This past year in the NCAA Division I Final Four Women’s Basketball Tournament, all four teams were under the direction of male coaches, the first time in the tournament’s history. If you didn’t bat an eye at that statistic, don’t beat yourself up.
In modern, high revenue women’s sports, such as basketball, men hold most head coaching positions. You may be wondering, why is this such a big deal?
Well, back in 1972 when Title IX went into effect, women coached 90 percent of women’s sports teams. By 2012, that number had fallen to fewer than 43 percent, an alarming statistic reported in an article from Fortune Magazine.
Unfortunately, across the aisle, the number seems to have remained the same over the last 40 years; the amount of women coaching collegiate men’s sports is just 2 percent. One would think 34 years after Title IX that this wouldn’t be an issue, but the truth hits hard, and female athletes feel the blow.
My experience with male coaches started when I was young, and I didn’t play for a female coach until my freshman year of college. North Central College softball player Brooke Kehoe (17), like countless other women across the country, had a similar experience growing up.
She played on her dad’s travel team for six years, as well as under other male coaching staff for 13 years.
“It [can be]hard for a male coach to understand a female athlete, especially if they do not have a daughter of their own,” said Kehoe, (17). “I had a coach who did not understand how to talk to and coach a female player until he had his own daughter.”
Perhaps those qualities are what make Syracuse University women’s lacrosse coaches Gary Gait and Regy Thorpe so successful. The duo, both iconic players during their time, have led the Orange to an overall record of 131-42 over the last eight years.
When the positions opened up back in 2007, both Gait and Thorpe had one major factor that influenced their decisions. They sat down with their daughters, both about to start high school, and asked them if they would want to play lacrosse at Syracuse. Both girls said yes, and so Gait and Thorpe accepted the positions.
Taylor Gait just finished her sophomore season at Syracuse and Ella Thorpe wrapped up her final year of eligibility for the Orange as a graduate student. Kehoe, unlike Gait and Thorpe, prefers to playfor female coaches, but admits she has developeda sound relationship with her current coach, JimKulawiak, after playing for him the last threeseasons.
“I have a pretty good relationship with [Coach Kulawiak], but there are some things that players feel like they cannot say or talk about with him because he is a man,” said Kehoe.
“What has made a big difference is having female graduate assistant coaches. You can see the different relationships the players make with our female coaches and they are able to relate more to what we are going through on and off of the field, which is nice to have.”
But for sports that require an understanding of how the body works and realizing female’s bodies work differently, women gravitate towards other women for guidance. Jenny Garrison, the pioneer behind North Central’s women’s triathlon team, has always chosen to work with female coaches during her training.
Having that experience has taught her how to work with female athletes and help them achieve the best results. “As the female body changes through late high school and college, there are a lot of physiology changes and men tend to overlook them,” said Garrison. “Men coaches are learning that now and learning how to prevent injury. As a female coach, you’ve been through it all and that’s why there’s a huge difference in what we pay attention to.”
Regardless, Garrison knows the importance of building a relationship with her athletes. Female athletes respond better to a unique communication style and being able to develop emotional connections with their coaches and peers, something she has worked into her coaching philosophy.
“To connect with my athletes, I just try to help them succeed and believe in them,” she said. “When they know they can have confidence in you [as a coach]and know you support them, they can give you 100%.”
Her theory appears to be a good one, as female endurance athletes want the same qualities in their coaches. Women’s cross-country and track and field athlete Tori Capozziello ’17, agrees that sometimes, female student athletes need someone on the sidelines who understands the challenges they face both in sport and life.
Capozziello has had multiple male and female coaches during her nine years of running. While she does not suggest any were better or worse because of gender, Capozziello believes female coaches like North Central College women’s track and field coach Kari Kluckhohn offer more to their athletes than developing skill alone.
“The female coaches I’ve had tend to be more responsive to emotions and more cautious about how they say things to their athletes,” said Capozziello. “Coach Kari can be blunt but she still understands athletes’ emotional needs and won’t communicate the same with everyone. A lot of male coaches I have had are very straightforward and sometimes a little too intense.”
Being a member of the cross-country and track and field teams means Capozziello works with both a male and female coach. In the fall, she runs for women’s cross country coach Mahesh Narayanan and in the spring, she is in the hands of Kluckhohn.
With Narayanan, a lot of their conversations focus on her times, splits, and training regime. With Kluckhohn, while those elements are important to talk about, she also incorporates mental and emotional training to help build her athletes’ confidence in races.
Capozziello knows those qualities are innate in female coaches and believes they are vital to a female athlete’s development both as a player and person. “I think there should be more female leadership [in women’s sports]because it gives female athletes role models,” she said. “It’s easier to have aspirations for success following your female coach know her accomplishments and I know I want to do that. Female athletes need that [relationship]so that they know they can be competitive and successful.”
North Central College Assistant Athletic Director Sue Kane is a perfect example of that leadership. An All-American, seven time individual champion, and Hall of Fame Track and Field athlete during her time as a Cardinal, Kane worked her way up through the administrative system after graduation.
She started her career as an admissions counselor at North Central, working with prospective student athletes. She then became the associate director where she spent the next four years working closely with the coaches, helping them plan athletic visits, recruiting timeline, and formulate comprehensive recruiting plans.
When the opportunity to work in the Athletic Department at the administrative level opened up, Kane went for it. Now, fourteen years later, she assists student athletes with compliance questions, eligibility, and plays an important role in the athletic department. Kane’s experience in athletics is not the status quo for women in sports.
At the Division I level, there are 313 athletic directors and only 37 are women, according to an article in the New York Times. The number of women holding administrative leadership in the 65 colleges and universities among the Big Five conferences is even smaller: only three women are full time athletic directors.
Kane is not a statistic but more so an example for young women and female student athletes. Her strong leadership skills and competitive nature helped propel her to grow her career and strive for success at the highest levels.
“Four years ago when I showed up at an NCAA conference, you could easily count the women in the building. Even in our different meetings, I was one of three women at [College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin] meetings,” she said. “That has definitely changed. We are seeing more women in general in administration and coaching. Professional sports are starting to set that precedent in the NBA and football. It’s exciting to see. But you still have to pay your dues; you have to break in at the ground level as a graduate assistant and do some smaller projects before you’re offered that big role.”
That big role has allowed her to help North Central develop a diverse culture in women’s sports. When hiring coaches, Kane and her staff make sure to post job listings on diverse list serves that cater to women, ethnic groups, and organizations that reach geographically diverse candidates.
“We are always looking for new candidates and try to pull in the most diverse pool. I feel Title IX has come a long way and now we are able to have really qualified candidates who are not only experienced but also diverse. I am personally interested in that because of my own background [as an ethnic minority and a woman]. Institutionally we take that very seriously. We are trying to make strides and we already are: we have a lot of diversity in our programs.”
In addition to her ethnic background, her personal experience with college athletics means that she also understands the needs of female student athletes. Like Kehoe and Capozziello, Kane played for both male and female coaches and feels she grew in different ways learning from both.
Her female coaches helped her grow emotionally while her male coaches, mostly technical coaches, helped her bring her game to the next level. Among North Central’s women’s sports teams, the number of female coaches and male coaches is six to five, respectively, among the eleven teams.
Kane believes that that same diversity could one day find its way into men’s sports, all of which are currently coached by men. North Central has had one female coach for a male team in its athletic history.
Maureen Szweda coached both the men and women’s swimming teams for the 2004-05 seasons, helping lead the Cardinals to a 22nd place overall at the Division III National Championships. Kane notes that this diversity is something she absolutely envisions at North Central and other Division III institutions, but understands that it may take much longer to reach Division I.
Even though universities are making strides with the addition of Teresa Phillips to the men’s basketball program at Division I Middle Tennessee State University, many of Kane’s female colleagues at the highest level of college athletics are still waiting for those advancements.
“We could go down the list and find the overlap where it would make sense,” said Kane. “If you’re a good recruiter, good coach and engage with your athletes and stakeholders, then why not?”