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Why Game-Growing Coaching Initiatives Don’t Always Work

Susan Shapcott, Ph.D., PGA GB&I

As with many sports, golf’s governing bodies want to increase the game’s number of female participants. For at least the last decade, female players have made up less than 25% of the American golf population. The result of this, of course, is that women are not accessing golf’s life-long health and social benefits, and the golf industry is not maximizing its potential market. Consequently, the golf industry has invested in thoughtful initiatives to drive women to golf. For example, the PGA of America promotes ‘Women’s Golf Month’ in June every year. PGA professionals are encouraged to offer complimentary classes and events so women can try golf. Professional golf’s other major player in the United States, the LPGA, recently kicked off the ‘#inviteHER’ initiative encouraging women to invite others to participate in golf classes. These programs are a great start, however, golf’s governing bodies could greatly improve their approach by integrating new research into the field.

Driving Participation Through Coaching

Both the PGA’s ‘Women’s Golf Month’ and the LPGA’s ‘#inviteHER’ (and other initiatives) rely on local golf professionals to maximize female golf participation through coaching. Many golf coaches do just that; however, my research suggests that although some coaches are the reason women stay in golf, other coaches may just reinforce preconceived notions that golf isn’t for them. In two studies with British, American and Australian golf professionals, I found that coaches perceived recreational female players differently than recreational male players.

The Research

In one study I used Carol Dweck’s mindset framework to measure how golf coaches perceived the ability of similar male and female players. I found that golf professionals had a significantly more growth mindset about male golfers’ ability compared to female golfers’ ability (a growth mindset is believing that ability is strategically developed, not innate). This means that golf professionals may think a male golfer is more able to improve than a female golfer. In another study I found that golf professionals attribute male golfers’ poor play to lack of effort. In contrast, female golfers’ poor play was attributed to lack of ability. This finding supports data from the previously mentioned study – golf professionals perceive male golfers’ games as something that can be developed and therefore improved. They are less likely to perceive female golfers’ games the same way.

The Coaching Experience

So what does my research have to do with initiatives designed to grow golf through coaching programs? I found that overall, the coaching experience for female golfers is less adaptive than that experienced by their male peers. For example, if, as a new female golfer, I attend a class led by a golf professional who attributes my performance to lack of ability and doesn’t have a growth mindset about my golf game, the coaching experience will not be motivating. On the other hand, if, as a male player, a professional had a growth mindset about my ability and attributed poor performance to controllable factors, like effort, the interaction between us would be more conducive to learning and increased motivation. Therefore, if coaching programs are being used as the vehicle to drive female golfer participation, golf’s governing bodies should recognize and address the gender bias I am seeing in the professional workforce.

The good news is that we know interventions to develop stronger growth mindsets in golf professionals work. In a recent study, simply by applying established methods used in other interventions, golf professionals reported a significantly more growth mindset about female golfers’ ability compared to a control group. Although one simple intervention is not expected to completely undo golf professionals’ gender bias, the effects were retained for two weeks. The impact of the intervention even extended to the relationship between golf professionals’ mindset about female golfers and the type of feedback they would reportedly give them during coaching sessions.

Conclusion

Industry initiatives designed to drive women to golf are a good start for addressing disproportionate participation rates, but they are not the panacea for increasing the percentage of women in the golf population. Although it is recommended that the golf industry addresses the systemic gender bias in golf professionals that my research has found, a short-term solution is to offer growth mindset training for those who deliver coaching programs associated with ‘Women’s Golf Month’ and ‘#inviteHER.’ Without that, game-growing coaching initiates in golf and other sports may continue to stall recreational female golf participation.

Susan lives in Madison, Wisc., and is the founder of Change Golf Instruction, a golf coaching business that partners with public golf courses, and sportsquery.org, a consulting business that assists sports organizations in incorporating social science into their policies and practices. Contact Dr. Susan Shapcott at sue@sportsquery.org or find her on Twitter @ChangeGolfers. Susan is a member of the WSF Digital Contributor Team, and the views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of the Women’s Sports Foundation.