of calories per hour of exercise, have similar ratios of Type I and Type II fibers.
And though the production of lactic acid during exercise is the same, women tend to have smaller hearts than men and higher heart rates at the same level of exertion. The maximal oxygen consumption is typically 40 percent higher in men than in women of similar athletic standing.
So, male athletes are going to have higher endurance levels than females, and a lot of coaches take that physical difference and interpret it into their coaching style.
“I encourage my boy players to be more physical, because the referees allow it,” says coach Ryan Johnson, who just switched from coaching the Minnehaha girls basketball team to the boys. The game of basketball for
boys is much more physical than the game of girls, so Coach Johnson coaches his male players that way.
A lot of coaches say that the different ways of coaching depends on the player, not the gender. While Lance Johnson and other MA coaches respect individual differences, they stillbelieve that general gender differences apply.
“The ‘psychology of coaching’ pertains more to girls than guys,” says Johnson. “Girls love to get explanations about everything. Guys will either do it, or they won’t.”
Clearly, a huge part of the way athletes perform is by the way that they are coached. Even the gender of the coach seems to play a part in the way that female athletes participate in sports.
“Females tend to take advantage of a male coach, question authority more than male athletes, and female athletes want to work harder in games, while male athletes work harder in practice,” said Brush in the Times article.
According to Athletic Insight, an online journal of sports psychology, male coaches tend to look at male athletes as son figures, and female athletes as their daughter figures.
This may seem like there is no difference upon first glance, but the journal goes on to say that “dad” is much harder on the son than on the daughter. As in male coaches are a bit softer on female athletes than they would be on males.
“Male coaches can be too easy on female athletes,” says Dot Richardson, and three time All-American softball player in the Los Angeles Times article, ‘What’s the Difference?’ “Sometimes, they fail to see the drive women have.”
This is not saying that all male coaches are too easy on female athletes, but shows that females are coached differently, due to the emotional differences.
When Minnehaha’s girl athletes were asked whether they would prefer a male or female coach, most answered with the same general answer: “A male that understands girls.” This is the goal of many male coaches today.
When hiring a coach, Athletic Director Ken Anderson says he looks for the most qualified person for the position regardless of gender.
The most common perception when most compare male and female athletes is that women are legitimately weaker and can not be on the same scale as men. Aside from the clear physical difference, females can have just as much drive and perseverance as men; but, the way that each gender is coached seems to be the deciding factor in the comparison.