An Exploration of Female Athletes’ Experiences and Perceptions of Male and Female Coaches

Abstract

Gender may be a mediating factor for relationship effectiveness between
athletes and coaches (Lirgg, Dibrezzo, & Smith, 1994; Medwechuk &
Crossman, 1994). Ironically, with the increase in participation of female
athletes and sports that has occurred since Title IX, there has been a
decrease in the number of female coaches over the past 30 years (Felder
& Wishnietsky, 1990; Freeman, 2001; Pastore, 1992). The purpose of
this study was to explore twelve female athletes’ perceptions and
experiences of being coached by women and men. Semi-structured interviews
revealed four major themes: discipline and structure, personal relationships,
passivity and aggressiveness, and coach preference. Specifically, eight
of the participants stated a preference for male coaches, yet differences
were found when comparing various coaching qualities. Results are discussed
in regards to overall sport experiences.

Introduction

The coach-athlete relationship has been shown to have a profound effect
on an athlete’s satisfaction, performance, and quality of life (Greenleaf,
Gould, & Dieffenbach, 2001; Kenow & Williams, 1999; Vernacchia,
McGuire, Reardon, & Templin, 2000; Wrisberg, 1996) and several factors
may influence this relationship (Burke, Peterson, & Nix, 1995; Grisaffe,
Blom, & Burke, in press). Olympic athletes from the 1996 Summer Games
who did not perform as well as expected felt that conflict with the coach,
receiving inaccurate technical information, the coach’s inability to handle
selection controversy, and lack of focus on team climate played significant
roles in lower-level performances (Greenleaf, Gould, & Dieffenbach,
2001). Trust, friendship, and feedback from the coach had a positive impact
on the performances of athletes who met or exceeded expectations. Athletes
experiencing burnout have cited the coach as a negative influence due
to the coaches’ lack of belief in the athlete, extreme pressure,
and/or unrealistic expectations (Udry, Gould, Bridges, & Tuffey, 1997).
Stewart and Taylor (2000) found that athletes’ perceptions of coaching
competence and coaching behaviors were contributing factors to performance.

Numerous studies have examined the impact of gender on the coach-athlete
relationship. Athlete preferences for same-sex or opposite-sex coaches
have been examined, and factors taken into consideration have included
level of knowledge and ability to motivate, (Medwechuk & Crossman,
1994; Parkhouse & Williams, 1986), level of athlete’s comfort in disclosure
(Molstad & Whitaker, 1987; Sabock & Kleinfelter, 1987; Simmons,
1997), and capability of being a role model (Lirgg, Dibrezzo, & Smith,
1994). Molstad and Whitaker (1987) found that female basketball players
ranked female coaches as superior in the coaching qualities of relating
well to others and understanding athletes’ feelings (two of the three
most important rated qualities), while no difference was found among other
characteristics. Conversely, a strong sex bias favoring male coaches was
found in male and female high school basketball athletes who rated males
as more knowledgeable, more likely to achieve future success, more desirable
to play for, and having a greater ability to motivate (Parkhouse &
Williams, 1986). Overall, 89% of male athletes and 71% of female athletes
preferred a male coach. Previous research investigations have not shown
a clear consensus for coach gender for female athletes (Lirgg, Dibrezzo,
& Smith, 1994).

Although female athletic participation has increased since the passage
of Title IX, there has been a decrease in the number of female coaches
over the past thirty years (Carpenter & Acosta, 1991; Freeman, 2001;
Pastore, 1992). According to Felder and Wishnietsky (1990), the percentage
of females coaching high school teams has dropped as much as 50% between
the mid-1970’s and early 1980’s. Similarly, females coached
90% of collegiate teams in 1972 while only 47.3% of teams were coached
by women in 1990 (Carpenter & Acosta, 1991).

Osborne (2002) suggested that although male and female athletes share
many attributes such as the desire to win, willingness to sacrifice time
and energy, and enjoyment of competition, athletes need to be coached
differently. Factors to consider include training methods, coaching philosophy,
motivation tactics, communication style, and ability to relate on a personal
level. The majority of research that has examined the impact of coach
gender on the female athlete has been conducted quantitatively and has
used hypothetical coaches (Frankl & Babbitt, 1998; Medwechuk &
Crossman, 1994; Molstad & Whitaker, 1987; Williams & Parkhouse,
1988). The present study utilized a qualitative approach to explore female
athletes’ experiences with actual male and female coaches. Further,
Carron and Bennett (1977) noted the importance of gaining the athlete’s
perspective of coach-athlete compatibility, while Osborne (2002) pointed
out that very little is known about the extent to which female athletes
prefer a same-sex or opposite-sex coach. Thus, the purpose of this study
was to obtain a first-person perspective of the female athlete’s
experiences of playing for a male and female coach.

Method

Participants

The participants in this investigation were twelve NCAA Division I female
athletes. All athletes were Caucasian and had participated in basketball,
golf, cross country, track and field softball, or soccer. The sample was
derived from two different southeastern NCAA Division I universities.
Four athletes had junior academic classification, four athletes had senior
academic classification, and four athletes had graduate academic classification.
These athletes were chosen for this study as a purposeful sample (Glesne,
1999) because they had the potential to provide a rich description of
the experience of being coached by both a male and female and had a recent
memory of this experience.

Procedure

The process of bracketing one’s own presuppositions was developed
from Husserl’s concept of reduction in the method of phenomenology
(Glesne, 1999). Before initiating the present study, a bracketing interview
was conducted to clarify the interviewer’s personal experiences
of having a male coach and to explore potential biases. Themes from this
interview included preference for organization, winning attitude, and
enjoyment of the game.

Semi-structured interviews were then employed to collect information
about the athletes’ experiences and perceptions of having both male
and female coaches. All participants were invited to participate in the
study by personal or telephone contact, and those expressing interest
were interviewed. Participants were informed that involvement was voluntary,
and were advised of the ability to terminate participation at any time.
To ensure confidentiality, the participants were informed that pseudonyms
would be used for actual names and any team affiliations. The interviews
were conducted in person and lasted approximately forty minutes in length.
After the interview, participants were given an opportunity to review
the transcript and suggest changes. No changes were suggested by the participants.

Interview Protocol

Questions posed to the participants were designed to achieve a comprehensive
understanding of the experiences of being coached by men and women. The
interviewer initially gathered information about coach history, as well
as the sport and level of competition. Participants were then asked questions
related to differences or similarities experienced with each coach in
training methods, encouragement and motivation, personal relationships,
level of sport knowledge, and the coach preferred. The interview guide
is provided in the Appendix.

Analysis

Interviews were transcribed verbatim and a research team of five individuals
derived themes using a combination of phenomenological approaches. The
procedures for analyzing were adapted more directly from those developed
by Barrell (1988), Goodrich (1988), Hawthorne (1989), Ross (1987), and
Henderson (1992). More specifically, the following steps of: Approaching
the interview (Transcribing the interview, Obtaining a grasp of the interview
through an interpretive group), Focusing the data (Clearing the text,
Grouping the text), Summarizing the interviews (Preparing a summary, Verifying
the summary), and Releasing meanings (Forming categories, Determining
themes, and Describing themes) were utilized to analyze the information.

Results

Table 1 gives a description of each participant and her history of having
both male and female coaches. All participants played at the college level
for at least two years and have played competitively for at least four
years. It is important to note that three of the participants’ experiences
of the female coach were from high school experiences. Four major themes
emerged from the interviews.

Discipline and Structure

The participants indicated that male coaches were more structured and
organized. Carmen stated, “[the male coach] was much more together,
he knew structure. He knew exactly where we needed to be, what time and
what time we needed to start.” Differences were notably significant
in the practice setting. The male coaches would develop practice plans
and execute every detail needed to make them work. Kelli M. confirmed
this by stating, “I know [the male coach] would sit down before
a game and write down every possible thing the other team could do to
beat us; and then write down next to it exactly what we could do to defend
them.” Drills that were done at practice had a purpose, whether
it was fundamentals, offense, defense, or conditioning. The male coaches
were seen as being harder on the athletes and “expected more”
from the players than the female coaches. The males tended to coach from
an authoritarian perspective and enforced the concept of “no excuses,
this is the rule and we’re going to stick with this rule,”
according to Kelli M. Many of the athletes felt there would be more consequences
to face in practices under the male coach if they did not pay attention
or were not serious. Some of the athletes in this study responded favorably
to the male coaches’ disciplinary tactics, as it aided in keeping
them focused; however the male coach was also considered to be “too
strict” by others in the study.

Four of the participants felt that the female coaches were unorganized and
non-authoritative. The female coaches tended to run late at times and
would not get the players prepared for the game. Practices were not structured,
nor on a time schedule. These athletes perceived that the female coaches
had a harder time trying to accomplish tasks in practice, and did not
have similar discipline compared to experiences with the male coaches.

With the female coach, she had different stuff everyday. It would take
her five minutes to explain what we’re supposed to do and then it
wouldn’t really work very well. So, we would just look at each other.
When we did the drill, we didn’t do it full out because we knew
she wasn’t keeping score or we weren’t on a time limit. We
knew we weren’t going to really be disciplined. (Kelli M.)

Female coaches were more likely to forget details in practice, such as
not keeping score of games, which led to lack of motivation during practice.
Participants indicated that female coaches would consider individual situations
instead of sticking to certain rules and consequences. For example, if
an athlete was late to practice, a male coach would have a set rule regarding
this behavior and if any player broke the rule, regardless of the reason,
she would have to face the consequences. However, a female coach would
listen to the athlete’s reason and then decide what type of consequence
the player should face.

Personal Relationships

All of the participants felt that female coaches had a greater ability
to relate to them. Jennifer C. stated, “[the female coaches] know
sometimes what [female athletes] going through, different life cycles
and stages of their life. They can relate to how girls change differently
than boys.” The participants indicated that the female coach understood
how to “deal with” the athletes and could sympathize with
them when it came to “girl stuff.” The female coaches had
a greater tendency toward being friends with the players and getting to
know them more than the male coaches did. Kelli C. stated, “[the
female coach] was more on our level. She wanted to “chit-chat”
with us. Like get to know us rather than having to be stern.” This
sometimes caused problems though, because the female coach would develop
emotional ties with the players and would construct feelings of whom she
liked and did not like. This made a difference in some of the participants’
experiences because the coach would “characterize a couple of players
as being similar to the way [the female coach] played and/or worked in
high school or college. So people with different work ethics were considered
different” (Sam). The players began to see differences in coaching
as favoritism. Mistakes made by some players would be overlooked, but
similar mistakes would be made into ‘an issue’ with other
players.

So, in practice a lot of the people knew that if they made a mistake
then the female coach tended to focus on that one mistake. But if another
person made a mistake, she would focus on something else, like just ignore
it. Like if somebody in a game continuously threw the ball out of bounds
or in the bleachers she wouldn’t really look at that. She would
look at it as a negative that somebody else who’s not getting the
rebounds or not playing good defense or something like that. She would
pick and choose which mistakes mattered and which ones didn’t, with
a lot of different kinds of players, depending on what she thought of
you already. (Kelli M.)

The athletes did experience a lot of positive feedback and encouragement
from the female coaches. Many of the participants believed this came naturally
from the female coaches. Emily stated, “in general, you are going
to have a female that’s better at [encouraging and motivating] just
because females are more encouraging in general.” Others, such as
Carmen, felt the bond shared with the female coach is what helped motivate
and encourage performance. “She was a girl and girls can relate
to girls. And when they encourage you and you’re friends with them
you feel better.” The female coaches were more inclined than the
male coaches to say positive statements to encourage players. Female coaches
tended to first point out the positive tasks the athletes did before saying
what could be improved.

The personal relationships between the female athletes and male coaches
were very different from the relationships with female coaches. Many of
the female athletes were intimidated by the male coaches. The female players
knew that they could discuss ‘most anything’ about the sport,
certain plays or tactics with the male coaches, but nothing outside of
practice or the game was “allowed to be discussed.” Whereas
the athletes felt a variety of issues could be discussed with the female
coaches. Carmen stated, “If I had a [personal] problem with my male
coach, I wouldn’t say anything about it.” There was no bond,
per se, like the one she had with the female coach. If something was bothering
a player, the male coach would simply punish the player for not paying
attention. In similar situations with a female coach, Carmen thought that,
“she would have asked ‘hey are you okay.’ She would
have known something was bothering me and said “hey let’s
play or practice.”

Four of the athletes indicated the biggest difference between the relationships
with the male and female coaches came from a lack of encouragement and
positive reinforcement. The males tended to correct and point out the
mistakes more often and hesitated to use compliments as motivation. Sam
stated, “My male coach always told us what we were doing wrong.
After a while in practice, he could tell it was getting to us so he would
throw in a compliment. But, everyone knew he had to think about it before
he said it.”

Passivity and Aggressiveness

The mentality of the male coach compared to the female coach was a major
theme throughout the interviews. The males seemed to be more aggressive
and demanding. The males’ mentality was “you gotta go out
and get it” and they wanted to “win, win, win,” which
made practices hard and strict. A typical mindset was that if the female
athletes would make a mistake or, as Kelli M. stated, “If we took
too long, or if we were loafing around and it took us more than ten to
fifteen seconds to get in a drill, we had to get on the line and run.
It was like clockwork. It made us a better team and I am thankful for
that.”

With female coaches, a more laid back approach was utilized. The tone
was much lighter and practice proceeded in a more calm and non-aggressive
fashion. Carmen stated, “The female coach I had, we always got things
done but it was in a lighter tone. Like we’d do what she said and
we’d follow what she wanted us to do but we could be playful at
the same time.” The pressure of doing something wrong or making
a mistake and having to face consequences was not as prevalent with a
female coach. Only one of the participants had a positive outlook towards
this mentality, as Emily explained, “we may not had to have done
[a drill] four hundred times like we did with the males, but the end result
was the same.”

Coach Preference

When asked which coach they preferred the most, eight participants responded
favorably toward the male coach for various reasons. The athletes believed
that to be a good coach, the coach must have respect from the players.
According to Kelli C., “demonstrating their (coaches) soccer knowledge,
ability to control the team, and to enforce discipline,” were all
key elements in gaining the respect of players. Jennifer C. thought, “some
coaches you just respect because they know how to make you respect them.”
Along with respect, the female athletes viewed a good coach as one who
was able to perform the skill and have more than adequate knowledge about
the sport. Carmen stated that “[the male coach] was the one that
knew the most about soccer. He knew the most and challenged me the most.
I grew as a player when I was with him.” Further, Kelli M. stated,
“the males assumed to know more about the basics and the fundamentals.
Everything that’s required for a successful team.” The female
athletes considered an ideal coach to be a good leader, teacher, friend,
and motivator. Specifically, Sam thought a coach should “challenge
players to become better physically, mentally, tactically, and technically,”
while Emily felt that coaches should “teach [athletes], prepare
them for any kind of obstacles that they’re going to have to come
into contact with. Teaching them basics like discipline, punctuality,
getting to practice on time, dealing with other people, teamwork, and
good sportsmanship.” Four of the female participants believed that
a coach should be a good example and help in the teaching of life lessons.
Sam felt that a coach should be “a little bit of everything.”

Discussion

The purpose of the present investigation was to explore a group of female
athletes’ experiences of having female and male coaches. This comparison
demonstrated that four of the six female athletes preferred a male coach,
including various differences of opinions of each coach.

Discipline and Structure

While men were reported to be more detailed in instruction and structured,
the women were more lenient disciplinarians. This finding coincides with
Masin’s (1998) results, which found that 75% of female athletes
preferred male coaches because of more perceived organization. The desire
for this quality might exist because many female athletes want to be pushed
physically, challenged in skill development, and feel the need for competition,
and they believe this can be achieved through a structured environment
(Osborne, 2002). Five of the female athletes in this study expressed a
positive perception of the discipline enforced by the male coaches.

Personal Relationships

A female athlete may benefit from a personal connection with the coach.
When coaching females, there is the need for warmth, empathy, and a sense
of humor (Burke, Peterson, & Nix, 1995; Grisaffe, Blom, & Burke,
in press) with the players (Osborne, 2002). Female high school and college
basketball players ranked the coaching qualities of “relating well
to athletes” and understanding athletes’ feelings” as
two of the top three desirable characteristics, and female coaches rated
significantly higher than male coaches in demonstrating these qualities
(Molstad & Whitaker, 1987). Sabock and Kleinfelter (1987) and Simmons
(1997) found that female athletes were more inclined to disclose personal
information to a female coach. Many of the athletes in the present study
experienced these traits from female coaches. Female coaches in this study
were better at relating and more likely to establish a friendship. Although
the athletes expressed a desire to bond with the coach, they indicated
did not want favoritism to be shown toward any players. Further, many
female athletes thrive on self-satisfaction and the belief they are capable
of doing a certain task or drill, and can best achieve this through encouragement
from the coach (Osborne, 2002). The present findings indicated that female
coaches were viewed as more encouraging and motivating through a greater
use of positive feedback.

Passivity and Aggressiveness

Female athletes tended to be more acceptable of the male coaches’
mentality than that of the female coaches’ mentality. Nine participants
in this study approved the authoritarian style of coaching utilized by
the male coaches. 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 (Osborne, 2002).
As with male athletes, female athletes want to be trained hard and challenged.
However, if coaches use an extreme “in your face” mentality,
such as constant yelling, the female athlete may be less receptive to
this style (Osborne, 2002).

Coach Preference

Nine of the female athletes in the present study expressed a preference
for male coaches, citing factors such as a greater level of knowledge,
knowing what it takes to be successful, and having more respect for him.
Previous research (Parkhouse & Williams, 1986) has not shown a clear
consensus as to whether female athletes prefer a male or a female coach
(Lirgg, Dibrezzo, & Smith, 1994; Osborne, 2002). Some of the literature
has claimed that athletes may be more comfortable with male authority
figures who could explain their perceptions (Frankl & Babbitt, 1998;
Osbourne, 2002; Whitaker & Molstad, 1985). Similarly, since men have
held coaching positions for a longer period of time, athletes may have
more confidence in their knowledge levels and coaching abilities (Sabock
& Kleinfelter, 1987). In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s,
much of the literature stated that female athletes preferred a male coach
because there was simply a lack of women in the profession (Osborne, 2002).
Further, coach preference may depend on the gender of the athletes’
present coaches (Medwechuk & Crossman, 1994; Sabock & Kleinfelter,
1987). Since the majority of coaches have been male, this could help to
explain the female athletes’ preference toward male coaches.

Caution must be taken in assuming that coach preference is due only
to gender.
Additional factors exist that may influence athletes’ perceptions
of coaches such as the success of the team (Williams & Parkhouse,
1988) or influence of current coach (Parkhouse & Williams, 1986).
Female athletes who exhibited higher trait anxiety, higher state cognitive
and somatic anxiety, and lower state self-confidence have been shown to
have more negative perceptions of coaches (Kenow & Williams, 1992;
1999). Lirgg, Dibrezzo, & Smith (1994) found that female athletes
coached by females reported a greater desire to become head coaches than
those coached by male coaches. Other personal attributes such as athlete
age (Burke, Peterson, & Nix, 1995; Whitaker & Molstad, 1988),
socioeconomic status, ethnicity, and the athletes’ level of skills
and abilities (Williams & Parkhouse,1988) may also impact athletes’
experiences with coaches. Longitudinal studies should be employed to more
thoroughly examine the influences that male and female coaches have on
athletes.

References

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Table 1
Mean Demographic Data of Female Athletes

Participant
(Pseudonym)
Sport(s) Years of Experience Years coached by a male Years coached by a female
Kelli C. Basketball Soccer and
Softball
10 7 3
Kelli M. Basketball 11 7 4
Carmen Soccer 13 10 3
Emily Soccer 12 9 3
Jennifer C. Golf and Basketball 13 6 ½ 6 ½
Sam Soccer and Basketball 12 8 4
Lekeisha Basketball 10 7 3
Tyler Cross Country 11 8 3
Misha Soccer 9 4 5
Kylie Softball 10 5 5
Alexis Basketball 8 3 5
Natalie Track and Field 9 7 2
Carmen Soccer 13 10 3

Appendix

Interview Guide
The initial question posed to participants: “What do you think the role of a coach should be?”

Following questions:

  1. What sport do you play?
  2. When were you coached by a male and a female?
  3. How many years were you coached by a male and a female?
  4. In what setting did you have the male and female coach?
  5. Which coach did you prefer the most?
  6. Who do you think knew more about the sport? Why?
  7. If you had daughters, whom would you want them to be coached by?
    Why? Were there any differences/ similarities between the male and female
    coaches in regards to:
  8. Training practices and evaluation performance?
  9. Encouragement and motivation?
  10. Punishments and commands?
  11. Helping with personal problems and enjoyment?
  12. Encouraging after mistakes and correcting behavior?
  13. Coaching methods?
  14. In an ideal world, what would you like to see in the world of female
    sports in regards to coaching?
  15. In general, what are your thoughts about males and females coaching
    female athletes?