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Coaching Individuals, not Gender

As a social scientist who works in sports, I know the power of perceptions and beliefs. For example, how we perceive athletic ability – regardless of how we define it – predicts motivation, resilience and well-being. This is not unique to athletes; coaches’ perception of ability correlates with their interactions with athletes.

In my research, I study how changing golf coaches’ perception of ability can make them more effective at recruiting and retaining players in the sport. I’m particularly interested in how effective coaching can increase the number of female adult recreational players through game-development programs.

The golf industry shares an interest in increasing female participation because the demographic presents an area for growth – currently less than 25% of golfers are women.  As part of my research, I have focused on how the golf industry’s interest in increasing participation is reflected in coach education materials. These materials are theoretically designed for coaches to improve their effectiveness when working with female golfers. Industry blogs and books also advise coaches how to instruct female athletes. And as I also listen to many conversations and conference presentations that discuss female recreational golfers, I hear a recurring theme – female golfers are unique beings, quite different from the male version. Coaches hear that female players learn differently, think differently, communicate differently, and have different motivations to play golf than male players. As a social scientist, I question whether coach educators are well served to focus on gender differences in male and female neurological functions instead of simply training coaches to instruct all players with good pedagogy.

Case in Point

In 2018, I conducted a study with golf coaches. Importantly, participating coaches indicated that it was more important for women to play golf than men. Despite these good intentions, I also found that coaches gave female golfers significantly less adaptive feedback than they gave to similar male golfers. When players were struggling with their games, coaches were more likely to explain to male golfers how to improve, and more likely to simply comfort female players.

I was curious why a sample of coaches valued women playing golf yet coached them in maladaptive ways. I suspected that coach education may have led to the disparity and asked the golf organization if I could review material used to train their coaches. The organization had a module designed specifically for coaching female players, and it included stereotypical information that is ubiquitous in sports:

  1. When coaching, consider the differences in men’s and women’s brains;
  2. Women don’t take critical feedback well;
  3. Coaching sessions for women should be fun and social.

When these ideas are brought in to the coaching realm they can lead to stereotyping about female golfers’ ability, and maladaptive behavior. The coaching material does not focus on how to help female golfers improve, but assumes women are less able to learn and instead prepares coaches to avoid the painful experience of students not seeing improvement.

It is my hypothesis that we are doing female athletes a disservice when coach educators focus on the differences, not similarities, of male and female recreational athletes. For example, coaches should be making the golf experience fun for every new golfer – this isn’t unique to female players. The consequence of perpetuating negative stereotypes about female athletes is that we are diminishing the effectiveness of coaching with the population we are trying to motivate.

Why Sports Focus on Gender Differences

Coach educators may be motivated to emphasize gender differences for various reasons. It could be that they are trying to use best practice with their coaches. But best practices must be willing to evolve. Journalist Angela Saini argues in her book Inferior that we should review some of the assumptions perpetuated in gender-difference research. Sure, there are individual differences between all of us. However, studies used to underpin claims that women’s brains are different – better at multi-tasking, or connecting with people may be overstated.

In addition, emphasizing neurological gender differences also perpetuates the ‘otherness’ of female athletes. By differentiating athletes by gender, we support the status quo of male power in sports. As Nicole LaVoi and co-authors argued in Coaching Girls: A Content Analysis of Best-Selling Popular Press Coaching Books, there is not yet evidence that female athletes learn differently than male athletes. Despite this, across sports we train coaches as if the science was settled.

Perception is Everything

The debate on neurological gender differences continues. In the meantime, I question whether it is even relevant to coaching sports. Because what I do know from my research is that when coaches perceive male and female golfers differently, they interact with them differently. And as most of the gender differences in coaching guides focus on negative traits of female athletes, this is problematic. For example, I have found that when coaches perceive female golfers as less able to improve than male golfers, they give them comforting, rather than empowering feedback. This means that regardless of gender differences in brain functions, training coaches that they exist may only harm the coaching experience for female recreational adult athletes.

An Alternative Approach

Instead of focusing on hard-wired gender differences in athletes, I suggest that we train coaches to understand sports culture. Coaches can empower female athletes by recognizing that sports environments are less familiar and comfortable for women than men. That means creating a coaching culture that increases athletes’ sense of belonging in sports. This learning environment, incidentally, is good for all athletes, regardless of gender.

A member of WSF’s digital contributor team, Susan lives in Madison, WI. She is the founder of Change Golf Instruction, a golf coaching business that partners with public golf courses, and, a consulting business that assists sports organizations incorporate social science into their policies and practices.