Authors:Melissa Rima, Rory Weishaar, Brian McGladrey, Erica Pratt

Corresponding Author:
Brian McGladrey, Ph.D.
400 E University Way
Ellensburg, WA 98926
brian.mcgladrey@cwu.edu
509-963-1972

Dr. Brian McGladrey is an assistant professor in the Department of Physical Education, School Health, and Movement Studies at Central Washington University in Ellensburg, Washington.

An Exploration of Female Athletes’ Experiences and Perceptions of Male and Female Coaches: Ten Years Later

ABSTRACT

 Athletes’ experiences and perceptions of their coaches will be different based on differing lifestyles, personalities, and characters (16), and gender may be a mediating factor for the building of effective relationships between athletes and their coaches (11,12). The purpose of this study was to explore six female athletes’ experiences and perceptions of both male and female head coaches, and to compare results to those reported by Frey, Czech, Kent, and Johnson (4), who investigated the same issue 10 years prior. In this study, four prevalent themes emerged from semi-structured interviews with participants: (1) structure and communication; (2) personal relationships; (3) positivity and aggressiveness; and (4) coach preference. Although the results specific to coach gender preference were split (three participants stated they preferred a male coach, and three stated they preferred a female coach), other differences emerged with regard to different coach qualities. Results are discussed from the perspective of the participants, and compared to the 2006 study.

Keywords: female athletes, male versus female coach, experiences and perceptions

INTRODUCTION

The relationship between a player and her coach can have a profound effect on her playing performance, satisfaction, and even overall quality of life (5,8,17,19). Coaches are an integral part of an athlete’s sport experience, and research has shown interactions between sport anxiety and coaching behaviors (1). Attempting to determine what makes a coach a “good coach” can be difficult and debatable; however, there are qualities in coaches that athletes and athletic administrators desire (12).

Despite the growth of employment opportunities in the coaching profession, the number of collegiate female coaches is at an all-time low (12). Although the number of females participating in sport has increased since the passage of Title IX, the number of females who occupy coaching positions has decreased over the past 30 years (2,3,15). Research suggests possible explanations for the decline of females coaching female sports (10), which could include factors outside of player preference such as, “family conflicts, inadequate salaries, negative attitudes of co-workers, a lack of professional role models, a lack of professional connections/networks, negative attitudes of athletes, lack of self-confidence, and homophobia” (7).

Athletes possess different individual characteristics, and have their own needs. Coaching, and managing these needs, becomes a task in which one deals with humans, their “messiness,” and what they each respond to (6). In addition to satisfying the needs of athletes, revenue and expense issues in collegiate athletics has resulted in increased pressure on coaches to succeed (i.e., win). All considered, coaches are regularly searching for ways to improve their athletes’ performances (18).

Athletes’ experiences and perceptions of their coaches will be different based on differing lifestyles, personalities, and characters (16). Gender may be a mediating factor for the building of effective relationships between athletes and their coaches (11,12); however, it is important to be cautious in assuming that coach preference is due only to gender (4). Because little is known regarding athletes’ perspectives of their coaches, research that investigates athletes’ experiences and perceptions of their coaches may offer insight and recommendations for coaches that could improve their relationships with their athletes, and consequently the performance of their athletes. Therefore, the purpose of this study was to obtain a first-person perspective of six female athletes’ experiences of playing for both male and female coaches, and to compare results to those reported by Frey et al. 10 years earlier.

METHODS

Participants

Participants in this study consisted of six female collegiate athletes, all above the age of 18, and of junior or senior status. The participants were recruited based on their gender, academic year in college, and college-playing experience. All participants had at least two years of college experience in their sport, and at least four total years of competitive experience in their sport. In addition, participants needed to have been coached by both male and female coaches.

Procedure

To recruit participants for the study, the principle researcher met with players during team meetings without their coaches present. At the meetings, a recruitment flier was distributed to all eligible participants. The study was explained, and all were given the opportunity to ask questions. After questions were answered, eligible participants were asked to contact the researcher if they were interested in participating in the study.

A recording device was used to collect data (i.e., participants’ responses to interview questions). Each participant’s recording was then transcribed in order to extrapolate qualitative data. The participants were not identified — directly, demographically, or statistically — and the responses and public observations could not harm participants if made public. Each interview included specific personal information about the participants, along with coaches’ names, school names, and teammates’ names, but to maintain confidentiality these details were either omitted or described using other pseudonyms. All interviews were conducted by the primary researcher, which further ensured discretion and confidentiality.

Interview Protocol

Once athletes committed to the study, they were asked to sign a consent form stating the details of their participation. Participation was voluntary, and they were able to terminate their participation at any time. All participants were interviewed within regular business hours of 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. at their school’s library.

Participants answered 15 questions regarding the sport they played, and what they believed about the role of a coach. They were asked to compare the attributes of their female coaches to those of their male coaches (or vice versa), including which coach they preferred and why, which coach they believed was more knowledgeable of the sport, and if they perceived differences in coaching methods and other areas. Each survey was recorded and transcribed for later coding. (See Appendix for actual interview questions.)

Analysis

Qualitative data was used to determine first-person perceptions of female athlete experiences with both male and female coaches. Data from this study was compared to data from the 2006 study to determine if coded themes compared 10 years later. Emerging themes from the current study are also reported.

Researcher Bias

The researcher who conducted the interviews is a female, former National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division I and Division II athlete. As such, her epistemological stance is closely related to the study’s participants. To control for bias during data collection, this researcher used a prepared interview questionnaire, and kept to the script.

RESULTS

Table 1 describes each participant and her history of playing for both male and female coaches. All participants played at the collegiate level for at least two years, and had played competitively for at least four years. It is important to note that four of the participants’ experiences with female coaches related to high-school experiences. Much like the 2006 study, four prevalent themes emerged from the interviews conducted in this study: (1) structure and communication; (2) personal relationships; (3) positivity and aggressiveness; and (4) coach preference.

Table 1
Mean Demographic Data of Female Athletes

Participant |(Pseudonym)SportYears of
experience
Years coached
by a male
Years coached
by a female
Lizzy Volleyball 10 6 4
Chloe Basketball 12 8 4
Kacie Basketball 13 10 3
Allison Volleyball 12 7 5
Sara Basketball 20 10 10
Kristen Basketball 17 13 4

Structure and Communication

The participants’ perceptions indicated that their male and female coaches communicated differently. Lizzy stated that, “Communication, I think is a lot different between female and male coaches. When my college male coach ran a practice, it was kind of more talking to the starters and what they can do to improve, but with my high school female coach it was kind of everyone had a part in the success of the team so she would communicate with everyone on the court and not just the starters.”

Allison highlighted that the way her male and female coaches communicated with her, and the way they coached her to make changes, was very different. She noted, “I would say males are straighter up and just tell you like how it is. While the females try to beat around the bush like ‘oh, like if you change this, it might help,’ but a male is like, ‘you have to change this in order to get that.’” Kristen was another participant who agreed that the communication she received from a certain female coach was “very degrading and personal” while her male coaches were always straight-forward.  For example, the structures of practices were similar between males and females, but the way she was spoken to was much different.

Chloe and Kacie both discussed how the communication of and follow-through with time schedules of their male coaches differed from their female coaches. With the female coaches, the practices were always on time. Chloe said that with her female coaches, all of them said they would start at a certain time and end at a certain time, and did. With her male coaches, even in high school and Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), practices always went over time. The male coaches, meanwhile, never communicated a schedule. If the team did not do something right, the male coaches would keep going until it was done right. On the other hand, the female coaches would end practice on time and resume where they left off the next day. Kacie discussed a similar frustration with male coaches not starting and ending things on time, and never having a schedule to follow. She mentioned that her ideal coach, regardless of gender, would start and end team functions on time because that was important to her.

Personal Relationships

The participants stressed that their relationships with their coaches was important; it was the relationships that they all remembered and evaluated. For example, Chloe felt that for males coaching females, “they didn’t usually get as personal.”  Her college female coach would ask, “How’s life going?” Conversely, her male coaches did not usually ask. Instead, her male coaches focused mostly on basketball and nothing more. Chloe also prefers a male coach based on the relationships she was able to build, and how “it was nice to have a positive male role model besides my dad.”

Kacie perceived that by the time she was in college she was much more mature and able to speak more openly with both her female and male coaches. However, she felt it was more comfortable to speak with a female coach.

Sara stated, “I think it’s sometimes harder for males to relate, and I think that it’s sometimes awkward for them.”  She noted how it can be “awkward” for female athletes to go to males with problems, depending on the situation. She explained that it is harder for males because they do not ever want to cross a line with a female athlete; they want to keep that professional boundary. The exception to these differences is that she felt that both female and male coaches wanted to have a good time, help their athletes to perform, and win.

Passivity and Aggressiveness

Collectively, male coaches were labeled as being direct, to the point, and straightforward with their comments, thoughts, and coaching. Sara made it clear that even though her male coaches yelled, they would tell her what she needed to know and then put her right back in the game. In comparison, Allison described female coaches correcting and directing her through the use of more positive comments such as, “You got this!”, “Keep going!”, or “Keep trying!” Her male coaches remained blunt and made comments such as, “No, it’s not fixed,” “Keep working,” or “You have to get this next ball, it has to be perfect.”

On the other hand, Chloe found that her female college coach was blunter than any of her male coaches. With her female coach she did not like or appreciate the way the coach spoke to the team, but looking back she realizes it was exactly what she needed. The female coaches related to their teams differently than male coaches. The female coach could be more aggressive toward players because, “She understood why we would be emotional about certain things.” The male coaches didn’t necessarily understand those female emotions and would say, “Why are you crying about that?” The female coach had more gender insight, and asked questions knowing the emotional limits of her players.

Kristen had an extremely aggressive female coach who created her perception of female coaches. She said, “I felt like, with her, it wasn’t okay to make a mistake and she, like, expected you to be perfect. Whereas my guy coaches will say things like, ‘I expect you to make mistakes, but as long as you learn from them, and like keep going, then that’s good.’” Lizzy’s female coaches also showed little patience for mistakes.  She said, “Whenever we would miss a serve or anything, it was always six lines and not just kind of jogging, but full out sprints; a lot harder punishment, whereas my college male coach was kind of ‘okay, just jog six lines.’”

Coach Preference

In this study, coach gender preference was split: three participants preferred male coaches while the other three preferred female coaches. Allison, Chloe, and Kristen all stated “Male,” or “Male, definitely,” when asked which coach gender they most preferred. Lizzy, Kacie, and Sara did hesitate when asked, but chose specific female coaches. They went on to comment that their female coaches “ran a tight ship,” they “had the most success with her,” and one “was very strict, disciplined, and coached kind of like a guy. It wasn’t like the other female coaches I’ve had. She had the best of both worlds. It was kind of perfect.” Lizzy was the only participant that stated she preferred her high school female coach (compared to a college female coach), but did not make any reference to that coach’s tendencies or characteristics.

The coaching preference did not change much when participants were asked who they would want to coach their daughters. Three of the participants stated they would prefer a male coach for a daughter, all for different reasons. Chloe preferred a male coach based on her own positive experiences with male coaches. She also stated, “Some of the most successful coaches are female and male, so I really don’t think it {gender} matters.” Kristen preferred a male based on her poor experiences with a female coach, and said she would never want anyone to experience what she went through with that coach. Sara also preferred a male coach for her fictional daughter. She explained, “I think male coaches are a little bit harder on kids,” and that is what she would prefer for her daughter.

Two of the participants asked if they could choose both a male and female coach for their daughter. Allison asked to have mostly female coaches with the opportunity to be coached by males as well. She stated that females are more, “Oh are you okay?” While males are more, “Suck it up. You can do this.” She wanted them to have a “hardcore option” while still being taught. She added, “Females are more technical with everything and males are more like, ‘get it done.’”

Lizzy was the only participant who would prefer a female coach for her daughter. She believes that female coaches helped her not only develop a passion for her sport, but the confidence to continue playing at a higher level. It was her own positive experiences with a female coach that determined her future preference for a daughter.

When asked about an ideal coach, participants listed details as noted below:

  • Allison: “I feel like it’s known to be normal for female coaches to coach other females and it’s sometimes weird that males do.” She felt that she worked harder for male coaches and female coaches would be great for the younger ages.
  • Lizzy: “I don’t think it’s just about the skills. I think it’s kind of about the character and I mean, like, that leadership piece is such a huge piece in sports and I think as a coach you are kind of a mentor. That has a huge piece on how your athletes play.” She also suggested that coaches should “establish a personal connection outside of volleyball. I think it was easier to do that with a female. And I think that is something athletes would benefit from, to be able to kind of have more of that emotional connection with a coach, not just within the sport.”
  • Chloe: “A protective father-figure who would get a lot out of us. But he could still mess around and have a fun time with us off the court, but you definitely knew what he expected of you and he wanted to push you to be your best. You could just tell that he cared about you as a person.”
  • Kacie: “Energy and consistency.”
  • Kristen: “The role of a coach is a mentor in life, someone who is developing your basketball skills. Someone you can trust and go to. Someone who has a lot of knowledge of the game and is able to relay that and make you want to get better and get everything out of you that you can do. A coach who is intense and doesn’t get involved in drama within a team. Someone who has immense amounts of knowledge to share.”
  • Sara: “Someone who was very like strict and disciplined, but also very encouraging and a confidence booster. I like playing for guys just because it makes you feel more confident or they are really good at making you feel more confident and giving you roles. Being hard on you. You know, but still just that having faith, like you messed up, keep them in, do what they do.”

The above responses indicate that participants were split regarding a coach preference. It is interesting to note that Kacie chose a male, but then mentioned that her female coach was the most successful with the team. Further, when viewing coach choices and corresponding statements, it is noteworthy that three themes emerged, whether male or female was a choice. One was “discipline” with remarks either using the word itself or saying “tight ship” or “very strict.” Another theme within statements pertains to “parent-like” references; for example, “protective father-figure” and “mother type.” The last theme was about “less drama,” for which  participants offered comments such as “there was less drama with him” and “there wasn’t, like, drama or anything” (about female coach). 

DISCUSSION

As referenced above, research has shown that gender may be a mediating factor for relationship effectiveness between athletes and their coaches (11,12); however, Frey et al. (4) cautioned against assuming that coach preference is due only to gender, and this point was a finding in this study. The purpose of this study was to explore a group of six female athletes’ experiences and perceptions of playing for both male and female coaches, and to compare results to the 2006 study. The study’s results, by theme, are discussed and compared below.

Structure and Communication

The participants addressed communication throughout the interviews, clearly believing that communication with female and male coaches is different. For example, male coaches speak about team goals and use less verbalization before moving forward with practices. In other words, male coaches are more straightforward without adding emotional context. On the other hand, female coaches use emotional tags, such as giving encouraging comments that are unprompted, or discouraging and inappropriate personal comments.

Comparison to 2006 Study. Participants in the present study chose to discuss communication techniques and structures that coaches chose for teams and practices. There was mention of disciplinarian coaches and how they chose to speak to their athletes. Participants in both studies expressed the desire to be pushed physically, challenged to develop their skills, and to feel the need for competition.

Personal Relationships

Based on the current study, female coaches seem to be able to relate with female athletes better than male coaches. As an example, Allison believes that female coaches are more encouraging and motivational, “because we’re females, too, and they know how we work, where like males don’t really understand that we’re fragile.”

Male coaching had a different affect in that those participants who preferred the males believed males were able to push them and accept them as being athletes. Chloe spoke about a male coach in high school, “He was kind of like a, like a protective father-figure to me, and he would get a lot out of us. You could just tell that he cared about you as a person.” That being noted, female athletes’ ideas of personal relationships were different with female coaches. Some believed they were most comfortable speaking with a female coach since she might be able to better relate with a female athlete. However, all female athletes said they would be able to go to the male coach if needed, but they felt like it might put their male coach in an uncomfortable position.

Comparison to 2006 Study. In the present study, two athletes expressed the importance of being able to go to their coach as a mother figure or father figure. The relationship, trust, and reliability with their coach were important. In 2006, the majority of the athletes expressed their ease with opening up to their female coaches. Many female athletes thrive on self-satisfaction, and the belief satisfaction is best achieved this through encouragement from the coach (14). The present participants discussed a need for confidence, although specific techniques were not discussed. In 2006, athletes indicated the same need to confidence by hearing more positive feedback from coaches.

Passivity and Aggressiveness

In this study, participants’ female coaches were less patient than their male coaches; if athletes made mistakes the female coaches were more aggressive compared to the male coaches. If things were not correct, male coaches used simple statements to educate. It was the female coaches who elaborated on the mistakes and clearly described what needed to be adjusted. The athletes accepted being yelled at by both genders, and whether they liked that or not did not base their coach’s patience level on the emotion.

The above being noted, two female coaches were described as “more blunt” than male coaches. Interestingly, these were the same two participants who stated that they preferred a female coach, but when asked which gender they would like for their fictional daughters, they chose males.

The participants seemed to expect female coaches to be aggressive and blunt because of their gender relatedness; whereas they felt male coaches had to refrain from certain comments or aggressiveness to avoid crossing inappropriate gender boundaries. Sara addressed this specifically and stated that all athletes should be treated equally no matter what gender.  For some reason there is the misconception that they [females] will get hurt if pushed.  The perception is that male coaches respond to male athletes differently; the same way female coaches respond differently to female athletes.

Comparison to 20016 Study. The previous study revealed that nine of the twelve participants approved the authoritarian style of coaching utilized by male coaches. Four of the present study’s participants also approved the authoritarian style by male coaches. As stated in the 2006 study, “Women may prefer this style of coaching due to cultural expectations of men in authority positions, male dominance in women’s sports, or the lack of female coaches as role models” (14).

Coach Preference

Medwechuk and Crossman (12) reported that the gender of the athletes’ present coaches had a significant effect on whether the athletes chose a male or female coach. In this study, four of six the participants preferred the same gender of coach that they currently had, while two stated a preference for the opposite gender to their current coach. All preferences were based on positive or negative personal experiences and perceptions.

Kristen stated multiple times that she had poor experiences with a female coach who, “was very degrading and personal.” This negative experience included hearing comments like, “‘it makes me physically sick to watch you run’ and ‘you’re fat and slow,’ or ’you’re a disgrace to the game of basketball.’” Kristen admitted to talking to the coach about wanting to be pushed as an athlete, but this coach’s response was negative psychological motivation.

When asked about coach gender preference for hypothetical daughters, the thought processes of the participants began to change compared to their experiences. It challenged them to pinpoint qualities they were looking for in a coach before choosing a gender.

Chloe said, “I think both have things to bring to sports and when I’ve had a male and a female coach at the same time I thought it brought a really good balance to the team.” Chloe preferred a male coach for herself and her hypothetical daughter, but acknowledged that there are many successful female coaches that bring their own unique qualities to coaching.

Kacie also addressed the positives of having both a female and male coach: “I have played for both female and male coaches that are good. And I have liked things about them and not liked things about individual ones. So, I think it just depends on the coach and the player and the team dynamics, I think.”

Both Sara and Kacie hesitated while identifying a coaching preference. They both had female coaches who drove them to wins, and yet they still hesitated saying they preferred female coaches. Additionally, they both included explanations of how those female coaches had “male tendencies,” and that they would prefer the male coaches helping them to play more physically. Finally, all of the participants expressed their desire for a coach, regardless of gender, who led them to wins or pushed them to be better.

Comparison to 2006 Study. The participants in this study were very cognizant of the gender of each coach they discussed and made sure the interviewer knew each coach and experience was different regardless of gender. In the 2006 study, Frey et al. recognized caution in assuming that any coach preference was based solely on gender. That noted, the participants in this study stated that they wanted to be pushed and encouraged at the same time; they made comments about having both a female and male coach throughout their careers to have the best experience and learning. They also perceived female coaches to be more focused on details and emotions, while male coaches are “to the point,” and encouraging motivators.

CONCLUSIONS

The purpose of this study was to explore a group of six female athletes’ experiences and perceptions of female and male coaches by replicating the same study conducted in 2006. The findings demonstrated an equal split for coach gender preference, compared to the original study, in which nine of the twelve female athletes preferred male coaches. Similar themes emerged, including discussion of the athletes’ coaching preference, a coach’s passivity or aggressiveness, the personal relationships that were developed with coaches, and the structure each coach brought to their team. Participants in the 2006 study discussed the way their coaches disciplined them, while the 2016 participants were more concerned with the way their coaches addressed them and communicated with them both at and away from the athletic venue. A longitudinal study, or a study that includes a greater number of participants, might more thoroughly examine the influences that male and female coaches have on their athletes.

APPLICATIONS IN SPORT

It is important for male and female coaches to understand female athletes’ perceptions about gender-specific coaches and coaching methods. This understanding may lead to variations in coaching communications with female athletes, as well as a development of the personal—yet still professional—type of relationship female athletes want with their male and female coaches; all of which should contribute to improved coach-athlete relationships, and athlete performance.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

The researchers would like to thank Melinda Frey, Daniel R. Czech, Rebecca G. Kent and Matthew Johnson for allowing their survey to be used in this study.

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