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Fearless Coaching and Protecting Your Livelihood

From age 6 through high school I played baseball on all-male squads. Military bases did not have many options for young girls and even if they had, I would have chosen baseball. Because I had short hair, often other teams failed to notice my presence. However, when they did, it was typically a mixed bag of reactions. Some teams would heckle when I would step to the plate or run out onto the field while others were silent waiting to see if "the girl was any good".

At age 13 at a Babe Ruth tournament I vividly recall being hit by the same pitcher 4 times in one game. The opposing team’s leadership was humored by this and allowed it to happen but I paid it no mind each time and took my free base.

The buzz of the tournament was that I was "tough", and I could “hang with the boys” based off nothing more than shrugging off being thrown at intentionally. I look back on it now and wish they had actually thrown pitches to me so I could prove I could hit. Even so, anytime I heard the word tough I took it as a compliment. However, as I grew older I learned that my kind of tough wasn’t nearly as appreciated. Eventually, my physical, emotional and vocal nature prompted its fair share of double takes and apprehension.

It seems a bit ironic that as a young child my “fire” and “sassiness” was viewed as leadership potential where as a professional adult coach I have heard the words to “loud”, “aggressive” and “unapproachable” far too often when I or my female friends in coaching are being described.

At one point I recall the admirable traits other parents used to describe my youth male coaches who yelled consistently and berated us regularly. However, these men were regarded as spirited, passionate, driven and revered for molding young men and women.

I recall watching a men's college basketball practice about 6 years ago from an empty set of bleachers as I finished a run inside the arena. The coach attempted to berate one of his players but stopped in order to dismiss his female athletic trainer because it wasn't appropriate for her to hear. She walked out and the phrases, "playing like a bi***", and "stop being a p****y," emerged from the coach's mouth.

The player nodded and apologized to the coach and practice continued on as usual.

This kind of leadership is not entirely uncommon in sports where males are coaching males and even some coaching females. However, we see far less reporting on these coaches, why? Very simply, the "tough" male coach is perceived as being in his natural realm of behavior and those moments of aggression are shown toward players or officials are widely more tolerated and to some degree, acceptable. If Pat Summit had acted the way Bobby Knight did, how much shorter would her career have been?

From my perspective in college athletics, not much has changed where men are respected for being tough and women work in a system designed to encourage them to get in line, wait our turn, accept disparity, raise our hands to be called upon and speak softly. As a college coach, I find it perplexing that so much of this messaging is prevalent yet, at the same time our intercollegiate athletic system perpetuates this false image that strong women are appreciated in the profession. If NCAA schools truly desired to have more strong female leaders within their institutions and national office, why do we have so few women in leadership at the NCAA? Furthermore, why is it that our numbers in female coaches continues to spiral? The statement that strong women are an asset is accurate but evidence demonstrating that entities like the NCAA and their membership institutions actually want us in their departments, has yet to be proven.

Additionally, college athletics claims it desires to produces strong student athletes to enter into the workforce yet simultaneously finds these institutions ignoring disparaging treatment, unequal pay, homophobia, sexism and discrimination. Even more preposterous is the assumption that all of the aforementioned are not somehow having a hugely negative impact on the next generation of our female and male leaders. This is right about that moment in this essay where opponents of equity say, "Hey now, it's not about gender, it's about qualifications".

I couldn't agree more as qualifications shouldalways prevail but research shows us this is not the world we live in. Men are the front-runners at the NCAA headquarters, athletic department positions and regardless of opinion, it is an overwhelming that fact most people tend to hire people who look like them. White males hires white males so we must examine why methods of extra effort to be inclusive and mindful of minority hiring are accepted yet, specifically seeking to hire the underrepresented gender in the college coaching space, is up for debate.

College coaching can be both a joyous and stressful space. To this day, the majority of my acquaintances still assume that when my 2.5 hour practice is over, my job is done for the day. However we know as coaches that not only are we managing our programs, but we are now silently expected to manage student-athletes' lives for them. When things become stressful for our student-athletes, by extension we are expected to fix it, map out their plan or make it better in an instant on or off the playing field.

The moment we ask our athletes to fight the adversity that everyone in their lives up to the point of their entry into our programs has helped them avoid, we become the villains. The need for immediate satisfaction and results or success comes in many forms. Whether your athlete is frustrated because they are not cracking the starting lineup, feels they aren't getting enough attention, has issues with a teammate or the entire team, is too stressed with the rigors of academics and athletics, or is negotiating personal/family relationships, these are central issues that lead to chatter and dissatisfaction amongst our student-athletes.

The reality is, when the ship starts to sink, some athletes may not hesitate to take us down with them because as luck of the profession has it, we are the closest most eligible figure within their radius that can absorb their misfortune and be accountable for the failure when they choose not to be. In the event we are unsuccessful in negotiating the endless nuances of their conflicts, we risk being branded as unsupportive, unwilling to listen, or insensitive.

Perhaps this sounds presumptuous? Try googling Robin Lamott Sparks, Shannon Miller, Jamie Wohlbach, Connie Yori, Tracey Griesbaum and many more on the long list of coaches, majority female, who have lost their livelihood based on discrimination, sexism, Title IX whistleblowing and in some cases were forced to resign due to institutional media spin on one or two unsatisfied athletes.

Let the most recent resignation of Nebraska Women’s Basketball, Coach Connie Yori sink in as you try to imagine yourself being let go from your position due to the specific perspective of a few 18-22 year olds whom you brought to the university to get a degree. Even more alarming than the list above is the list that will never be published of those women coaches who remain silent in their dismissals. Bear in mind, I am by no means asking anyone to dismiss the cases where coaches both male and female have failed to deliver a fair, safe and positive experience for their teams. However, let's re-examine what coaching truly means.

If someone were to ask me which words I would include when describing coaching I would say teaching, leadership, standards , commitment, growth, and development. All of these in my opinion are components of coaching on top of our crucial, daily decision-making. Coaching involves having to lead but also to listen. Today our athletes struggle to listen because attention time spans are rapidly dropping. Student-athlete enthusiasm or disgust can hinge on whether or not their deep need for information is satiated.

Unfortunately when they are not provided all the answers they immediately desire, the response of "it's coach's decision" is no longer acceptable. Courtesy of knee-jerk response, our athletes will do their best to fill the information gaps on their own by replacing the truth with their perception or even the team's perception. These are typically based on repeated over-dissection of a topic in the locker room or other social team areas.

This being said, when we can find ourselves caught off guard by these team concerns, in many cases, it may be too late for your perspective as the coach to be viewed as anything more than defense of your position of power. When we do not give our athletes enough information, regardless of the reason, you may very well find yourself in your AD's office with HR.

As a female coach I have learned that even though I have no desire to coach precisely like the male coaches who coached me, I would never be free to coach as a carbon copy given the system and its lack of acceptance for "tough" female coaches. Instead of finding comfort in my accomplishments and being able to enjoy them for a moment, I am consistently looking over my shoulder when I know that I fail to meet the pre-existing expectations of me as a female leader.

Teaching hard lessons to your athletes with consequences makes all parties involved uncomfortable. No one likes having to suspend a player, reduce or eliminate their scholarship. However, we must be adamant that our administrators support both genders of coaches equally in these processes. If as a female coach your administration uses language that indicates you are expected to be "motherly", "more patient and supportive" while your male colleagues are permitted to use physical or verbal intimidation to get results without consequences, this is where we must highlight these issues and confront them.

When our athletes fail it is our job as coaches to then continue to present them with challenges and opportunities to be successful. Some of these challenges require having the athlete exposed to goal setting, limits, tough conversations about potential, and motivation.